Ben Sparks on the dark forces unleashed by Trump’s triumph
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In assessing this recent presidential election, context, point of view, and what is called “social location” are important. I am a white man (of Scottish and English origin) who grew to maturity in the 1950s and 1960s in Alabama and Georgia. I attended excellent, but (intentionally) segregated schools in Atlanta and in North Carolina, and a barely integrated theological seminary in Richmond, Virginia, from which I graduated in 1965. In 1964 I participated in a 24 hour a day, seminary student led vigil in support of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. We stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, 200 feet away from uniformed members of the American Nazi Party. They were keeping vigil against that same Civil Rights Act.
The next year, 1965, I played a role in the organisation of a city-wide sympathy march in conjunction with the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. The Selma March led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year by Congress with strong bipartisan support. When President Johnson signed it into law, he remarked that with this action he had delivered the South (which had been heavily Democratic since the Civil War and Reconstruction) to the Republican Party. The Voting Rights Act was emasculated by the U. S. Supreme Court in 2013.
The election of a New Yorker, Donald J. Trump, who has used, not hints and feints (like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan) but explicit racist language to bring white people together to win the presidency, and to make this country great (white) again — is the fulfillment of Johnson’s prediction — not only for the South, but for the entire nation, from sea to shining sea.
This year’s election was the culmination of a Republican Southern Strategy, first articulated by Richard Nixon, which came into full bloom under Reagan. Though Trump speaks in the raucous accents and idioms of an ill-bred New Yorker, his expressions (with several word substitutions) were those which assaulted the mind and heart of my childhood and youth from the mouths of Southern demagogues, governors, police chiefs — and occasional “Christian” preachers. They claimed that if elected, they would save the white race and the ‘Southern way of life’ from the corrupting influence of Negroes and Communists. Dr. Martin Luther King was a Communist. The Civil Rights Movement was a Communist plot.
Several irreversible things have occurred since Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States.
- He was never taken seriously by establishment media: by either conservatives or liberals, especially by those who write editorials and opinion pieces. Nor was he taken seriously by the other Republican candidates. He was after all an entertainer with no political experience. His involvement in politics was limited to his ‘friendship’ with (and purchase of the influence of) politicians who could benefit his development projects — in the Northeast and ultimately worldwide. One of the most respected conservative journalists in the US, David Brooks, first said that he would never win the Republican nomination, and then, at the very end of the campaign, Brooks concluded again, that in spite of the damage done to Hillary Clinton by the WikiLeaks emails and the Director of the FBI, she was sure to win the presidency. Trump’s appeal was consistently, disastrously underestimated.
- He awakened people who, heretofore, had little interest in politics, many of whom have now believed deeply in Trump and his ability to make life better for them. They are white people, by and large, not only the uneducated, who believe they have been pushed aside to let black and brown, immigrant (illegal and refugee) and poor welfare recipients jump the queue in front of them. Since he now will be allied with a Republican Congress, who care not at all for his most fervent supporters (except to reduce wages and keep them low, and deny them medical care) they’re likely to be disappointed. He also benefitted from a sneering liberal establishment, tragically illustrated by Hillary Clinton’s tone deaf remark that Trump supporters were ‘a basket of deplorables.‘ That was not only stupid, it was mean; and may have contributed to her loss as much as the “scandals” about her personal email server and the sometimes dodgy actions of the Clinton Foundation.
- The most frightening dimension of Trump’s success is his bringing out of the shadows and into public prominence persons who have largely been ‘underground‘ since the 1960s. Represented as legitimate by Fox News and right wing radio talk show hosts, these are the so called ‘alt-right,’ explicit white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and virulent anti-Semites. They have always been present in the United States, but Trump has now given them a legitimacy they have not known since the days of violent opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Some of these people now have direct access to the White House. They represent a multitude of Americans who deeply resent having a very capable African American in the White House.
- By choosing Governor Mike Pence of Indiana as his running mate, Trump has signalled to some (but not all) Evangelical Christians that his Presidency will blur the lines between church and state and use the power of the state to enforce “Christian values” against women, Muslims, and LBGT people. It’s worth noting that Pence was fast becoming unpopular even among Republicans in Indiana.
- The great irony of this election is that significant numbers of so called White Christians (including mainstream Protestants and Catholics) voted for a man who, in his own words, denigrates the poor and disabled, immigrants, and non-whites; has no respect for the institution of marriage (a self-admitted adulterer); built the launch of his campaign on an egregious lie against President Obama; and has shamelessly cheated business associates, and the poor suckers who attended his Trump University. His campaign has been conducted with insistent mockery; he has regularly advocated — not justice, but vengeance; he has stoked the fires of a culture of contempt.
It is slightly encouraging that once again, for the time being, we are witnessing a peaceful transfer of power, marked by graciousness on the part of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and President-elect Trump. The challenge remains: as a nation will we be able to “walk back” from the words of the campaign, from the mendacity, fear, and opportunism that took Donald J. Trump to the highest office? How much was he aided by the ineptitude, silence, passivity of people of character and restraint?
One of our great poets, Emily Dickinson, wrote in the 19th Century: “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say, it just begins to live that day.” Let us hope, for the sake of America and the world, that she is wrong. To bring any sensible governance out of this deplorable campaign, our nation will need to lay aside the language of hate and fear that has dominated our lives for the last fifteen months, and begin to build bridges of understanding over valleys of rancor and cynicism.
A final word of consolation from the prophet: “The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah, 40). This deplorable time, in God’s inscrutable mercy, shall also pass.
O. Benjamin Sparks is a retired Presbyterian Minister, who lives in Richmond, Virginia. He has been a member of the Iona Community since 1965.