“The silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Donald Trump declared in his Tulsa rally, his bravado mocked by a crowd that filled only one-third of the arena for what was advertised as kick-starting his 2020 campaign. On the same day, the Rev. William Barber II, keynoting the digital March on Washington of the Poor People’s Campaign, proclaimed, “It is time for transformation, reconstruction, and revival in America.” The contrast between the two addresses lays bare the struggle now underway for the country’s future.
Trump’s Tulsa speech was a retread of his road show—a one-hour 40-minute ramble replete with complaints, self-adulation, libels and lies, racial provocations, and partisan pap. If his cadence seemed more desperate, his words more hysterical than normal, it was a reflection perhaps of flagging poll numbers or the rows of seats empty before him. Much time was spent savaging “Sleepy Joe” Biden, attacking him both from the right, as “a very willing Trojan horse for socialism,” and from the left—for “building cages” to put children in at the border, for supporting “every globalist attack on the American worker.” Once more. he fixated his venom on women of color—Representatives Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, in particular.
Most striking is the fantasy world that Trump is peddling. In Trump’s world, the stark challenges that the country faces are already largely behind us. Absent from the speech was any acknowledgment of the unprecedented, multiracial, multigenerational demonstrations across the country and the world protesting systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Instead Trump contrasted “thugs,” “maniacs,” “very bad people” with supporters of law and order. The pandemic was presented in the past tense, with Trump celebrating the “phenomenal job” that he had done. The savage recession too was treated as a blip, with Trump hailing last month’s jobs rebound and declaring that we are “going up, up, up” and that “next year will be the single greatest year economically that we’ve ever had.” Catastrophic climate change wasn’t even on the radar.
Accordingly, Trump offered very little that was new for an agenda for his second term. He’ll appoint more judges, end sanctuary cities, and finish the wall. He promises once more to rebuild America, and to keep us out of foolish wars. He’ll defend the Second Amendment, and stand with the “incredible men and women of law enforcement.” He will present himself as Horatio at the bridge, standing against the “extremism, destruction and violence of the radical left.”
In contrast, Barber, a visionary man of the cloth in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the realist. He depicts an America scarred by a “long train of abuses,” in which 140 million poor and low-income people suffer in the midst of unprecedented wealth. This is a choice, he argues, that “things don’t have to be kept the way they are.” This reality is not the product of “a single individual or a single political party alone.” It comes from a “culture cultivated since the death of Dr. King or longer.”
The Poor People’s Campaign released a detailed budget and platform to address “systematic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the false moral narrative.” Barber takes time to detail vital reforms—from universal child care to the Green New Deal, from baby bonds to the right to health care—and sensible priorities that could free up the resources to pay for them. We don’t want to go “back to normal,” Barber argues. “Normal in America got George Floyd…murdered.” It would be a mistake to “demand too little” at this time.
Instead of division, Barber calls for a politics of “moral fusion,” for people to come together in a nonviolent movement. Poor and low-income people, he argues, can move the nation. In 2016, 23 million did not vote. It is time, he argues to “rise up.”
Yes, Barber notes, America has a long history of dividing people, but when people come together, they can change the course. Love, he asserts, is still greater than hate. Truth is still greater than lies.
Trump wagers he will benefit from division, that movements of change pose more a threat than a promise to most Americans, that white America will once more unite to fend off the other. He believes he can sell the lie that we had the “greatest economy in history” before the pandemic and economic calamity and that we are already well on the way to returning to it.
Barber’s vision is that poor and working people are coming to understand that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we have choices and have made them badly, corrupted by big money and small minds. And that this is the time—in the midst of the cascading calamities that people are struggling with—that a movement can build, that people can come together and demand a change in course. What seems increasingly clear is that America must choose between these conflicting visions.