Following the president’s initial disgraceful public statements on what took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, a loud chorus of Donald Trump’s objectors decried that he has no moral authority. The problem is, however, that as sitting president, he still wields the bully pulpit—that power of spokesmanship vested in him by the U.S. electorate.
Last Tuesday, he leveraged the full weight of his office to lend legitimacy to white supremacists and white nationalists. And in usual Trumpian fashion, he made this case through a contortion of language, arguing that the racism of the United States’ past should excuse the racism of its present.
When pressed last Tuesday about his reluctance to denounce violent white supremacists defending a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Trump retorted: “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
On its face, it seems like a fair question. Both Washington and Jefferson’s status as slaveholders has caused many writers to pose similar queries interrogating uncritical celebration of these men. But as Trump is so skilled at doing, he raised a good topic—calling into question the legitimacy of monuments to slaveholding U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—in bad faith.
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Just as he did last fall during the presidential campaign when he used a conversation on existing gun violence and economic blight in Chicago to conceal his own racist remarks, last week Trump leveraged the truth of the flawed characters of Jefferson and Washington to provide political cover for white nationalists.
Jefferson and Washington were both slaveholders. They were both complicit in the genocide of Native people. Without question, they were both racists. But their role as U.S. nation builders and relative proponents of more equitable pluralism distinguish them from the Confederate States of America’s (CSA) Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
There are some historical realities that unite these pairs of men—they fought to uphold slavery and to establish new nations. They held racist views about Black Americans. But the Founding Fathers’ quest for national liberty (exclusionary though it was) enabled all Americans to make arguments in defense of their own freedom.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Washington fought a war that was based on the principles of equality and freedom. Jefferson’s political theories and documents would be quoted by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. And writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledge the integral role that Washington’s Revolutionary War played in northern emancipation.
Lee and Jackson’s CSA had no illusions about equality, however surface-level. The CSA’s goal was to create a slaveholding empire that dwarfed that even of the United States. The difference in the type of racism of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America—and what statues commemorating both typically convey to the public—is not at all negligible.
The flawed, but important idea of partial freedom runs long through American political history, often playing a crucial role in the incremental progress of Black Americans and other people of color.
Yes, President Abraham Lincoln supported the emigration of Black people back to Africa into the 1860s, but he also signed the Emancipation Proclamation—and that matters.
Yes, northern white liberals largely abandoned Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for civil rights when he focused on issues of economic injustice and militarism, but at times, these same white liberals often supported desegregation and voting rights—and that matters.
Yes, President Barack Obama helped to further mass deportations and presided over the United States at a time when Black Americans lost half their wealth and suffered from the fallout of the Great Recession. But he also vigorously backed the Justice Department’s investigation of racist police departments—and that matters.
The sad truth about America is that even though its national discourse is freedom, its national practice has always been racial inequity. For people of color, this means even in times of political progress, it is still a decision between bad options or the lesser of two evils. It is choices between water hoses and redlining—lynch mobs and racist police.
It may feel marginal. But however small, these margins matter.
Furthermore, marginal victories over white supremacy do not add up to the so-called end of racism. Quite the contrary: Their precarious and piecemeal nature should prod Americans to push for fuller, truer racial equality. But this is the very goal that Donald Trump’s inflammatory language seeks to place out of reach.
Hopscotching across disparate time periods and ideologies, Trump’s comments conflate the politics of limited progress with those of no progress. Using the presidential bully pulpit, Trump obscures the difference between a problematic pluralism and an unrepentant white ethno-nationalism, lending credibility to the most dangerous type of white supremacist. He has done the nation a grave disservice as his words threaten to upend the incomplete, but hard-earned, gains the country has fought for—and the losses are already showing.
Just last year, the Princeton scholar of race, religion, and politics Eddie Glaude Jr. wrote, “It is decidedly out of fashion these days to be a racist,” when referring to overt discrimination and the use of racial slurs. Yet today, in the age of Donald Trump, in the political environment he fostered, assertions about bigotry’s waning popularity seem less secure. Under Trump, the country has gone from discussing best practices for addressing unconscious bias and institutional racism to debating whether a Nazi sympathizer ramming a car into human beings qualifies as terrorism.
The gulf between these two conversations represents what’s at stake now, and what has always been at stake in U.S. politics: the prospect of relative hope for equality and the debilitating force of white supremacy. And last week, the world witnessed Donald J. Trump—the president of the United States—push his thumb on the scale for the latter.
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