Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Who Controls Events?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Afghanistan is infamously known as “The Graveyard of Empires.” From the time of Alexander the Great, through various Indian and Middle Eastern empires and the Mongols in the 13th century, to the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th, Afghanistan’s strategic location in central Asia has lured foreigners who win some battles, only to lose the war. Afghanistan, a mountainous region of competing ethnic and tribal groups, is notoriously difficult to govern.

So, it is no wonder that after nearly 20 years, the United States has left Afghanistan ignominiously. The graveyard of empires is also the graveyard of presidents. Four presidents have been in the White House since the start of America’s Afghan foray, and all four failed to leave behind a stable, secure Afghanistan that could govern itself while not giving sanctuary to terrorists.

History will have the final judgment, but President Joe Biden probably was correct to end the Afghan mission. As Biden remarked last month, and reiterated Monday, the United States rid the region of the terrorists who plotted 9/11. As for nation-building and the creation of a strong Afghan military, Biden has argued repeatedly that if we could not fulfill those goals after 20 years, what would a few more years, or five more, or ten accomplish? In his Monday speech, the president said, “We gave them [the Afghans] every tool they could need… [But] what we could not provide was the will to fight.” The United States poured money into Afghanistan and 2,448 American soldiers and another 3,846 U.S. contractors died there with little to show in the end. The Americans can only say, as our presence in Afghanistan draws to a close, what Soviet General Boris Gromov told my former CNN colleague Steve Hurst in 1989 as the Soviets left Afghanistan after a decade fighting anti-Communist rebels, “We tried.”

As doomed as the American effort in Afghanistan may have been, still the images of helicopters circling the U.S. embassy in Kabul and of frantic Afghans crowding the airport while fleeing the wrath of the Taliban evoke Saigon in 1975. And, while Biden may be right to leave and others bear at least some responsibility for the failures in Afghanistan, the shamefulness of the American departure falls on him. It will be a long time before Biden lives down his comment of July 8: “The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Those comments were made a mere six weeks ago. 

The president of the United States may be the most powerful person on the planet, but the modern president is at the mercy of fate, destiny, and/or the actions of others, just as President Abraham Lincoln was during the the Civil War, when he commented, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Biden did not send the first American troops to Afghanistan, nor did he orchestrate a surge in the number of troops, nor did he arrange for America’s exit in a deal with the Taliban. The latter was the work of former President Donald Trump in 2020.

Despite all that, Biden owns the less-than-graceful exit of America from its longest war. How much the images from Kabul will damage the president remains to be seen. A poll taken in July showed that 70 percent of Americans backed Biden’s decision to withdraw. That number includes 56 percent of Republicans. A similar poll since the fall of Kabul may show more public discontent with Biden’s policies.

The Afghanistan debacle is just one piece of Biden’s current rough patch in the presidency. He started like gangbusters, presiding over the successful distribution of millions of shots of the coronavirus vaccine and ushering the American Rescue Plan through Congress, both of which contributed to the strong economic rebound of the last half year. But, fears over inflation and the surge in COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated has dimmed Biden’s early successes.

Biden is not at fault for the uptick in COVID-19 cases. He has urged all Americans to get their shots. Blame for millions remaining unvaccinated falls on Republican politicians and rightwing media outlets that continue to spout disinformation, not on the man in the White House. Still, the Delta variant has surged on Biden’s watch, so it is no surprise that recent polls show Biden’s approval rating dipping, sometimes below 50 percent.  

Biden may not want to cite Lincoln in claiming he is controlled by events. Lincoln’s admission, after all, came in a private letter. But, Afghanistan and the increase in coronavirus cases show the limitations of presidential power. It is, of course, unfair that Biden’s popularity declines because Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas have politicized practices that undermine public safety. Still, much of politics and political success depends on perception, and right now, the growing perception is that the current president is stumbling.

The divisions within the Democratic Party do not help. Biden succeeded in getting his bipartisan infrastructure plan through the Senate, but final passage of the bill is being held hostage to the discomfit of moderate Democrats in the House with the more ambitious $3.5 trillion program to revamp America’s social safety net. Progressives are displeased with the failure to make headway on protecting voting rights, with some blaming the Biden administration for not putting more emphasis on Republican attempts to undermine democracy in battleground states. Intra-party squabbling broke into the open a few weeks ago in a nasty fight between Congress and the administration over who was to blame for failure to renew the eviction moratorium. 

Despite this summer of Biden’s discontent, things may get better in the coming months. The burgeoning number of those infected by the Delta variant along with the numbers dying because of it appear to be goading more people go get vaccinated. The July jobs report was stunning, and inflation is not a problem, at least not yet. And, divisions within the Democratic Party may be overblown. Biden may have more successes in implementing his agenda this fall when Congress reconvenes and takes up voting rights and the budget reconciliation bill.

Just as Biden is not fully to blame for recent reverses, he will not be fully responsible for any future successes. But, that will not stop him from taking a victory lap. It is, after all, what politicians do even when they do not fully control events.

Posted August 17, 2021

Lincoln: A Modern Republican in Name Only

I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff the party of Lincoln and Reagan needs to do to persuade people we have a 2030 agenda, not a 20-minute Twitter agenda. Senator Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican

Lincoln and Reagan: Two names that should never be linked. Republicans like to claim they are the party of Lincoln. At the same time, modern conservative Republicans — like Senator Ben Sasse — draw inspiration from Reagan. Hence, the ahistorical attempt to claim both the Great Emancipator and the Great Communicator as progenitors.

Sasse deserves credit for bucking what has become the party of Trump — a Republican Party that is now a cult of personality devoted to former president Donald Trump. It took political courage for a senator from conservative Nebraska to vote to convict Trump in his Senate trial. But, as a student of history, Sasse — and most other Republicans — fail to pass American history 101.

