“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Those words, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, are as pertinent today as they were 160 years ago. And are we any different now from our ancestors through the past thousands of years who used violence to settle differences? With Donald Trump and his supporters distorting and ignoring truth, how can we protect and save our democracy?
Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, traces the history of worldwidepolitical developments starting with the ancient Mesopotamian poem, “Epic of Gilgamesh,” (2100 BC), and finds that our ancient violence is still with us. With President Donald Trump, she notes in a Washington Post commentary (“Make America honorable again”) that his pursuit of “disorder, domination, disunion and despair” raises the question whether we can regain efforts at “peace-bringing knowledge, the freedom-protecting expertise, and the equality-respecting wisdom.”
She warns, “We believe we live in a world that has left antiquity behind. This is because we believe that time moves forward in a steady upward march, an arc of history that bends toward justice. This view is a misapprehension. Human brutality lurks always just below the surface.” And, with the current presidency, it is right on the surface.
Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, gave numerous examples of current human brutality in his October article, “The Cruelty Is the Point:” border-patrol agents laughing at crying children separated from their families, a Trump adviser mocking a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother, Trump encouraging police to abuse suspects, Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, and mocking women who report sexual abuse. The terms “disgraceful” and “shameful” fail here.
“It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump,” Serwer wrote.
Keeping Tyranny at Bay
And Professor Allen made the crucial point when she said, “The project of justice is to achieve … an oasis of peace and decency that can keep violence, domination and grasping tyranny at bay. Over millennia, humankind has been able to invent the tools that make it possible to cultivate such oases for all of us — the rule of law, constitutionalism, an expectation that free and equal citizens can rule and be ruled, in turn, in a polity that defines membership inclusively on principles of human equality.”
Look back to the 1960s for what it took for blacks and whites to have equal rights in this country — it took marches and talk and honesty to bring awareness to accomplish the basic constitutional provision for the equal right to vote.
An editorial in The New York Times just before the midterm elections said under the headline, “Donald Trump Is Lyin’ Up a Storm,” that when Republicans used demagogy to keep control of Congress — which they lost — Trump “spewed dark warnings about a Democratic mob clamoring to usher in an era of open borders, rampant crime, social chaos and economic radicalism.”
The commentary added, “As is so often the case, Mr. Trump is not letting reality interfere with his performance. At a rally in Nevada, the president told the crowd that Californians were rioting to ‘get out of their sanctuary cities.’ (They aren’t.) He also suggested that Democrats will soon be looking to hand out free luxury cars to illegal immigrants. (They won’t.) ‘Give ’em a driver’s license. Next thing you know, they’ll want to buy ’em a car,’ he riffed. ‘Then they’ll say the car’s not good enough, we want — how about a Rolls-Royce?’” (Note: The Times clearly states that its editorial comments are separate from the news department. This is an important point to maintain the credibility of the newspaper.)
An an article in The New Yorker, “How the Media Normalizes Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric,” Masha Gessen writes that “President Donald Trump calls them ‘criminal aliens,’ a ‘national emergency,’ an attack on the nation’s sovereignty, and a threat to the ‘safety of every single American.’”
She is highly critical of MSNBC for asking “whether anything will deter these people,” and of Brian Stelter of CNN for “trying to exhort the news media to show the location of the procession on a map, demonstrating that it is still many hundreds of miles from the U.S. border.” Gessen thinks Stelter is pointing out that “the pro-Trump media is overestimating the immediate danger posed by the asylum seekers by minimizing the distance they still have to traverse, as if the people seeking refuge were an advancing army, or a natural disaster. By implication, he and Trump do not disagree about whether the caravan presents a threat, only about its current potency.”
The Right to Seek Asylum
She says the people are not an “army” and do not plan to illegally enter this country. “International law guarantees their right to seek asylum. The U.S. has an obligation to consider their claims,” she writes. Trump has no “moral or legal” ground for wanting to deter asylum seekers, even when he sent the military to guard the border.
Gessen criticizes much of the media for what she calls “standing right there with him.” She argues Trump has created a frame of reference that is untrue. “They are being more polite than the president, but by discussing the effectiveness of ‘deterrence’ and the immediacy of the caravan’s danger, they reinforce his politics of hatred and fear-mongering,” she writes.
(Masha Gessen has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.)
And, in an article titled “Make America honorable again,” Danielle Allen commented, “The intensity of our disagreements, and the temptation to short-term victory, should not lead any of us to adopt weapons that will do us all in — such as dishonesty and the evacuation of meaning from our language. What, then, will we have done to our inheritance? How will we preserve a legacy of democratic practice and faith to pass on to future generations?”
For all of us, talk and action are required — they are not a choice if we are to restore the country we know to its past standards of debate and discussion based on some grounds of truth.
Lyle Harris Sr., a former reporter in Washington D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.