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Trumpism Never Left, But We Have Beaten It Before


Apr 25, 2020
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Manifest Destiny (1872 by John Gast)

I am frightened about what is happening across America under Trump. A mass movement based on fear seems to be steering us into an abyss. There are high hopes that a correction will be made on November 3. But what comes next? It is easy to despair.

But we shouldn’t. The reason is that we have seen this all before. And we not only know how to defeat it, we have done so numerous times.

The unholy trinity of Trumpism — greed, white supremacy and religious fervor harnessed in support — was present at the beginning of the United States. When conservatives today talk about the Original Intent of the Founders, they skim over the fact that the liberty in the Constitution was intended for only a select group: white men of property. Slaves were not considered fully human, women had fewer rights, and the indigenous had the status of wildlife.

Following independence, while some parts of the US were purchased, the rest was conquered by force and fraud. The guiding principle was Manifest Destiny — that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christians had been given this fruitful land by God to rule as his Chosen People. When Trump was in Minnesota last week telling his supporters they came from “good genes” he knew exactly what ancestral button he was pushing.

But there was always push back. 1865 saw the de jure end of human bondage through a bloody and uncertain conflict. In 1920 women got the right to vote. In 1965, the Civil Rights Acts put a dent in Jim Crow, although they didn’t bury him.

These accomplishments seem halting and incomplete, given the persistent injustice that continues to afflict. The election of Trump in 2016 made it seem like previous achievements were all a mirage. The monster not only lived, but had triumphed.

But as they say, you’ve only lost when you’ve given up. Americans, of all kinds, have never given up. We have always stepped up when it mattered. The arc of history has bent towards justice not only due to leaders like MLK, but due to the fact that they could assemble a broad-based alliance.

The process hasn’t always been pretty. Sometimes heroes and villains exist in the same person. George Armstrong Custer fought for the Union at Gettysburg. FDR imprisoned Japanese Americans. LBJ’s legislative accomplishments came through alliances of convenience with southern segregationists. Not every vote cast for Joe Biden in the 2020 general election will be cast by someone with a pure heart or clean slate.

Building and maintaining a broad-based, sustained and focused movement for equal justice is not easy. Moments of glory are few and far between. Bitter compromises are often made. But it remains the most effective answer to Trumpism.

We know because we have beaten Trump this way before. Back when his name was Justice Roger Taney. Back when he strutted across balconies in Berlin and Rome. Or blocked the courthouse steps as Governor George Wallace.

We must accept this will likely be a battle that won’t end in our lifetimes. But it is less important when it ends, than how it ends. If we look to history, we should feel not just hope, but an energy and optimism. And a sense of obligation to continue a struggle for which many of our ancestors gave their last full measure of devotion.

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