While Ronald Reagan encapsulates the modern conservative notion of limited government, Abraham Lincoln became the spokesman for an active federal government determined to improve the lot of the average citizen. Lincoln, of course, is remembered as the president who freed the slaves, but the Republican Party he led through the Civil War promoted bold policies that benefitted not only the formerly enslaved but also those who had been free. 

The origins of the Republican Party explain its ideological underpinnings. The Republican Party coalesced in the mid-1850s in reaction to the decision — prompted by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas — to organize the Nebraska Territory (roughly modern Nebraska and Kansas) on the basis of popular sovereignty, which allowed the settlers — at some unspecified point in a territory’s development — to decide the fate of slavery. A seemingly democratic solution to an intractable issue, popular sovereignty was beset by problems. When would the decision on slavery be made? At statehood? Earlier? If slavery were voted down, would the settlers who had brought slaves be allowed to keep them? Once slavery was established, would there be any practicable way to abolish it?

But, what inflamed Northern public opinion most was that the Nebraska bill repealed the Missouri Compromise. In 1820, Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave state along with the free state of Maine, with a line drawn across the remaining unorganized area of the Louisiana Purchase at 36°30’ North, above which slavery was prohibited. The sanctity of the Missouri Compromise line became gospel in the North. Its repeal led to formation of the anti-Nebraska clubs, which soon morphed into the Republican Party.

The coalition that formed the Republican Party incorporated Whigs, like Lincoln, and Democrats opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories. The latter included many racists who cared little for the enslaved but wanted to keep the territories free for White men and women to settle on small farms. The decision to nominate a former Democrat — Hannibal Hamlin of Maine — as vice president in 1860 to counterbalance Lincoln’s Whiggish origins demonstrates the disparate origins of the Republican Party, as does Lincoln’s careful balancing of former Whigs and Democrats in his Cabinet. 

The Whigs arose as a political party in the 1820s in opposition to Jacksonian Democrats, who preached the doctrine, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “that government is best which governs least.” In contradistinction, the Whigs promoted an active government: They supported a national bank, hated by Jackson; tariffs to promote industrial development, anathema to Southern planters who sold raw materials, notably cotton, and purchased manufactured goods; and internal improvements, which today would be termed infrastructure. 

After passage of the Nebraska bill, Lincoln slid easily into the Republican Party. The old Whigs were never anti-slavery, but they had more in common with those opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories than the pro-slavery Jacksonian Democrats. In the years between the formation of the Republican Party and the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln and his allies pushed an aggressive federal response to slavery. As James Oakes demonstrates in his brilliant book, The Crooked Path to Abolition, Republicans believed the Constitution was an anti-slavery document giving the federal government power to contain slavery everywhere except in the states where it already existed. Federal authority over slavery, the Republicans maintained, extended to the territories, the District of Columbia, the high seas, and the interstate slave trade.

This breathtaking interpretation of federal power continued to inform Republican policy during the Civil War. Lincoln not only issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he also assented to the arming of the formerly enslaved in the Union Army. Lincoln used the powers he had as president to keep the border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware — in the Union, and he ushered the breakaway counties of Virginia into the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Early in the Civil War, the Republicans enacted important domestic legislation, including the Homestead Act to make Western land available at a nominal price to settlers, the Morrill Land-Grant Act to create agricultural colleges in the states, and the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 to build the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869.

This expansive use of federal power carried over into Reconstruction, when the Republican Party passed a series of amendments to the Constitution and acts of Congress to guarantee the rights of formerly enslaved men and women. Part of the plan to reconstruct the South included the use of the Federal Army to insure the safety of the freedmen and -women and Republican elected officials.

I doubt that Senator Sasse endorses such a substantial use of the national government. His view of federal authority is closer to that of Ronald Reagan, who said in his first Inaugural Address, and frequently repeated, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Lincoln would have rejected that cramped view of federal authority. The only thing uniting Reagan and Sasse with Lincoln is the “R” that appears next to their names.

Everyone loves the martyred Lincoln. No politician wants to be on the wrong side of the Great Emancipator. So, it is perfectly natural for Republicans — whether they be anti-Trumpers like Sasse or whole-hog Trumpistas — to cite Lincoln. He was, after all, the first Republican president. No harm in any of that. Except, of course, Sasse’s embrace of the 16th president, alongside Ronald Reagan, wrenches Lincoln out of his proper historical context and does a disservice to the memory of Lincoln’s beliefs and accomplishments.

Posted February 19, 2021

The Death of the Republican Party

Republican senators appear poised to finish what former president Donald Trump started — the destruction of the Republican Party — if, as appears likely, enough of the GOP caucus votes to acquit Trump.

There is little hint that Republicans in the upper chamber have changed their minds on holding Trump accountable, despite the damning and compelling evidence presented by the House impeachment managers of Trump’s guilt in inciting the insurrectionary mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021. There are five or six senators who are likely to vote to convict based on their prior votes on the constitutionality of the proceedings. Some were horrified by the video shown by the House managers, but remain steadfast in their decision to hide behind process — still maintaining that convicting the former president after he left office is unconstitutional — while ignoring the gripping and mounting corroboration of Trump’s role in summoning and directing the mob. For Montana’s Steve Daines, the vivid footage revived “horrible memories,” but there is no evidence Daines has changed his mind on the outcome of the trial. As former Alabama Democratic senator Doug Jones tweeted, Republicans are “apparently shaken, but not stirred.”

Others expressed contempt of the proceedings. Jose Hawley, forever a punk, reportedly watched part of Wednesday’s presentation from the visitor’s gallery with his feet propped up on the seat in front of him, reading what NBC reporter Garrett Haake said was “non-related material.” Senator Rick Scott of Florida called the trial “a complete waste of time… [and said] it’s vindictive,” as if discovering the truth has no merit. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — who once was intriguing but is now simply repulsive — tweeted, “I think most Republicans found the presentation by the House Managers offensive and absurd.” Really, senator? The presentation was offensive? Not the rioters looking to hang former vice president Mike Pence and assassinate Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Not Donald Trump, for sending them on their deadly mission? Shooting the messenger is your response, Senator Graham?

No wonder thousands of voters are deserting the Republican Party! According to The New York Times, nearly 140,000 Republicans quit the party in January. That number reflects data from 25 states (19 do not have party registration, and figures were not available in the remainder of the states). The number of potential voters not available to Republicans in future years is much higher, given probable desertions in the remaining states and the possibility that conservative-leaning Independents may no longer vote Republican. The pusillanimity of Republican senators who vote to acquit in the face of overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt likely will drive thousands more from the GOP.

According to Reuters, anti-Trump Republicans held a Zoom call last week to discuss forming a third, center-right party. The meeting included former elected Republicans, former officials in the administrations of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump, and Republican strategists. Their plan includes running candidates in some races against Republicans and Democrats but also endorsing center-right candidates in others, whether those candidates are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. Those on the call expressed dismay over Trump’s actions as president, the subservience of congressional Republicans, and the votes of a majority of the House Republican caucus and eight senators refusing to certify the electoral tally in two states. Again, a failure of Republican senators to vote to convict will only hasten plans to form a splinter party. Republicans have been unable to maintain their hold on the White House, the Senate, and the House with Trump at the helm. With Trump gone, the challenge from a newly established center-right party could further undermine Republican electoral prospects. 

The possible success of the anti-Trump group could lead to the first reordering of the American party system since the Civil War. While third parties have achieved limited success — most famously Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressive Party in 1912 — the two-party system has been remarkably stable for over 150 years. The longevity of the modern Republican and Democratic parties rests on both housing disparate factions. The Republican Party traditionally reflected a coalition of socially progressive moderates in the East, big business and financial elements, farmers, and more conservative groups in the center and West of the country. The Democratic Party contained southerners determined to maintain segregation, northern liberals, voters in big cities, and immigrants.

All that has changed since the 1960s. First, the Democratic embrace of civil rights legislation drove white southerners out of the party and into the opposition. Then, Ronald Reagan succeeded in making Republicans a more conservative party while attracting many workers in the North who once voted Democratic. Now, in recent years, the two parties have become far more ideological, with Republicans moving further to the right, Democrats to the left. When the two parties were coalitions of conservative and liberal elements, they were able to fashion bipartisan compromises to advance the public interest. Now, the Republican Party under Trump has become a cult of personality intent only on maintaining power. (Political theorists Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have claimed for nearly a decade that the Republican Party has ceased to believe in governing and is no longer moved by evidence and science. Trump has only made these trends worse.)

The status of the two parties today reminds historians of the breakup of the party system in the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War, when two things happened. First, millions of immigrants — mostly Catholic — flocked to America, congregating in big cities and voting Democratic. By the mid-1850s, the Know-Nothing Party — comprised of native-born Protestants — had attracted millions of formerly Whig voters. The party lasted only for a few years, leaving its voters without a home.

Second, and more importantly, the Whigs always represented a coalition of Southern planters and northern business groups. Many of these Northerners were reform-minded, and many opposed slavery. The Whigs fell apart — as did other national institutions, such as Protestant denominations — under the pressure of a rising northern determination to restrict the extension of slavery in the vast unorganized Louisiana territory acquired from France in 1803 and the Mexican Cession of 1848.

By 1854, when Congress voted to organize the Nebraska Territory (modern Kansas and Nebraska) under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which allowed Southern planters to move into the territory with their slaves, the North erupted in anger. Anti-slavery Northerners formed the Republican Party, which attracted the votes of those opposed to slavery along with many who voted Know-Nothing in the mid-1850s.The new party elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, and, within months, seven southern states seceded, leading to the Civil War. After the war, and the period of Reconstruction, the two parties — Republicans and Democrats — formed the current American party system.

It has lasted, giving the nation remarkable political stability, for more than a century-and-a-half. Whether it can withstand the presidency of Donald Trump, the move of the Republican Party into a cult of personality devoted to Trump, and the development of ideological parties unable to govern is today’s over-arching political question.

The votes of more than two-thirds of Republican senators — needed to acquit Trump — will only hasten the realignment of parties. 

Posted February 12, 2021

Secession… Again?

This decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our constitutional republic. Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution. — Allen West, chair of the Texas Republican Party on the Supreme Court decision turning down the Texas lawsuit to overturn the election results in four states.

My guy Abraham Lincoln and the Union soldiers already told you no. — Representative Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican.

We have seen this movie before: A significant minority of Americans refusing to accept the results of an election. In 1861, it led to Fort Sumter and four years later the ruin of the Confederacy and the end of slavery. Americans for a century-and-a-half since believed the Civil War settled the question of the inviolability of the Union. As President Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address in the midst of the secession winter: “No State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…. The Union is perpetual.” 

But, some Americans apparently did not stay for the end of the movie. They still do not believe in the essence of democracy, which is that losers accept the results of the election. The peripatetic Allen West — who represented Florida in Congress but now serves as chair of the Texas Republican Party — seems to be among those Americans. Count Rush Limbaugh — the radio show host and provocateur — also among them. Limbaugh said recently, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession.”

There are at least two significant differences between the secessionists of 1861 and the nutty folks of 2020. In 1861, the South left the Union not because it did not believe Lincoln was the legitimate president of the United States, but rather because it recognized Lincoln as the legitimate president and the secessionists believed his election represented a threat to slavery. Lincoln and his fellow Republicans (this is when the Republican Party was loyal to the Union) could protest forever that all they intended was to limit slavery in the Western territories and to leave it alone in the Southern states. Southerners, however, understood that restricting slavery was the first step to its abolition, so they left the Union.

The second difference is the sectional nature of secession in 1861. One section of the United States, the South, seceded. The eleven states of the Confederacy were contiguous, and they all sought to protect a socio-economic system — slavery — at odds with the ethos of American democracy and 19th century morality. The rest of the United States believed slavery immoral, and while most Northerners did not seek the immediate abolition of slavery, most  believed the country should embark on a path leading to the eventual end of the institution.

