No matter what happens from here on out, it feels the damage is done. We are witness to an era in which our nation has elected a man so totally unqualified to be president that it boggles the mind. Part of me feels bad for Donald Trump. It is clear that he is in so far over his head that he doesn’t know which way to turn. The man can’t put two sentences together. One wonders if there isn’t something seriously wrong that is impacting his intellect. Watching old footage of The Donald from 30 years ago, it instantly becomes clear that he was once much more articulate and coherent than he is now. Whatever the case, it’s become a national embarrassment whenever he speaks into a microphone or, God help us, takes to his Twitter account. It’s been great fodder for comedians and late night talk shows but, comedy relief aside, it’s anything but funny. Everything has changed. Mr. Trump has left an indelible stain on our national image, the world is watching and history will judge us harshly for our sins.
As one who has taught U.S. history for the better part of two decades, I often think of the present in terms of how history will view it. I can only imagine that confused school children a century on will be sitting in classrooms asking teachers how our nation ever got to the point where we’d have elected such a man as Donald Trump and I can picture their teachers fumbling awkwardly for adequate explanations.
I ask myself that same question and it baffles me now–even as I am living through it.
So how did we get here? What was the source of our indelible stain?
One obvious factor is the Electoral College but that is a topic for a different day. I want to focus on three other factors that, in my opinion, allowed for the unthinkable–President Donald Trump.
1. The Success of the Religious Right in Hijacking the Christian Political Narrative
The Republican Party has done a masterful job of politicizing Christianity. They have wooed many of the highest profile fundamentalist Christian leaders and put them front and center. Many of them are regulars on Fox News. This has been remarkably effective. Preaching to the choir works. They are able to play to the emotions and fears of Christians. They paint anyone who won’t fall in line with them as godless, baby-killing, gun-grabbing, traditional values-hating heathens. They claim America’s schools are actively indoctrinating students to hate their country. All this plays very well in Red America–so well that Red America consistently votes against their own best interests because they’ve been absolutely convinced that to vote any other way is to cast a ballot for Satan himself (or herself, as the case may be). Progressive Christians who see through these tactics and are brave enough to speak out are then vilified as being heretics. Don’t ask me how I know.
2. The Obama Push-Back Factor
For a short time, after the election of 2008, the nation seemed on an upward trajectory. We had elected the first black president. That felt good, I believe, to most Americans. We had proven that we could do it. But, in the back of the minds of a significant portion white Americans (especially in Red America), I believe, was an unspoken tension–it was as if they were saying Ok, there we go. We’ve got a black president–now everyone shut up about race problems. This is it–this is your chance–now we’re even-steven.
But the racial problems didn’t go away–of course, they didn’t. Electing a black president isn’t like waving a magic wand. It was a beautiful and historic moment, certainly a step forward, but that doesn’t erase hundreds of years of injustice and inequality.
But to some, it seemed it was supposed to even the score. So, when racial tensions flared, they blamed Obama. Quickly, a significant portion of whites in Red America hardened their hearts and claimed they’d suffered through 8 years of torture. When they saw Trump on the horizon they saw a way to strike back in anger–You had your chance. Now try this on for size–we’re fixin’ to make America great again!
3. The Republican Party’s Masterful Manipulation of the Poverty-Stricken White Class
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
That quote from LBJ sums it up in a nutshell. That game has been played for decades in this country as poor whites and blacks have been played as pawns in a political chess game. The Republican Party gains millions of votes each election by stoking the fires of racial tension. Nobody ever benefitted more from this than Donald J. Trump. Because of the masterful manipulation of the Republicans, countless poor whites in places like poverty-stricken Southern Appalachia marched into the polls to cast a vote against their own health care. Many are now crying out for help and wondering what happened to them.
In fairness, both the Republicans and Democrats are guilty of manipulating the masses, but let’s face it, it’s the manipulation from the Right that has us in this predicament.
Getting ourselves out of this mess will require grass roots leaders to emerge from the ranks of the manipulated and start to stand up and speak out.
Progressive Christians, I know you are out there, will you put aside your fear of being ostracized and call out these leaders who have sold their souls to politics?
Open-minded folk of Red America, I know you are out there, will you begin to be the voice of reason in the wilderness?
The indelible stain we’ve created will never be wiped clean, history will be our judge–but we can be judged more kindly if we can stop the stain from spreading.
It’s not too late–it can’t be too late.