Make America Great At Last

A sense of our own greatness has always been part of the American psyche. And not without reason. A fresh start in a new land with unexplored but limitless potential. Manifest destiny leading us across a magnificent continent, brimming with resources– and pesky natives. Development of a robust economic engine, fueled in part by the labor and expendable lives of an enslaved population. The endurance of, and prevailing over: civil war, world wars, economic depression. The status of being the envy of the world for our democratic freedoms, standard of living, and independent, self-sufficient lifestyle.

A sense of this greatness diminishing was the basis for the Trump phenomenon in 2016. Trump identified the genuine and poignant plight of a segment of working Americans whose livelihoods and towns have been deteriorating in the face of advancing technology and world economic forces. He successfully exploited it with the time-tested strategy of scapegoating immigrants with different shade skin.

I first witnessed this strategy in action in January, 2016. My daughter lives in Vermont and has her office in Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. The Trump campaign chose this location, three blocks from Bernie Sanders’s campaign headquarters, for a January 7 rally. Stacy sent me links to coverage of the event, including a phone video that someone attending had recorded.

At that early date, the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign were already appallingly evident: the lies about crowd sizes (“25,000 people are in line outside” when it was actually 2,000); the xenophobic hate speech; the incitement to physical violence (“Get them out! Get them out!” to encourage physical removal of anyone suspected of not being a real supporter); the promise to make America great again.

The campaign unleashed racial resentment and hatred that had never disappeared from our society, but had been suppressed by judicial progress and evolving awareness and conscience among a majority of citizens. The victory in the election validated what the campaign had exposed.

We have seen this resurgence of racism in many forms. The emboldening of white supremacists. Violence and vandalism against Muslims and mosques. Physical and vocal antagonism in schools, north and south. Policies and budgets in Congress and statehouses that disfavor immigrants and the poor.

And it is playing out in the South over the issue of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces.

This is what I’ve been getting at. In an odd way, I wonder if there is a silver lining in the storm clouds. It is difficult to engage with attitudes that lie below the surface. But Trumpism has given “political correctness” a negative connotation, while simultaneously encouraging expression of long suppressed racial resentments. The controversy over the meaning of Confederate monuments is putting those attitudes on open display.

Charlottesville, VA, has faced protests to its recent decision to remove a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee. State lawmakers have lined up on either side of the issue. About two weeks ago, white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, led a protest in front of the statue, complete with torches but minus the robes. You may recall that Spencer achieved prominence with his “Hail Trump” appearance at a white nationalist conference in DC shortly after the election. This protest elicited many public denunciations and expressions of support.

Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy, has also revived its previously unsuccessful campaign to remove six Civil War statues from its famed Monument Avenue. Public polls and media commentary abound.

People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Perhaps New Orleans presents the most interesting example of this public discourse. As you probably know, the city council voted to remove four statues  in different parts of the city and relocate them in a museum to provide historical context. Fearing violent protests, the first three were removed at night. The last, a 16 foot bronze figure of General Lee, was removed in the light of day on May 19. No violence occurred.

Not that some did not think that violence was called for. The next day, state representative Karl Oliver, Republican, made this Facebook post:

The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, “leadership” of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.

Let me restate that, to make sure you got it. A sitting state legislator called for the LYNCHING! of other public officials whose actions he disagreed with. Nicely symbolic form of execution, I’ll give him that.

I’m happy to report that Rep. Oliver has been roundly condemned for his post by members of both parties and stripped of his committee chairmanship. Racism boldly, and baldly, expressed in public is rarely an attractive thing, save to other die-hard racists. That is why I have hope, albeit slim, that the Trump brand of nationalism could result in a greater number of Americans seeing it more clearly and rejecting it.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on May 19 regarding the meaning of removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

How might that look? New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a remarkable speech on the same morning the Lee statue was being removed. The vision he eloquently proposed is both aspirational and attainable. The entire speech is here. If you would like just some of the highlights, try here. But this is the part that best speaks to the point of this post (bolding is mine):

A friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

I am aware that in some places and circumstances, I could be pilloried for saying or even implying that America is not great. It’s just that saying it doesn’t make it so. Neither does a slogan on a baseball cap. Neither, it turns out, does electing the first African-American President. If only it were so easy.

No, there are many many things about America that are great. And she has, perhaps more than most if not all other countries, the potential for greatness. But to realize that potential, to become truly great at last, the potential must be equally available to all within her borders. Because when some are denied, oppressed, slighted, or attacked, we all fall short.