The venerable Democrat who represented Georgia was a rare figure in Washington: a politician who transcended partisan divides and a living testament to the long struggle against racial injustice, carrying the legacy of dozens of arrests as an activist confronting the evils of Jim Crow and the fractured skull he sustained when police infamously set upon peaceful marchers on an Alabama bridge in 1965. “John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” former president George W. Bush said in a statement. “And throughout his career as a civil rights leader and public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union.”
No such message, though, came from Trump, whose inauguration Lewis boycotted and whose divisive politics he decried. “Through his biography and his own charm, Lewis cast the type of long shadow that every president — until Trump — felt comfortable sitting under,” wrote Washington Post reporter Paul Kane.
The gap between Trump’s curt response to Lewis’s passing and Macron’s gushing speaks volumes. With the polls showing an uphill reelection battle, Trump is waging a hard-right culture war. In recent interviews, he has used only thinly veiled language to defend monuments to white supremacy and smear his opponents as threats to the security of white suburbs. In doing so, he’s giving more substance to the comparison Lewis drew in 2016 between Trump and the segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace. He’s also confirming a certain vision of America and its ugliness that is common in Europe, where generations of liberals such as Macron have viewed the United States’ systemic racism with horror — often while avoiding to confront their own countries’ histories of colonial misdeeds and racial oppression.
“From the vantage point of a continent that both resents and covets American power, and is in no position to do anything about it, African-Americans represent to many Europeans a redemptive force: the living proof that the U.S. is not all it claims to be and that it could be so much greater than it is,” the British journalist and sociology professor Gary Younge wrote in a trenchant essay last month that examined the pronounced European reaction to the killing of George Floyd.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has shown a complete lack of interest in projecting those values that suggested to many abroad that his country “could be so much greater than it is.” Trump’s ultranationalist platform has been built on the promise of walling the nation off from migrants and unraveling an international order he claims is no longer fit for America’s purpose. Not surprisingly, surveys of global attitudes show approval dropping for both the country’s policies and its leader since 2016. What the rest of the world thinks may not matter to Trump, but it underscores the narrow tribalism that has come to define his administration.
This was all too visible when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — the country’s top diplomat — used a news briefing last week to attack the New York Times’s year-old 1619 project, a collection of essays that sought to reframe American history around the arrival of the first black enslaved people. “Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles,” said Pompeo, in an extension of Trump’s culture warring.
Pompeo argued that the proponents of the 1619 Project — which was cheered by prominent black politicians such as Lewis — want “you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding, they want you to believe the Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” he said. Pompeo added that “the Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.”
(Pompeo’s employees seemed unimpressed. “Pompeo made it very clear where he stands” and denigrated “the movement for equal justice and the call for racial reckoning and healing in America,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Everyone that I have spoken with is horrified and disgusted.”)
Trump and Pompeo don’t seem to be championing the same America that Lewis did. He and fellow black activists like C.T. Vivian, who died on the same day, ought to be seen as “American founders,” wrote the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. “Without these men and their allies in the civil-rights movement, the maxim in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal would be but words on paper written by slave masters.”
Their struggle is far from over. Over the weekend, Democrats urged intransigent Republicans to move on pending legislation that would restore key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — one of the signature battles of Lewis’s career — that were struck down by conservative justices of the Supreme Court in 2013. “It should be the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s the way to do it. Words may be powerful, but deeds are lasting.”
Instead, the White House is circling its wagons ever tighter around its far-right base, rejecting the intrusion of new voices into the discussion of America’s past, while demonizing those who take to the streets to contest its future. There, too, Trump is at odds with Lewis.
“If he were young again, I have no doubt that he’d be on the front lines of the protest movement that arose following the killing of George Floyd,” wrote Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “Lewis lived, fought and triumphed by the words of Frederick Douglass: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ ”