Trump, Race and the Better Angels of Our Nature

Trump, Race and the Better Angels of Our Nature July 25, 2019

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, Library of Congress; Wikimedia Commons{{PD-US-expired}}

There have always been two Americas when it comes to race relations, one that reflects the better angels of our shared human nature, and one that reflects the lesser angels of that same nature. President Trump’s recent Twitter attack on four US congresswomen of diverse ethnic backgrounds reflects those lesser angels. The recent Robert Mueller testimony may have seized the spotlight for now, and the intense reactions to the Twitter attack on the Congresswomen may fade, but the Twitter attack on them reflects a racialized ideology that is gaining steam. To refresh the short-term memory, here is what the President wrote:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.

As has been noted repeatedly in news reports, three of the four congresswomen were born in the U.S. The fourth is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Regardless of the political differences, no elected U.S. official (no matter if they are deemed conservative or liberal) should be told to leave this country and return to the lands from which they or their ancestors came—including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.)—or President Trump, for that matter. Like President Trump, they were elected to lead our Democracy, which we will do well to recall is governed by three branches, not one. It is also worth recalling that President Trump was infamously responsible for promoting conspiracy theories regarding President Obama’s own status as a U.S. citizen from birth, though he later assented to the truth that President Obama was born in the U.S. (Refer to an article released today noting this matter in the context of President Trump’s pick Monica Crowley as a spokesperson for the Treasury Department).

One CNN article focusing on Trump’s attack on the four congresswomen was titled “Donald Trump’s racist tweets show he doesn’t understand America.” I beg to differ, as would another CNN article, one that points out that “Trump’s tweets show a keen understanding of America.” There are, in fact, two Americas, one of inclusion and one of exclusion. We are all situated somewhere on the spectrum between the two. The President does understand America, or at least part of it. Trump’s racialized Twitter barrage reflects one side of the ever-present divide in our country between those who pursue integration and those who pursue white supremacy, segregation, and exclusion.

Here are a few examples of two Americas. The first example involves two momentous political-legal determinations that took place in the years of 1857 and 1863: the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision of 1857 and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Regarding the former, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the opinion expressing the court’s majority position on the slave Dred Scott who had sued to gain his freedom. Here is what one account of the ruling states:

The Chief Justice made two sweeping rulings. The first was that Scott had no right to sue in federal court because neither slaves nor free blacks were citizens of the United States. At the time the Constitution was adopted, the Chief Justice wrote, blacks had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (In fact, some states did recognize free blacks as taxpayers and citizens at the time that the Constitution was adopted).

Second, Taney declared that any law excluding slaves from the territories was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law. The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, he announced, because it prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36º 30′.

Only a few years later, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed all slaves in the South. Taney and Lincoln represented different visions of America.

A second example concerns Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and its surrounding context. The poem that is emblazoned at the foot of the Statue of Liberty was commissioned in 1883 (to raise money for the statue’s base)—twenty years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Often hailed as the definitive perspective on America’s view on immigration, it is worth pointing out that only a year earlier (1882) the U.S. set forth the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was basically in effect until 1943. Two years later, in 1884, the U.S. took part in the “Conference on Africa” in Berlin. According to a Washington Post article on Lazarus’ poem and its historical context,

As historian G. Macharia Munene writes, the United States was “fully aware” that the conference endeavored “to agree on the doctrine of free trade and navigation in rivers Congo and Niger and to define methods of annexing territories that had ‘not yet been subjected to the flag of any civilized state.’” In so doing, the United States put its political weight behind the invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of Africa — the full eradication of African political autonomy — by European powers.

Lazarus’s poem’s context reveals that the poem, no matter how lofty and grand its ideals are in terms of America’s inclusion of the outsider and downtrodden, was not without powerful detractors at the time. In fact, the poem’s perspective, in some contexts, was the minority report.

A third example is found in Martin Luther King, Jr’s civil rights confrontation of the dominant powers, as exemplified in his Birmingham Jail letter. There he addressed white moderate clergy, who said of his campaigns that they were “unwise and untimely.” King pondered whether the white moderate clergy were the greater obstacle to equality for African Americans than white supremacists. King wrote:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

We are no longer in the era of slavery as found in the time of Lincoln, or that form of segregation found in the time of King. However, racialization continues today unabated. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argued in their landmark volume Divided By Faith that racialization (how racism impacts the various domains of society including healthcare, employment, education, etc.) is not static or constant but varies and evolves, as illustrated by slavery to segregation to the post-civil rights era (which, I would point out, also includes mass incarceration in its present form, and which Michelle Alexander argues is the “New Jim Crow,” serving as the title for her highly acclaimed book). Under President Trump, there is a new pattern that has emerged. As my colleague Tom Krattenmaker at USA Today recently tweeted, “Now that pretty much everyone agrees that ‘racist’ is bad, the new trick is to do/say racist things and then insist they are not racist.”

Whether we are talking about denigration, where people of darker pigmentation are not humans, but property, or segregation, where they are to be kept separate but supposedly deemed equal, or exclusion, where they are not allowed entry or are told to return to where they or their ancestors came from (including elected officials), we are talking about a form of racism and which reflects the lesser angels of our nature.

In his first inaugural address in 1861, the first President representing the Republican Party—Abraham Lincoln—reached out to those states determining to secede from the Union. He closed with these words:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

While we may never again experience a civil war as a nation, we do find increasingly a racialized tribalism sweeping the country. The social fragmentation so readily apparent today that is no respecter of traditional dividing lines between the north and south requires that we pray and speak and act in ways that reflect the better angels of our nature.

While there have always been the two Americas living side by side, as I stated above, the America that reflects these better angels is set forth in David Brooks’ recent article condemning what he takes to be the President’s reelection campaign strategy revolving around “xenophobic,” “nostalgic,” and “white”. Brooks writes:

The real American idea is not xenophobic, nostalgic or racist; it is pluralistic, future-oriented and universal. America is exceptional precisely because it is the only nation on earth that defines itself by its future, not its past. America is exceptional because from the first its citizens saw themselves in a project that would have implications for all humankind. America is exceptional because it was launched with a dream to take the diverse many and make them one — e pluribus unum.

No matter our political party affiliation, may Brooks’ and King’s and Lazarus’s and Lincoln’s vision, which represents the better angels of our nature, touch all of us today.

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