But, look at a map of the 2020 election. While it is true that most of the blue areas are on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the upper Midwest and the interior of the nation is red, there are anomalies. Georgia is surrounded by red states. Will North Carolina and South Carolina of the Trump States of America grant a right of transit from the rest of the United States of America to Georgia and vice versa? And, then there is the question of voting patterns. Even in deeply red Oklahoma, one-third of Sooners voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Same, only in reverse, in California, where a third of the voters sought to keep Trump and Pence in power. Will Republicans from the United States of America and Democrats in the Trump States of America have a population exchange reminiscent of the bloody Hindu and Muslim exchange during the birth of independent India and Pakistan?

Secession in 1861 led to internecine violence. The chance of secession in 2021 is next to zero, but the threat of violence is real. Election officials merely doing their jobs in reporting Democratic victories in swing states have been targets of right-wing threats. On Saturday, the odious Alex Jones of Infowars told pro-Trump rally goers in Washington, D.C., that President-elect Joe Biden “will be removed one way or another.” It does not take much imagination to understand what “another” means in this context.

This is scary stuff, and it is being tacitly encouraged by Republicans who supinely are following Trump in his fantasy that the election was stolen and that the “steal” can be stopped. Every Republican in Congress and every Republican state attorney general who supported Texas’ absurd law suit will be complicit if the worst occurs. Trump is irredeemable, but really, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, do you believe the election was fraudulent?

The real Civil War likely will be not between Democrats and Republicans but within the Republican Party. Already, there are signs that some Christian evangelicals are rethinking their blind loyalty to the Republican Party. Beth Moore, the founder of Living Proof Ministries and a popular Southern Baptist speaker, voiced on Twitter her frustration: “I’m 63 1/2 years old & I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.” Another evangelical, Karen Swallow Prior, tweeted: “While I did not ever vote for Trump, I did vote for local and state @GOP candidates. (I am a lifelong conservative, after all.) I am now embarrassed and ashamed that I did so. What a bunch of money-grubbing, power-hungry, partisan cowards who care nothing about conservatism.” As conservative columnist David French notes, “The frenzy and the fury of the post-election period has laid bare the sheer idolatry and fanaticism of Christian Trumpism.” Some, proving the French’s words, are saying: Enough. 

Revulsion over Trump’s antics and Republican sycophancy has not reached significant proportions yet. But, cracks in the overwhelming support evangelicals have given Trump are appearing, and state and local Republicans have declined to do Trump’s bidding in overthrowing a legitimate election. Even some elected Republicans in Congress have shown they are willing to stand against Trump and Trumpism. 

Their courageousness may tear the Republican Party apart. That would be a shame, since the nation needs two vibrant political parties representing different points of view and serving as checks on each other. But, a civil war among Republicans is preferable to a civil war among Americans.

Posted December 15, 2020

 

“It Has To Stop”

It has all gone too far. All of it…. It has to stop. — Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who is Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, referring to death threats against election officials.

I am writing these words on December 7, 2020, the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the darkest days in American history. Our nation has had other dark days: The British burning Washington during the War of 1812; President Abraham Lincoln declaring “the bottom is out of the tub” in January 1862, a low point in the Civil War when saving the Union appeared nearly impossible; and September 11, 2001. America survived those attacks, often coming out stronger. 

Today, American democracy is under attack, not from a foreign adversary, but from the president of the United States, aided by sycophantic Republicans in Congress and by tens of millions of Trump’s supporters who believe (or want to believe) that he won an election he clearly lost — by a wide margin. This is unprecedented in American history; it is corrosive to democracy. And, in the words of Gabriel Sterling, it has to stop.

Joe Biden won the election: He received seven-million votes more than President Donald Trump, and he has an insurmountable lead in the Electoral College. Yet, five weeks after the election, only 27 congressional Republicans will refer to Biden by his title: President-elect. Two Republicans actually believe Trump won; the other 220 GOP members of the Senate and the House — 88 percent of Republicans serving in Congress — refuse to say who won.

What is wrong with these elected officials? They hold a sacred trust, and they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution; yet they passively and cowardly are bending to the will of a pathological leader who refuses to accept reality. Everyone is familiar with Trump’s demons, narcissism, and fears (as in he may go to jail if he returns to private life). But, what drives the 222 Republicans in Congress who willingly participate in Trump’s alternate universe? Fear of electoral defeat? Perhaps, but, really, Republicans — from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the lowest backbenchers — do you want to serve in a Congress after American democracy is destroyed? One thing can be predicted: If Trump prevails in his coup d’état, the American Congress will resemble the Roman Senate after the Emperor Augustus overthrew the Roman Republic: A sinecure for the wealthy and aristocratic, devoid of any power or influence. 

Perhaps these cowardly Republicans think they can let Trump salve his ego, because in the end Biden will be inaugurated and life will return to normal. Will it? Remember McConnell and McCarthy and all the rest of you: Trump received 73-million votes and a majority of those Trump voters — more than 60 percent in polls — believe the election was rigged. That translates into a frightening number of Americans who are convinced that this election — and, perhaps, by extension, all elections — are not to be trusted. Our Constitution lays out the framework for a system of government, but the survival of that system rests on the belief by virtually all members of the body politic that the system is fair, that laws prevail, and that the manner of choosing our leaders is honest. Democracy cannot endure when millions believe the system is corrupt.

Twice last week, Trump launched lie-filled rants claiming he won a landslide victory. He released a 46-minute diatribe on Facebook, taped in a White House room without an audience, and in an appearance in Valdosta, Georgia, Saturday night, ostensibly on behalf of two Republican senatorial candidates in next month’s runoff election but which was all about him, Trump erected an alternate reality. In Trump’s universe, millions of votes were illegally cast and election officials — Democratic and Republican — are in cahoots with “deep state” actors to steal the election. It is, of course, Trump who is trying to steal the election by overturning the will of the American electorate. This past weekend, Trump went so far as to appeal to Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp, a loyal Trumpista in the past, to call the Georgia legislature into special session to appoint friendly electors. Kemp has no authority to fulfill Trump’s outrageous request. 

