“E Pluribus Unum”

There are two visions of America: One encapsulated by the slogan e pluribus unum, out of many, one, and the other an image of a tribal America, with each tribe going its own way and competing for primacy. We thought that in the 21st century the battle between the two visions had been fought and won. Yes, there would always be outliers who reject a multicultural and diverse America (viz., Dylann Roof, the shooter in the Charleston church in 2015), but the nation has been, or so we thought, committed to the vision captured by e pluribus unum.

Until this week, that is. This week, the President of the United States made perfectly clear which vision of America he shares. And, he made it perfectly clear which tribe he favors. As for the rest of America, people of color, Jews, Muslims, immigrants of all stripes, and all people of good will who reject a tribal America, well, Donald Trump does not want to be our president.

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia

It is 70 years since the defeat of history’s most evil regime, and the president of the United States cannot distinguish between neo-Nazis and counter-protestors. More than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, and President Trump sees a moral equivalence between the Ku Klux Klan and its opponents. It goes on: The president places those who warred on the United States — Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — on the same moral plane as those who built this great nation — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Yes, Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. Washington does not get points for freeing his slaves in his will, something Jefferson could not bring himself to do. But, Washington’s courage and leadership as both the commanding general of the Continental Army and first president of the new nation and Jefferson’s inspired words in the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal” — built a free and independent United States. There is no confusion as to which side Washington and Jefferson would have endorsed last weekend in the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville.

The founders chose e pluribus unum to put on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. The 13-letter motto (not so coincidentally, one letter for each original state) was used by an important English magazine as its motto, and the phrase appears in the works of authors with whom the founders were familiar: Virgil, St. Augustine, and Cicero. As a metaphor, the motto has a dual meeting: The fashioning of a nation out of 13 original colonies and the creating of a cohesive society out of many disparate parts.

White nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia

It is the latter meaning that resonates today and that the words of the president undermine. Apparently, Trump does not find the actions of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners, and other white supremacists and anti-Semites chilling. I suppose he has not viewed the frightening 20-minute video compiled by VICE News Tonight which inter-splices interviews with white nationalist leaders with scenes of protestors marching and shouting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (a 19th century German term  — Blut und Bloden — blood, suggesting a racially defined body tied to body, an area of land. The Nazis appropriated the term.).

Chief of Staff John Kelly hangs his head as President Trump defends neo-Nazis.

Trump’s image of America must be resisted. It is way past time for people of conscience to act. Anyone who continues to work for the president risks a permanent stain on his or her reputation. Chief of Staff John Kelly, I am looking at you. I am also looking at you, Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who Trump has maligned. The entire cabinet should follow the lead of corporate America and refuse to cooperate with a racist president who sees no moral difference between neo-Nazis and those who oppose them.

A personal note: As a Jew I cannot fathom how Gary Cohn, the White House’s chief economic adviser and a Jew, can continue to associate with Trump. Is a tax package all that important? And, what do Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump think these days?

As for the Republican Party: Sorry, but it is not sufficient to tweet that you are against racism. That gets you no shout-outs. You must specifically name the racists — in this case, the president. McConnell issued a statement, “There are no good Nazis.” But, he did not mention the president. Neither did Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who said, “There can be no moral ambiguity,” without identifying who was morally ambiguous. The two former President Bushes issued a statement condemning racial hatred, but also neglected to mention the chief culprit.

The future of the Republican Party rests on how Republican leaders and the rank-and-file, for that matter, respond to Trump’s outrageous statements of the past week. As David Holt, a Republican state senator in Oklahoma who is running for mayor of Oklahoma City put it, “If I tried to sell young people, in general, but, specifically, minority groups on the Republican Party today, I’d expect them to laugh me out of the room. How can you not be concerned when the country’s demographics are shifting away from where the Republican Party seems to be shifting now?”

But, there is something more important at stake, Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan, than the future of the Republican Party. It is the future of the country. A good place for Republican leaders to start reclaiming that future is by supporting a resolution of censure against the president introduced in the House by three Democratic members. Every Republican should sign on to this resolution.

As an editorial in The Washington Post said, the president’s inability to identify the swastika as evil made Tuesday — the day Trump undid his condemnation of neo-Nazis and Klansmen of the previous day — “a great day for… racists everywhere. The president of the United States all but declared that he has their backs.” Now, it is up to the rest of us to reject a president who defies the best traditions of our great country. And, it should begin with the president’s cabinet and top advisers and our representatives in Washington. E pluribus unum.

Posted August 18, 2017


2 Responses to ““E Pluribus Unum”

  • Splendid piece. One reminder about Washington…by declining a third term or kingship, he lent strength to the then-growing philosophy that brought nations back to Greek democracy and away from the Roman-born “devine right” of kings. Remember George III’s astonishment that “If he does that,” (surrenders office) “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

  • One of the great things Washington did. I could have mentioned as well his splendid letter to the Touro Synagogue. But, I try to keep the posts around 1,000 words, so I ran out of space. Thanks for the compliment.