It's easy to focus all of our attention on Trump, because Trump is so good at directing all attention to himself.
But If Vice President Pence were to move up a chair tomorrow, America's divided, shattered psyche would still be ailing, and still inclined to self-harm.
And I think America's psyche will still be ailing even if (oh, how I wish I could confidently say "when"!) someone else moves into that chair in January 2021.
Trump and his supporters--both domestic and foreign--have exploited and exacerbated America's dissociative identity disorder for their own benefit. But the unhealthiness has been there for a long, long time. And the other major party has taken advantage of "us vs. them" dynamics for political gain, too. Even fairly recently. Obama was pretty darned aggressive about rejecting asylum-seekers
, and part of his motivation was a desire to prove to low-income voters worried about their jobs that he wasn't soft on immigration enforcement.
So when I hear things like, "This is not the America I know! This is not who we are!", I have to think, "Yes, it is. You just couldn't see it before. Now stop denying reality and do something positive to change it."
Joe Biden's recent self-congratulatory comments about just how swimmingly he was able to get along with segregationists in the Democratic Party reminds us that political careers in both parties have benefitted from America's appetite for systemic racism--either by actively promoting it, or by remaining pleasant and polite while allowing it to fester.
Biden's complete failure to wrap his mind around why no one is as impressed as he is by the fact that those senators called him "son" rather than "boy" (which was a humiliating form of address reserved for African American men)--followed by his whole outraged song and dance of "I am not a racist, that comment was taken out of context, Cory [Booker] owes me an apology"--reminded me of certain paragraphs of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
. The first:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
King's next paragraph moves on to another topic, but it seems relevant to a discussion of the visibility Trump has brought to various forms of "covered-up ugliness" in American society:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Before Trump was elected, the tendency of progressive whites was to think that everything was pretty much fine here, racial-harmony-wise. Yes, there were a few white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the fringe here and there, but they were harmless kooks who could safely be ignored. And some dramatic changes, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, made lots of progressive-leaning whites conclude that the major civil rights battles were all over. But Trump has demonstrated just how resonant xenophobia, misogyny/homophobia, and racism really are with large numbers of our fellow Americans, who had previously been afraid to express those feelings except among family and friends. Well, they're not so afraid now.
Trump has actually done more to expose that "covered-up ugliness" than the Black Lives Matter demonstrators have. [Edited to say: Not to diminish what the Black Lives Matter demonstrators have accomplished, but non-Blacks could still dismiss their message and remain in denial about the existence of systemic racism. They can't ignore Trump so easily.] If we survive Trump's reign, and that of the people who have ridden his coattails into power (such as the lifetime appointees on the various levels of the federal court system), maybe that ugliness can be addressed more effectively.
I'll conclude with part of the next paragraph from King's letter, because I think it's apropos:
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.