Much has been made of state and local Republican officials who have rebuffed Trump and certified election results, as did Kemp in his refusal to ignore Georgia law and call the legislature into session. These officials have been contrasted with congressional Republicans, who have been obsequious in their refusal to acknowledge reality. While there certainly have been Republicans whose bravery should be recognized, it is also true that these local and state officials are merely obeying the law. They have no discretion in the matter. Most of their decisions in certifying Biden’s victory and ignoring Trump’s outrageous requests are dictated by law. The same goes for judges — whether Republican or Democratic appointees to the bench — who have thrown out of court the vast majority of Trump’s lawsuits because they have no basis in fact. A plaintiff cannot go into court without evidence and hope to win. And, a plaintiff certainly cannot lie to a judge.

Sterling, in his remarkable appearance last week demanding an end to lies about the election, cited several instances of threatened violence against election officials. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.” Sterling said. “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” Sterling mentioned a 20-year-old contractor for a voting system company targeted by someone who hung a noose and said the young man should be executed for treason for performing a routine part of a routine job. Sterling castigated Joseph diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, for calling for the shooting of Chris Krebs, a federal cybersecurity official who vouched that the election was fair. (Krebs was fired by Trump for the sin of honesty.) Sterling said he has been threatened and his emails hacked. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, responsible for running the state’s elections, was targeted by an armed, obscenity-spewing mob outside her home after she and her four-year-old son decorated for Christmas. And, a caller told a Black Democratic Michigan lawmaker that she should be lynched. 

Yes, this campaign of misinformation has to stop before someone gets hurt. It has to stop before irreparable damage is done to American democracy (if that has not happened already). Unfortunately, Trump will not go away after Biden is inaugurated. He will continue to spew his lies, undermining Biden’s legitimacy, just as he attempted to undermine President Barack Obama’s administration with the racist “birther” conspiracy.

Trump will leave the White House on January 20, 2020, but he is paving the way for future demagogues who will not uphold the Constitution and democratic norms. We will probably escape for now. Who knows what happens the next time?

That is why, as Gabriel Sterling said, it has to stop!

Posted December 8, 2020

A House Divided

A house divided against itself cannot stand. — Abraham Lincoln, Springfield Illinois, June 16, 1858

Abraham Lincoln was right; a house divided could not stand. But, it took a fratricidal Civil War to resolve the problem Lincoln posed in the next sentence: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free [italics in original]. 

Americans are perhaps more divided now than at any time since the years leading to the Civil War. These current divisions were not entirely caused by the divisive presidency of Donald Trump. The breakup of the political parties — especially the Republican Party — as coalitions of diverse groups has led to the parties — again, especially, the Republican Party — becoming tribes of like-minded individuals who no longer speak the same language as members of the other tribe.

This tribalization of politics has resulted in a breakdown of functioning government. Congress hardly legislates any longer. This is especially true of the Senate, which, under the leadership of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has become an institution that exists merely to confirm appointees to the federal judiciary. Most other legislation, especially when passed by the Democratic-controlled House, languishes on McConnell’s desk. The cycle reinforces itself: As the tribalization of politics has led to a government that no longer works to insure the public good, the public becomes more and more convinced that government is not an agency for change. Cynicism and distrust thus become the norms.

Throw the match of Trumpian race-baiting, lying, and destruction of traditional rules of political behavior into this volatile mix and the result is an election in which Trump’s supporters are convinced that the only way the president can lose is if the other side cheats. Trump has convinced his supporters that mail-in ballots — cast by a huge number of Americans during the pandemic — are fraudulent and that the only electoral count that matters is the one delivered on the evening of November 3. Of course, that is nonsense, but if the election is close when the polls close and Democratic numbers increase in the days after as the mail-in and early vote is tallied, it is not fanciful to imagine that Trump’s supporters will feel cheated.

What will they do? Are we poised for a second Civil War? Already, Trump backers are threatening public peace. Trump supporters tried to intimidate early voters in September in Fairfax, Virginia. This weekend, a caravan of Trump backers endangered public safety by surrounding a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway; Trump tweeted, “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.” Also this weekend, vehicles brandishing Trump banners snarled traffic on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey and shut down traffic on the Governor Mario Cuomo Bridge spanning the Hudson River in New York. These are relatively trivial escapades, but Trump’s calls for poll watchers “to watch very carefully” has the potential to intimidate voters and affect the election results. And, no one knows what may happen if tens of thousands of Trump voters are convinced his defeat — which seems likely — came because of Democratic cheating.

So, a likely Biden win is not enough. The former vice president needs to run up the score, win by a landslide, to forestall Trumpian shenanigans and the vitriol and potential violence of his followers. It is not enough for Biden to win back the Rust Belt states Hillary Clinton lost four years ago. The Democratic challenger needs to pick off a large number of Trump states from 2016 to gain a convincing victory with 350 to 400 votes in the Electoral College.

A big Biden victory — and Democratic control of both houses of Congress — is necessary if America is to reclaim its soul, its sense of purpose. Trump has so poisoned the political dialogue that even the simplest measures to control the pandemic — wearing a mask, maintaining social distance — have become signs of the tribe to which each American belongs. Trump’s mockery of mask-wearing means that our advanced and wealthy nation leads the world in deaths from COVID-19.

The willingness of Trump’s followers to adopt his disdain for these simple tools to control the pandemic is a symptom of their devotion to what can only be labelled as his cult of personality. Trumpistas flock to his rallies — without masks and standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder — even though a study estimates that 30,000 people have contracted the virus — and 700 people have died — after attending these events. Trump’s evident disdain for the safety of his supporters does not seem to deter them in their support.

