This is a tale of a political party and its prodigal president, and the moral authority they continually try to coopt from civil rights heroes.
Trump sycophant Jeffrey Lord provided the most egregious example this week when he compared Donald Trump’s brinksmanship in threatening to cancel insurer payments that give millions of Americans access to healthcare if Democrats won’t agree to help him take 20 million people’s healthcare away, to King’s tactics cajoling the Lyndon Johnson administration during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
There is terrific irony in the attempt to link the vulgar man-child in the White House, who believes in nothing but the pursuit of loot and headlines, to a man who literally died for his belief in extending civil and human rights, including universal healthcare, to those in need. Trump, who plays war games in Syria and North Korea for media praise (or maybe madness) and King, who was exiled from LBJ’s White House over his fervent opposition to the Vietnam War don’t exist in a common universe. Mr. Lord drew the rightful scorn and rebuke of many, including CNN anchor Don Lemon and via Twitter, King’s daughter Bernice for his ignorant comments. But he is hardly alone in the brazenness with which he sought to steal the legacy of civil rights to advance right wing political priorities.
Carter Page, the oddball, rambling Russophile who was the subject – and perhaps not the only one in the Trump campaign – of a FISA warrant, recently compared the surveillance that captured his conversations with Russian operatives to the FBI’s monitoring and harassment of MLK.
In February, Belleville News-Democrat cartoonist Glenn McCoy drew outrage for his Norman Rockwell send-up of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a modern-day Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old who became the first black student to integrate a white public school in the South in 1960. Bridges braved an angry white mob to enter her new school, escorted by four deputy U.S. Marshals. DeVos braved some protesters when she tried to enter a Washington D.C. high school. The two aren’t even remotely the same, though McCoy seemed to think they were.
DeVos, for her part, has hired as the acting head of the Education Department’s civil rights division one Candice Jackson. Jackson, who is white, once complained that she was the victim of racial discrimination at Stanford University, because she was unable to join a program designed to assist minority students.
We are in a season of martyrs. Friday marked both the crucifixion of Jesus and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who died, in starkly different circumstances, for the salvation of mankind. To hear Republicans tell it, the modern-day martyrs mainly consist of people like DeVos, Jackson and Trump who are being held down by the tyranny of protesters, minority support groups, and Democrats who refuse to help the GOP repeal Obamacare. (While Lincoln is still viewed by some southern conservative pols as a tyrant no better than Hitler.)
This week, we watched at town halls across the country, as people who consider themselves good, Christian men insisted to furious crowds that yes, they would take away millions of people’s healthcare in order to liberate insurance companies from federal regulations, that they would continue to support Trump’s profligacy as he squanders the nation’s money on weekly trips to his golf resort and his wife’s New York City pied-a-terre, that Planned Parenthood would be defunded on their watch, and that nothing their constituents could say would change their minds.
Republicans in Congress sold our privacy to Internet service providers, and our clean water to the coal companies, without a second thought. They’re gearing up to hand the wealthiest Americans extravagant tax cuts while slashing funding for the elderly, the poor and the needy, all while refusing to use their power as a co-equal branch of government to make the rogue president show the country his tax returns before signing off on a tax plan likely to benefit himself and his heirs.
Trump may be the orange face of a new Gilded Age, but the notion that he brought the rot to the Grand Old Party belies history. For decades, the GOP has faithfully served the rich, corporations, polluters and purveyors of pure, unadulterated greed, and brought blue-collar white voters along for the ride with promises of cultural revival. Trump, after a campaign spent lying to those same Joe and Jane Lunch Pails, has finally ripped off his party’s phony, “compassionate conservative” veneer. Give him credit, I guess, for being honest enough to hire the Wall Street titans and proto-Nazi “nationalists” outright, and to practice his kleptocracy out in the open. Trump has taught us that many things we reflexively assumed were laws or rules (releasing of a president’s tax returns or the White House visitor logs) are merely traditions that a president is free to ignore, unless the people elect a Congress willing to enact and enforce them.
One wonders, as we head into culmination of the holiest week on the Christian calendar, whether the many hypocrisies will one day weigh on the right wing evangelical leaders who paved Trump’s road to the White House. Our part-time president vacations liberally, but attends church rarely, with nary a peep from the self-appointed moral arbiters of our day. It will be a refreshing change of pace for presidents to no longer be required to make the weekly public pilgrimage to the prayer house, wife and family in tow, so long as the rightists agree to maintain this agnosticism about presidential piety when the president is not a Republican. Trump hasn’t even named a head of the George W. Bush-created White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives, and it’s easy to imagine him never doing so. Why should he? He’s won the devotion of the religious right, and can ride on the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nod and his stealth signing of the Planned Parenthood defunding bill for the next four years. When you’ve successfully suckered a man, you no longer need to tell him tales.
And what tales would this president, about whom so many Americans feel deeply alarmed and ashamed, tell anyway? That he came to Washington to enrich himself and his family by cutting hotel deals around the globe and to get “wins” by reversing universal healthcare and despoiling the environment? That he rushed us toward war and international conflict so he could bask, at long last, in the adoration of the media and political elites? That the one thing he truly fought for was to cover up the scandalous fact that he was elected with the help of a foreign adversary?
Jesus, whether you believe he was Son of God or merely the humble Nazarene preacher who defied imperial Rome, was great because he was good, and his goodness birthed a global, spiritual movement. Lincoln was great not because of his moral consistency (he was as personally racist as any Confederate) but because of his vision and ability to see beyond the bleak horizon of slavery. King was not immune to moral contradictions, but his greatness was sealed by selfless sacrifice and his determination to see and seek a better world.
Those heroic narratives are not easily borrowed by a party that views helping the poor and not shaming them, treating the sick without bankrupting them, and seeking equality for all people as liberal weakness, and endless war as strength. They are not available to the likes of Donald Trump, who clearly wants to go down in history as a great man.
He will be disappointed.