Under any other president, the end of that annual speech before a joint session of Congress is a clarion call to unity, a moment of national reassurance. That’s certainly what Trump was going for during his 78-minute oration. I’m certain that’s the way it came off to his supporters. Yet, despite its visual and rhetorical messaging to African Americans, I heard something more sinister. What I heard was a white supremacist vision of America that alternately erased and whitewashed its history.
“This is the home of Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt, of many great generals including Washington, Pershing, Patton and MacArthur. This is the home of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong and so many more,” Trump said, tossing in Douglass and Tubman like a couple of Skittles in a bucket of milk.
“The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth,” Trump said, as though such conquest wasn’t financed by slavery and didn’t involve the horrific annihilation of the indigenous people here long before whites fled their own persecution and poverty in Europe.
“Our ancestors braved the unknown; tamed the wilderness; settled the Wild West; lifted millions from poverty, disease and hunger; vanquished tyranny and fascism; ushered the world to new heights of science and medicine; laid down the railroads, dug out the canals, raised up the skyscrapers,” Trump said. “And, ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors built the most exceptional republic ever to exist in all of human history, and we are making it greater than ever before.”
When the words “we” and “our ancestors” tumble out of Trump’s mouth, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. For his “we” and “our” come off as a clarion call to whiteness. Trump’s “canvas” and “masterpiece,” as he depicted our nation, are devoid of the actual color and complexity that make art and America great. Instead, the president painted a Potemkin paradise where the rest of us deal with the consequences of his lies, white nationalism and vindictiveness. Given Trump and the people around him, I can only believe this was intentional.
After all, Trump put white nationalists on staff. Stephen K. Bannon was his chief White House strategist, and Stephen Miller remains in the West Wing driving the president’s hard-right anti-immigration stance. And need I remind you that Trump said that the neo-Nazis and other assorted white nationalists who unleashed racial and anti-Semitic terror on Charlottesville in 2017 included some “very fine people”? During an Oval Office meeting the following year, he referred to a group of nonwhite nations as “shithole countries.” Last summer, on Twitter, Trump demanded that the four congresswomen of color who make up “the Squad” “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Never mind that all four are U.S. citizens, and three of them were born in this country.
Post contributing columnist Danielle Allen also focused on the last part of Trump’s speech. She, too, noticed how his peroration erased America of its gorgeous mosaic and complicated history. “Can we sing America together so that we are all in the song?” she asked. “We all love a version of this country, but who has a heart big enough to sing the whole thing?” “The whole thing” being a majestic anthem filled with high notes that exalt in our historic accomplishments and low notes that recall the pain and injustice that made many of them possible.
Trump cannot sing that song, nor does he want to be a part of composing it. The song he’s singing is for whites only. He’s incapable of singing anything else.
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