It is hard to fathom this level… of what? Devotion? Blind loyalty? Lack of serious thought? But, then again, the level of support for Trump has remained constant through his thousands of lies and all his transgressions. Voters in 2016 knew he mocked a disabled reporter and heard the “Access Hollywood” tape, but Trump still won. Trump has praised White supremacists, given the nod to numerous conspiracy theories, used the White House as a backdrop for his campaign, engaged in countless ethical violations, and lied thousands of times without losing his base. I know that it is fashionable to quote Trump supporters who claim they vote for him despite his crudeness and transgressions because he appoints conservative justices, but I suspect many Trumpistas support him because he flouts the rules. 

With Biden poised to win, Trump appears to be planning one last gasp of rule-breaking. Jonathan Swan of Axios reports, as has long been suspected, that Trump plans to declare victory if he appears to be ahead on Election Night and then go to court to forestall the counting of legally cast ballots in the following days. It is a desperate ploy — perfunctorily denied by Trump — that has no legal standing, but Trump’s loyal followers will believe him when he claims he won.

What will happen next in our divided house? Will the house, as Lincoln said, “become all one thing or all the other?” The answer may depend on the size of Biden’s victory.

Posted November 3, 2020

Trump’s Fantasies

I alone can fix it. — Donald Trump, accepting the 2016 Republican nomination for president. 

I alone can fix it because I alone broke it. — Not said, but the message from Trump’s speech accepting the 2020 Republican nomination for president.

It is as if we are watching the same tape, a loop that repeats and repeats. Donald Trump is the incumbent president, running a campaign reminiscent of the one he ran four years ago. He tried to shift slogans a while back, from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great,” but the latter is a tough sell in the middle of a pandemic, high unemployment, and civil unrest. So, MAGA it is again, even if the “again” is a tad awkward nearly four years into Trump’s presidency. 

The sense of déjà vu is reinforced by the decision to ditch the usual exercise in platform writing and run again on the document adopted in 2016. Nothing wrong, in theory, in repeating the promises and criticisms of the previous campaign, except it raises the nagging question of why the Trump administration has to promise to do in its second term what it promised to do in its first. Also awkward are such sentences as this: “The current Administration has abandoned America’s friends and rewarded its enemies,” a barb aimed at the Obama administration that could be easily interpreted as the GOP platform criticizing the Republican president. Oh, well, no one reads platforms, anyway. 

Platforms are the prose of a campaign; convention speeches, the poetry. Not that there was much poetry at the just-concluded Republican National Convention. Instead, there was fantasy. All America was surprised to learn the pandemic is over. We all missed that tidbit, but COVID-19 was mentioned as little as possible, and, on one occasion, in the past tense. “It [the pandemic] was awful,” opined Larry Kudlow, Trump’s senior economic adviser and noted epidemiologist. And, when the Trump administration was not saying COVID-19 is not dangerous, it was demonstrating it. At least, that is the takeaway from seeing all those applauding Trump fans sitting cheek by unmasked jowl on the White House lawn listening to the president speak. 

Fantasy was the theme of Trump’s acceptance speech: “Greatest economy in history” is hard to reconcile with high unemployment, and “I say modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” arguable as a perversion of Lincoln’s reputation and absurd as a supposition that Trump is ever “modest.” Fantasy appeared in Trump’s abuse of the naturalization process when he televised at the convention the naturalization ceremony of five newly minted American citizens, without, apparently, telling at least two they were being used as propaganda. Many of the speeches were fantastical as well, portraying a kinder gentler Trump who pardons suffragists and a bank robber, expresses concern for the well-being of his aides, represents a party that celebrates the removal of the Confederate flag (“a divisive symbol,” said former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley), and believes gratitude is more important than grievance (according to Vice President Mike Pence).

The kindler, gentler Trump was a naked play for the votes of college-educated, minority, and independent voters alienated by three-plus years of presidential vitriol, name calling, and lawbreaking from the White House. But, this being a Trump renomination extravaganza, there also was plenty of red meat for the base. In his acceptance speech, Trump accused Democrats of standing “with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag burners.” He said Democrats remained “completely silent about rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities.” And, the convention invited Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-wielding St. Louis couple, to tell the faithful, “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Given the origin of their notoriety, it does not take much imagination to understand the barely coded message: Not safe from people of color.

Trump has two problems in running for reelection. First, his administration has been an abject failure, with more than 180,000 Americans dead from the pandemic, the economy in tatters, and protests against systemic racism roiling the nation’s cities. Hence, the need to pretend the virus is in the rear view mirror, extol the record-breaking stock market, and highlight Black speakers at the convention (as Ruth Marcus writes in The Washington Post, there were probably more African Americans speaking than sitting in the audience). 

Trump’s second problem is an inability to define his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. As Nate Cohn notes in The New York Times, the last two incumbents to seek reelection, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012, used their conventions to paint their opponents with a negative brush. Bush depicted John Kerry as a flip-flopper who tried to have it both ways on the Iraq War, and Obama portrayed Mitt Romney as a rapacious plutocrat who symbolized the policies eroding middle-class industrial jobs in the Midwest. Trump and his lackeys have tried to describe Biden negatively, calling him “Beijing Biden” or “Sleepy Joe,” the latter a particularly tough sell given Trump’s ample, lumbering physique contrasted to trim, lively stepping Biden and the president’s frequent slurring of words that makes his challenger appear positively eloquent. 

Then, there is the “Trojan horse” charge, the accusation that Biden is either a closet socialist or a front-man easily manipulated by radicals such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden as stealth candidate has not gained much traction either, largely because, as I have written, the public sees the former vice president as “reasonable.” 

Fantasy is what is left. Trump must pretend the problems are not that bad, and regardless, he alone can fix them. The public is asked to ignore the nasty fact that those problems occurred on his watch. That may be a fact, but how important are facts to an administration that has touted “alternative facts” from the very beginning?

Posted September 1, 2020

 

Reckless Presidential Speech

(Note: I am defining speech broadly in this post. The president, whomever he or she is, has a bully pulpit that can be used in many ways and takes many forms. Statements on Twitter are, in this context, a form of speech.)

