As Donald Trump made his fascist impulses explicit on Monday, calling for a ban on Muslims’ entering the United States, I sat in a cocoon of righteous reflection at a Ford Foundation convening on “Rights Now: Reimagining Justice for the 21st Century,” listening to civil-rights leaders and thinkers, including Representative John Lewis, former attorney general Eric Holder, Demos President Heather McGhee, and Dream Defenders founder Umi Selah sketch a new movement for a new century.
Sheltered from the storm, I came home to find cable shows preempting their regular programming to broadcast yet another terrifying Trump stem-winder, in which he railed against Muslims, expelled another Black Lives Matter protester, and derided the reporters covering his campaign as “slime” and “scum.” Having spent the day as I did, it was particularly scary. But it was scary to me not because I think Trump’s brutal xenophobia represents a tragic break with American history, as some would have it, but because I know it’s been a regular feature of our past, only this time it’s amplified by 24/7 news coverage and blaring social media.
In fact, an afternoon discussing the history and future of civil rights was excellent prep for Trump’s verbal assault. The American story isn’t one of constantly welcoming newcomers and extending them rights; it’s consistently doubting, screening, blocking, and sometimes trying to ban those newcomers. A country founded on an ideal of unity and pluralism has in fact always been obsessed with the question of who is really American, and who is a threat; which groups deserve full democratic rights and which groups put democracy in peril. (My own people, Irish Catholics, were the Muslims of an earlier age: a riotous group loyal to a foreign power, the pope, whose fealty to Catholic dogma made them unfit for Protestant democracy.)
In a fascinating conversation on voting rights with Eric Holder, The Nation’s Ari Berman reminded us that despite the frequent assertion—even from the left—that American history shows steady progress in extending the vote to more and more Americans, in fact that only occurred as the result of struggle, some of it bloody. First, only white men with property could vote; then just white men; then black men (outside the Jim Crow South, anyway); then women; then Southern blacks; finally young people 18 and older. Even the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a product of blood, tears, and smart political work that won bipartisan support, provoked an almost immediate GOP backlash. Forces in the Justice Department of every Republican president, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, worked hard to roll back the act’s protections; under our first black president, a Supreme Court headed by former Reagan Justice Department lawyer John Roberts granted their wish.
We are still answering the question of whether a nation explicitly founded on racial hierarchy can be redeemed from that original sin; whether the “arc of history” bends towards justice, or whether it has broken, or maybe has to break, to let a new trajectory be shaped. “A nation of ancestral strangers,” the inspiring Heather McGhee reminded us, “has to find connection every day.” There have been many days we have failed to do so, not just since the tragic presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.