Thomas Jefferson’s words — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — transcend the flawed author and the epoch in which they were written. They define the country not as an “us” vs. “them” fight to the death; they make clear this is an experiment in self-government that each generation must perfect.
Abraham Lincoln did not go to Gettysburg to revere headstones. He went to tell his countrymen, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” America is an idea, not the province of one race or religion — and never static.
Trump might quote Martin Luther King Jr. and put King in his statue park — does Trump know there is already a monument to King in Washington? — but the meaning of King’s words are beyond Trump’s grasp. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” King wrote from his jail cell in 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
It is Trump who places himself outside America. King understood that in perfecting the American creed, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture. ... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Trump wants obedience, not justice; he stands on the side of oppressors (current and past), not on the side of the oppressed.
Trump shouts “law and order” but does not understand the difference between a just and unjust law. Consider King, again:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest. …I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Trump cannot comprehend that demography is irrelevant to America’s definition. Ronald Reagan did not define America by its demographic composition at some fixed point in time. “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world,” he said in a 1989 address. “And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow.” It is fundamentally un-American to pull up the drawbridge. (“Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier,” Reagan said. “This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”) The reactionary ethos of the backward-looking Trump and his ilk is antithetical to our national spirit and foundational values.
Trump and his ignorant media handmaidens understand none of this (or pretend not to). They define America by whom they want to be in it, not understanding that the country’s shifting composition is what gives expression to and perfects the ideals of our country in each new generation. To the Trump cult, progress itself is a danger; a free and independent media that exposes and challenges the powerful is their enemy. This cowering, timorous band of self-defined victims seems perpetually enraged at their countrymen who threaten their warped interpretation of America.
None of their fractured history and constitutional illiteracy bear any resemblance to America’s founding creed or to the words of some Americans Trump wants to memorialize in stone. It’s the words and ideas, not the visage, that should be celebrated. We would do better to build fewer statues and more libraries and schools.
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