Last Thursday, the nation witnessed examples of presidential speech from the current occupant of the office and his predecessor. President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at the funeral of John Lewis extolling the congressman’s legacy, while President Donald Trump used the day the nation said good-bye to the Civil Rights hero to trample on his legacy.  

Obama chose his words carefully, knowing he would be criticized in some quarters for his remarks. “Now, I know this is a celebration of John’s life,” the 44th president said. “There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But…. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.” Earlier that day, the 45th president of the United States tweeted, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” 

Ignore that the president has no authority to delay or cancel an election. Disregard the meaningless and foolish distinction Trump makes between mail-in voting and absentee voting. Pay no attention to the ignorant claims of inaccuracy and fraud in mail-in voting. The substance of Trump’s screed is false in all its particulars. What is significant is that the president fears he is going to lose the election and believes, as he has stated on numerous occasions, that Republicans lose when all Americans can vote. And, he chose the day of John Lewis’s funeral to launch an attack on American democracy by stoking fear among Trump’s supporters that the election results will not be valid. 

While Trump spoke to the fears of his countrymen, Obama spoke — in the words of Abraham Lincoln — to “the better angels of our nature,” as he often does. For this he was quickly attacked by the political right. Presidential senior advisor Stephen Miller called Obama’s discussion of voter suppression “shockingly political.” Right-wing cheerleader Sean Hannity criticized Obama for bringing “politics into this.” And, fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson called Obama “one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures in the history of American politics” because of the tenor of his eulogy for Lewis. 

These are silly claims. Discussing voter suppression is not “politics” in the usual sense of the term — meaning partisan politics. Who gets to vote in America has a long and contentious history marked by attempts to limit the vote by groups who believe expanding the ballot threatens their primacy. American history has seen the slow but continuous expansion of the vote to nearly all Americans. Today, everyone theoretically has the ballot, but Republicans in state legislatures frequently have adopted tactics to suppress the vote. This issue is political only because one party has decided that an expanded vote threatens its existence. Instead of examining the reasons why they cannot win in a truly democratic America and perhaps changing their strategies, Republicans would rather win elections by denying the vote to Democratic-leaning groups such as minorities. 

John Lewis spent his whole life fighting for the ballot for all Americans. He nearly lost his life on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when state troopers used billy clubs to prevent a march for voting rights. How can you eulogize John Lewis and not discuss the core of his struggle? But, the criticism of Obama’s oration was less about Lewis and more about the former president. The American political right has never recovered from Obama’s two presidential victories, and it continues to attack and blame the former president for any and all wrongs. Note the repeated criticisms that President Obama’s opponents made of his use of teleprompters. Trump piled on, tweeting in 2012, “Why does @BarackObama always have to rely on teleprompters?” Candidate Trump vowed to never use the device, only to do so.

Promising not to use teleprompters and then going back on the promise is one of Trump’s least harmful falsehoods. His presidency has been marked by more than 20,000 of them to date, many of which are deliberate lies and/or attempts to mislead and misinform. Presidential speech in the time of Trump is always provocative  — remember “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville? But, Trump’s damage has been magnified by the global pandemic and all that stems from his incompetent handling of it — the cratering economy and a looming electoral defeat of epic proportions. 

Donald Trump does not speak like other presidents — including his predecessor, Barak Obama. Trump’s speeches, off-hand comments as he leaves the White House, answers to reporters’ questions, and tweets often “break the rhetorical norms” carefully established over the last two-hundred years, according to Kate Shaw, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law.  Shaw discusses ways to combat the speech of a president who often speaks recklessly by lying and misinforming. She notes that Twitter now pushes back against Trump’s violent and erroneous tweets and praises those reporters and news organizations that have become bolder in calling Trump’s lies for what they are — lies. She extols Democrats in Congress for impeaching the president.

While nothing so far seems to deter Trump’s speech, especially through Twitter, the best tool for lessening the impact of his speech is to vote him out of office. Once out of office, he can, of course, still tweet to his millions of followers, but he will not have the bully pulpit. 

Posted August 4, 2020

The Fourth American Republic

Americans traditionally view their history as a steady progression of expanding rights to include formerly proscribed classes. It is comforting to argue that the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence has been broadened over time, and the “more perfect Union” set as a goal of the Constitution has become, well, more perfect in the more than two hundred years since the drafting of our organic law. The American past may have been punctuated by periods of reaction and reform, but the march to extend the promise of 1776 to all Americans has been steady and gradual.

This interpretation of American history is taught in our schools and is accepted by most Americans. But, there may be a better framework, one that views American history as loosely following the example of the French, whose history yields a baffling array of empires and republics since the Revolution of 1789. This lens reveals a past in which America has had three republics and may now be entering the fourth republic, one in which the promise of equality under the law becomes a reality for all Americans.

Each of these American republics followed a revolution that overturned the existing order. The First American Republic, founded by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of the revolutionary generation, followed the American Revolution that ousted the British and turned the colonies into a self-governing republic lasting from 1776 to 1861. The ethos of the First American Republic can be found in Jefferson’s ringing phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “All Men are created equal.” 

The First American Republic ended when the Confederacy trained its guns on Fort Sumter in 1861. The Civil War and Reconstruction — the second American Revolution — yielded the Second American Republic bringing the abolition of slavery and codification of the promise of due process of law for all Americans. Equality of all men became — through the Civil War amendments — part of the Constitution and citizenship was untethered from race. The founders of the Second American Republic were Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, among others, men who expanded the definition of liberty and attempted to purge America of the sins of slavery and racism. Lincoln expressed the spirit of the Second American Republic when he declared at Gettysburg in 1863 “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The nation turned its back on the stated goals of the Second American Republic, and, by the end of the 19th century, all the hard-won rights of the freedmen were stripped away and segregation and Jim Crow became enshrined in the South while Northerners looked the other way and practiced their own form of racial discrimination and segregation. The Second American Republic began with the promise of equality for all Americans regardless of race. A reactionary view of history, though, governed the decades after Reconstruction when the men who committed treason against the United States were eagerly accepted back into the body politic and the so-called “Lost Cause” became the dominant interpretation of the Civil War. This effectively wrote out of American memory the revolutionary potential of emancipation.

