Donald Trump has come for America’s soul, just as surely as the Confederacy did when it fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861. Barbara Bush knew it. Aretha Franklin knew it. And John McCain certainly knew it. As David Frum noted, the Arizona senator “staged his death like the final act of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III,’ every legitimate force in the state, living and dead, combined against the wicked king.” The result was, perhaps, unprecedented: three funerals and no president.
Trump’s regime is not only defined by his personal coarseness, crudity and lack of basic etiquette and civility. It’s defined by its cruelty and pettiness, by playing to the nation’s darker angels and tearing at the heart of American ideals.
Policy after policy, pronouncement after pronouncement directly attack our ideals as “a nation of immigrants,” a country where “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” and are a “nation of laws.” Those societal aspirations are essential to American identity. A nation fighting, striving, debating, voting and arguing to be better than it is ― to be more humane and more just than it has ever been.
That striving, that hope is American. And Trump has done everything in his power to claw that aspiration out of the nation’s soul.
Hope is American. And Trump has done everything in his power to claw that aspiration out of the nation's soul.
It’s not just his unrelenting attacks on a free press as “enemy of the people!” And it’s not just his hate-filled rallies and harangues against special counsel Robert Mueller and slow-motion purge of seasoned FBI investigators who have successfully taken on the Russian mafia.
Or his racially selective concern over the slaughter of Mollie Tibbetts and deafening silence on Nia Wilson and blistering critique of kneeling NFL players, even in the aftermath of police killings of unarmed black people. Or his embrace of white nationalists who have peppered his policymaking staff while he harangues prominent African Americans as “low IQ”, “that dog,” and the “dumbest man... [who] made Lebron look smart.”
Nor is it just the trillion-dollar-plus tax cut for the wealthy, the continued assault on the Affordable Care Act and its protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions ― the lack of which could be lethal for up to 130 million Americans ― or even the revocation of a two percent cost-of-living adjustment for federal employees.
It is the structure that Trump has erected to destroy this nation’s hope.
In 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson removed democracy and human rights from the goals of U.S. foreign policy. When he departed from the post earlier this year, he left successor Mike Pompeo with more than 70 openings at the ambassador and assistant secretary and undersecretary levels, creating “a vacuum” that is filled by Trump’s embrace of dictators and distancing from Western democracies.
This year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated freedom of the press and racial gerrymandering from the Department of Justice’s concerns and supported, instead, voter suppression in Texas and Ohio and anti-affirmative action policies that could shut out millions of ably qualified minorities from higher education.
Ben Carson at HUD scrapped banning discrimination in housing from the agency’s mission, then proposed tripling the minimum rent the poorest households pay for federally subsidized housing and making it easier for housing authorities to impose work requirements on them.
Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos removed safeguards for sexual assault victims at universities, stripped protections from students who were already preyed upon by predatory lenders and for-profit colleges, and raised the possibility of disbursing federal funds so that school districts could buy guns ― all as teachers have to strike for a living wage and crowdfund for basic supplies.
Ignoring the reality of climate change, Scott Pruitt’s EPA, now led by a coal industry lobbyist, has rolled back environmental protections and standards that threaten to put the Cuyahoga River once again on fire and make the air over Los Angeles unbreathable.
Then there’s the Department of Homeland Security’s policy of ripping children from asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexican border and putting the minors, some as young as three months old, in “child internment camps” and “baby jails,” and then continuing to defy a federal court order to reunite the children with their parents and guardians. This is the hopeless America Trump is building.
Stripped of its aspirations, America becomes no more than a Pandora’s Box where racism, greed, cruelty, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and hypocrisy become the only gifts this nation brings to its people and the world.
This is the structure that Trump has erected to destroy this nation’s hope.
There has always been a yawning chasm between the nation’s lofty ideals and its brutal reality ― chattel slavery, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow laws, the eugenics-based National Origins Act of 1924 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II ― make that clear. Yet the nation’s long-stated aspirations for equality and democracy have been the battlefields where African Americans, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and others fought for their inherent rights and for the soul of this nation.
And that is why, just like in 1861, we stand at a crossroad in our national history. An election is looming to determine whether America, after opening Pandora’s Box, “will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.” Or, whether we will vote to stop this descent into hell and reclaim our soul from a man who can’t even get invited to a funeral.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American studies at Emory University in Georgia and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, and the forthcoming One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.