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.
And so I came home and watched Trump rail against Muslims—and against his presidential rivals, in both parties, who aren’t tough enough to fight them. The worst part wasn’t Trump’s rhetoric, it was the lusty cheers of the adoring crowd. When Trump attacked NBC’s Katy Tur by name—a diligent reporter who’s covered him more than fairly—I shuddered for her, and wondered about the judgment of all the networks that interrupted news programming to beam this fascist message into our homes.
When I woke up, there he was again, breaking the rules of television by phoning into at least four morning shows. I imagined the candidate sitting in his bathrobe in a trashy-opulent Trump hotel, picking at his lavish breakfast tray as he chatted up CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Other guests have to get up early, gulp their morning coffee, get themselves nicely coiffed and dressed, and make green-room small talk. But hosts don’t require that of Trump anymore, not even on the once-prestigious Sunday shows. Fox put on the screen what looked like a Trump publicity still; CNN projected a photo of him looking positively impish.
Then on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the unthinkable happened: Host Joe Scarborough cut to a break when Trump refused to answer questions. But it was just a few minutes in the timeout corner. When he returned, Trump dutifully fielded queries about his proposed Muslim ban. He clarified; he wouldn’t include American citizens who are Muslims. It wouldn’t apply to Muslim non-citizens coming to attend “sporting events” (!) It would have to be enforced by customs agents asking people to declare their religion, Trump allowed, since passports and visas don’t record a traveler’s faith, or lack thereof. It wouldn’t be permanent; just until the country figures out how bad the Muslim menace really is. When the ban will end will be a matter of “a feel and a touch,” he told us.
Yes, it’s preposterous. And dangerous. Some of the GOP candidates even denounced Trump’s plan, but it’s too late for reason. Besides, his voters love this stuff. He unveiled his Muslim ban in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, on the battleship USS Yorktown, on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All of the meanings were clear.
Trump supporters aren’t a majority of Americans; they represent 25 to 30 percent of GOP primary voters, maybe 15 percent of eligible voters. I think it’s fair to say at least 15 percent of voters have always been hostile to the principles of equality and inclusion we think of as uniquely American—while they call the rest of us un-American. Now we can see them on our televisions, cheering Trump and jeering the reporters who cover him.
Every time we think Trump’s hit bottom, he finds a new bottom. This one is particularly depressing. But I was well-prepared for it. When you spend the day with John Lewis, you can’t throw up your hands in disgust and futility. This is in fact an old fight, and pretending it’s something new keeps us from recognizing its power—and, I hope, ours.