The reaction lasted until the middle of the 20th century when young African Americans — mainly from the South — launched the third American Revolution, usually known as the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, and Hosea Williams were among its founders, and “We Shall Overcome” was its anthem. King declared the promise of this Third American Republic when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — symbolizing that this new Republic was being built on the promise of its predecessor — and declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

As King’s citing of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration on the steps of the memorial to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation indicates, each succeeding American revolution — and the republic it yielded — built on the promises of the preceding ones. The substantive gains of the Third American Republic included the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, laws aimed at remaking America into the nation it always strived to be.

The Third American Republic abolished formal segregation, and while progress was fitful, many took hope from the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African-American president. But, the subsequent election of Donald Trump as president has brought the nation to a moral reckoning. We stand on the cusp of what may be the fourth American revolution that may yield a Fourth American Republic dedicated to fulfilling the promises of the preceding revolutions.

Pivotal moments in history rarely can be seen by participants. It takes a wide-angle lens to determine when revolutionary change occurs. But, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers may be the spark that results in the promise of a more perfect union. The Black Lives Matter movement — given renewed impetus by Floyd’s death — comes at a time when the crises of the pandemic, economic collapse, climate change, and systemic racial and income inequality are merging to create pressure for radical and fundamental reform. We do not know yet who will emerge as leaders of the Fourth American Republic — assuming the current protest movement burgeons into a truly revolutionary crusade — but we already have its motto: “I can’t breathe.”

Tens of millions of Americans agree: We cannot breathe, and we want change.

Posted July 21, 2020

Who Stays, Who Goes?

The unhinged left wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. — President Donald Trump, speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20, 2020

Americans are engaging in healthy conversations about our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Much of it centers around statues and other memorials to men and women, the value of whose accomplishments have been called into question. Consider the current dialogue as the American version of truth and reconciliation commissions undertaken by many nations attempting to come to grips with unsavory pasts. 

President Donald Trump and others on the right refer to the debate over Confederate memorials as an attempt “to vandalize history,” citing the “slippery slope” argument that tearing down some statues inevitably leads to the removal of many that should remain. That argument is fallacious; Americans are capable of deciding which should stay and which should go. The “slippery slope” is like the ramp at West Point that Trump had trouble navigating: Not very slippery at all.

Context matters. Not just the context of the times in which the individual lived, but the context of their entire lives. I am not much impressed with the argument that, well, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson get a pass as slaveholders because slavery was practiced North and South in the British colonies and was accepted around the world well into the 19th century. The universality of slavery is true, but only part of the historical record. Many contemporaries viewed holding other human beings in bondage as wrong. Quakers, for example, agitated against slavery in the early years of the Republic. Many slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson knew the institution was wrong. Washington freed his slaves upon his death, and Jefferson referred to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” The Sage of Monticello wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” As Abraham Lincoln said at a time when secessionists were fighting to preserve slavery, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

The context that matters is the life a man or woman led. Is the evil we condemn the defining element in an individual’s life, or is it part of a mixed record along with great accomplishments? In the instances of Confederate generals and politicians, their role in the Confederacy is not only what is being memorialized; it is the only reason they get a monument. Who would remember Robert E. Lee if he had not violated his oath to the Constitution and led Confederate soldiers in a treasonous war to maintain human bondage? Lee would be a footnote in history, at best, remembered by a few as the colonel in the United States Army who captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Jefferson Davis served as a U.S. senator and a member of President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet, but he is memorialized for being president of the Confederacy, a political entity that waged war against the United States. Lee and Davis have statues and other memorials to their memory precisely because of their roles in the Confederacy.

Washington and Jefferson are different. The former insured the new nation succeeded, and the latter defined the nation in the Declaration of Independence, a magnificent ode to human aspirations for freedom. They were deeply flawed individuals who held other human beings in bondage. In Jefferson’s case, the flaw includes the sexual as well as physical exploitation of the enslaved on his plantation. Historical memory must never overlook their shortcomings. But, neither should their accomplishments be thrown on the ash heap of history. Washington and Jefferson forged a new nation; Lee and Davis tried to destroy it.

In some instances the calculus is more complicated. Andrew Jackson, for example, expanded democratic opportunities (though only for white men), but he was responsible for the genocidal “Trail of Tears.” A more complicated example than Lee and Davis, but the evil Old Hickory did outweighs the good.

Sometimes the statue itself matters. New York’s American Museum of Natural History is removing a statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback because TR is flanked by a Native American and an African American in a white supremacist tableau. To be sure, Roosevelt was a racist, but he was a great conservationist, a trust-buster, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was the first president to invite an African American — Booker T. Washington — to dine at the White House. The context for removing the Roosevelt statue is not the man but the setting.  

Defenders of Confederate memorials claim removing statues and changing the names of Army bases rewrites history. That is hogwash! The memorials to Confederates are the rewrite of history. As I wrote in my previous post, statues to Lee and Davis fostered a pro-Southern mythic interpretation of history in which slavery was erased as the cause of the Civil War and the South seceded to defend states’ rights. Confederate memorials exalt white supremacy while downplaying the nation’s original sin of slaveholding.  

Confederate statues are not about preserving history; they are about preserving and honoring white supremacy. Trump has adopted the history of the South and the Confederacy as part of his agenda. It is the history that undergirds the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Preserving history is not done through statues, but through a rendering of the past that does not gloss over the parts we would rather not examine too closely.  Monuments to the “Lost Cause” were erected decades after the Civil War to use a mythic view of that struggle as a justification for Jim Crow laws and the segregation they enforced. Celebrating Confederates celebrates treason, secession, and racism. Tear down those memorials!

Posted June 26, 2020