Opinion writer

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Mass., in 2013. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

When documentarian Ken Burns and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. kicked off a national speaking tour on race in Charleston, S.C., in December, Donald Trump’s run for the Republican presidential nomination was a disturbing phenomenon, but one that seemed likely to collapse once voters actually started going to the polls. Three months later, Trump is the Republican front-runner. And when Gates and Burns appeared at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Monday night, they turned to history not merely as a tool of a more general national reconciliation, but in an attempt to explain the unnerving turn in American politics.

The tour began as “our attempt to try to make some meaning out of” the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, as Burns explained; they first went to that city to raise money for former mayor Joe Riley’s planned International African American Museum.

Both Burns and Gates suggested that Trump’s rise was of a piece with the backlash to President Obama’s election and tenure in office. Burns said he had been surprised by Obama’s victory, because “I assumed the American people would only tolerate a conservative, moderate Republican” as the first black president. Instead, “The fact that a black man is in the White House drove some people in America totally and completely out of their minds,” Gates suggested.

“People laughed at Donald Trump. I never did … He figured out how to tap into the fear and anxiety of a significant number of people,” Gates continued. “He seems to be getting worse. He seems to be exploiting the contradictions in American society.”

But Burns and Gates also argued that what is happening in the 2016 election is part of an older economic script that tangles up race and economics. “Anti-black racism was invented to turn the eyes of working-class white people away from their oppressors,” Gates said, adding that you can’t talk about racism in America without discussing economics. “Slavery is race and class melded into one identity. You are a racialized commodity. … I think the most important thing we can do is address the economic inequities that allow anti-black racism to grow.”

Burns agreed, saying “people have been voting against their self-interest for years.”

They also looked back to history to make sense of the rise of Black Lives Matter, suggesting that our preference for easy readings of history makes contemporary movements look weaker than their predecessors. “We inherit our history from a superficial, conventional wisdom,” Burns said.

And Gates argued that one of the most harmful bits of that conventional wisdom is that previous civil rights movements were much more unified and organized “back in the day.”

“Back in what day? I missed that movie,” Gates said. “The complexity of the African-American past should not be elided over … We disagreed about how to be black. We disagreed about what was efficacious in order to effect social change … We tend to reduce the past to a single narrative, which is kind of like a fairy tale.”

The same is true for the idea that previous movements had concrete plans that their successors lack. The Million Man March had “no agenda, there was no plan, there was no systematic analysis,” Gates said.

Gates also said that it wasn’t clear that present-day movements could adopt the same tactics of the past, specifically the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence.

“I would say that the philosophy is genius,” Gates said, pointing to King’s ability to persuade people to sacrifice their personal safety for the common good. “It had a shelf life. It wasn’t meant to be continued over a 50-year period … That was a window.”

But if there’s one lesson of history that Burns thinks is applicable today, it’s the way that movements like Black Lives Matter are tarred and distorted, and he said he was disappointed by the way this latest wave of civil rights activists had already been blunted by the “counter-narratives” aimed at reducing their effectiveness.

“Understanding the past helps us understand where we are going,” Burns said of his profession. “But it doesn’t help that I miss that Tamir Rice is not alive.”