Uncategorized · February 26, 2024 15

What you don’t want to know is waiting to hurt you.

Marty Levine

February 25, 2024

In 2016 many of us were shocked when Donald Trump won the Presidential election.  How could this egomaniacal, reality show host, a man with no relevant experience, beat the experienced Hillary Clinton who seemed poised to become our first woman President?

We wanted an explanation that focused on the election itself, on the months of the campaign, we wanted to be able to pin success and failure on the individual actors in this moment of our lives. It was Russian interference. Hillary Clinton was too stiff to be likable. The Democrats ran an awful campaign.Our system values stars and devalues competence.  As Elaine Kamarck writing for Brookingsobserved, “In today’s presidential election system, the ability to govern has taken a back seat to the ability to get attention. This is the only system in our society where there is no review by peers. If you were shopping for a brain surgeon you would want someone who other brain surgeons said was qualified. But when shopping for a president, the opinion of those who have governed is no longer part of the process.” 

But it is now almost 8 years later and Donald Trump is again poised to become the Republican candidate and in the polls are running neck and neck with Joe Biden. We can again choose to look only at the surface. This election is close because Joe Biden is too old or has taken the wrong position on this issue or that. But if we do I fear we are missing the more significant challenge. Donald Trump is speaking to the inner souls of millions. And that inner soul is resonating with feelings of lost privilege and power.

Ezra Klein, writing in 2017 for VOX recognized that Trump’s victory (and his continuing appeal) is about something other than the particulars of this or the last campaign. “By the end of the campaign, the public had enough information to make basic judgments about who Clinton and Trump were. Trump’s flaws weren’t hidden by Clinton’s mistakes — if she was good at anything, it was goading Trump into error and overreaction. Voters knew what he was when they voted for him. They had seen him lash out at a Gold Star family and at Alicia Machado. They knew he suggested, repeatedly, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. They had heard him say Mexico was sending us rapists and criminals and call for a ban on Muslim travel. They had watched him babble incoherently about policy, said he could shoot someone in broad daylight without losing support, and brag, on tape, ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it.’”

But the story may be darker and more difficult to grapple with. Donald Trump and the energy he has tapped into is not new; it is not an effect of modernity. It is not a blip. Rather, it is a feature that dates to the earliest days of the nation. It has always been there, needing only someone willing to play the right notes to set it in motion.

Trump is just one in a very long line of people who appeal to those who believe they have been left behind, who feel that their right to be in charge is being threatened by a government that does not serve them or honor who they are.

Historian Jefferson Cowie, “Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power” traces what we saw in 2016 and what we are seeing today back to the early days of the nation when European entitlement of white, Christian settlers clashed with a national effort to protect the rights of those who were here before they arrived. “From whites’ resistance to federal oversight of Creek Indian removal, to Reconstruction, to laws against lynching, to the civil rights struggle, it was clear that whatever the backlash was…it was about a continuous strand in American history itself.”

This is strand of American history that was embedded in an economy and a society that saw chattel slavery as a central feature. This is a “version of freedom [that] revealed itself as a form of latent violence and suppression of not just Creek Indians and African Americans but those with whom one has fundamental political disagreements.”

“The fight against the white version of freedom—one that said if you cannot be a master then you are not free, that if federal authority is not on your side it should not exist… As it was in the first Reconstruction, so whites hoped it would be with the Second Reconstruction: the defeat of local-level organizing despite the promise of federal law.”

“There are those who would tell us today that freedom means something different than it meant to our fathers; but when a central government bureaucrat or judge takes from us our right to run our schools, to determine the destiny of our own children, to run our labor unions, our businesses, our hospitals and our very lives, I do not call that freedom, I call that abject slavery to government. I call it slavery of the most degenerate origin, that goes back a thousand years in time and rests its right to rule upon threat and blackmail, upon punishment of the sick and weak and helpless, upon the savage doctrine that might is right, upon the naked ugly power of Tyranny.… Alabama is where freedom lives and works, that is why the words Alabama and freedom have come to have the same meaning to many millions of people throughout the world.”

History has a habit of making it harder to find simple, comfortable answers to difficult problems. So ignoring history, and keeping the world less complicated allows us to avoid confronting issues that are much more difficult to tackle and which require us to look into ourselves and threaten our stability.

It is time to pull away the veil and recognize that despite all of the progress we think we have made we are still mired in a clash between the desire of many white, mostly Christian Americans to protect their privilege. And that is what Donald Trump has tapped into. Making America Great Again captures the desire to return to the days when white men ruled all, and owned all.  That is the energy that drives an ongoing attack on the power of the Federal government. It is the source of the effort to return to a time of state rather than national power. This is an energy powerful enough to have poor white men and women work against their own self interest as they attack programs and policies that will benefit them because it seems to promise them a time when they will be at the top of the heap.

The pull of racial and economic privilege are not easy to talk about. And they are even harder to overcome, as we are seeing every time we hear Trump speak and see what is the capitulation of the Republican party.

But we will not overcome it by ignoring it. Joe Biden may not be the charismatic, progressive I would like to see run, but that is not the problem. Hillary Clinton might not have been the best campaigner but that too was not the real issue.

In 2020 we were able to motivate enough people to vote against the MAGA mob to elect Joe Biden, but not easily. Our challenge in 2024 is to defeat it again and then we must do the harder work of confronting how do we blot out the roots of the hatred that is in our nation and has been there since its beginnings. Unless we are ready to take this challenge on and do the hard work of repairing our original sins, we are doomed to having this battle again and again.