This Photograph on Our Currency

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Update: It is to be expected that in a world where alternative facts are taken seriously initial reports have been countered by a number of other sometimes contradictory narratives. It makes it very difficult to know what to make of an incident like this one. That is one purpose of proposing different views. But regardless of what happened in the incident what is reflected are the deep divisions of America in the age of Trump. It matters little which side “started it” because the problem is the divisions themselves, which are actively encouraged by someone who is benefiting from them. Our unity is the only power they fear. They should be the focus of our outrage.

This is not another anti-Trump rant. The shameful image of a white teen aged Trump supporter fresh from a “March for Life” self-righteously ridiculing a Native American elder encapsulates the cultural morass exemplified in the presidency of Donald Trump. I am not going to try to pin the blame on the president; he is only a symptom. The real problem is much deeper and more complex.

In 1967, when the United States was simultaneously mired in a no-win war in Vietnam and a crisis of identity at home, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered a warning about the danger threatening the American soul at Riverside Church in New York City. The speech has come to be known as “A Time to Break Silence.” It is not as well known as the “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, probably because even though it was as prophetic as the earlier speech it was much more radical.

King placed the difficulties facing American society, including poverty and its accompanying injustices along with the crisis in race relations, at the foot of an interior American struggle over the focus of our national vision. He said,

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality … [we] will be marching … and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

I am convinced that … we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.[1]

This is the inner conflict that ravaged America then and continues to do so: are we to be a “thing-oriented” or a “person-oriented” society? The eternal struggle for America’s soul involves whether we are to be a nation that values the Enlightenment principles that propelled the Revolution of 1776 – liberty, freedom, equal justice – or whether we are to be an economic powerhouse creating wealth for a minority elite. The conflict arose in the Washington Administration and it has never been resolved. Our best efforts have been to try to put a compassionate face on naked self-interest, but it has proven a forlorn hope.

What does this have to do with abortion, rude children, and justice for native Americans? The March for Life exists to focus the nation’s attention on the dignity and value of human life from conception to natural death. This should not be a partisan point of disagreement. At one time the debate was not partisan. But the supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) solidified conservative Christian sentiment in opposition to the godless liberalism of the 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Republican Party cynically sought to align itself with these conservative Christians to gain political advantage. And they were wildly successful. Conservative Christians have become more Republican even while the Republican establishment maintained its ideological distance from them. What has arisen from this alliance between the religious right and the Republican Party is an idolatrous aggregation of pseudo-Christianity and right wing politics. Winning America back for Christ, ignoring that American policy has never been exclusively or even especially Christian.

After the election of Barack Obama, the appendage of suddenly-imperiled white nationalism was attached to this unnatural icon, rendering it even more hideous. Donald Trump assumed the role of defender of  an imagined traditional America against an onslaught of foreigners and foreign religion, manifestations of terror at the prospect of the loss of white privilege.

Trump’s great political insight was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound upon many white Americans, one that he could remedy by adopting the false narrative that placed the first black president outside the bounds of American citizenship. He intuited that Obama’s presence in the White House decreased the value of what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “psychological wage” of whiteness across all classes of white Americans, and that the path to their hearts lay in invoking a bygone past when this affront had not taken place, and could not take place.[2]

The ”psychological wage” described here encompasses the reality of white privilege, the delusion that the United States belongs exclusively to white Christians which, although few will openly admit it, is the subtext of what we have come to call Trumpism. It really has little to do with Donald Trump. He didn’t invent it, and he might not even believe it, but he saw it as a motor for self-aggrandizement and now finds himself caught up in a historical flood he did not cause and is powerless either to control or to avoid.

Establishment Republicans cringe when confronted with the fact that Trump’s ineptitude and cruel bigotry has become the face of the Republican Party, but looking at least as far in the past as Richard Nixon’s “southern Strategy,” if not Barry Goldwater’s opposition to Civil Rights legislation, we see the Republican Party appealing to this notion of Christian white nationalism.

It is often overlooked but telling nevertheless that the roots of the Republican Party lie in advocacy of big business. That this continues to be true is undeniable as we see the Trump Administration, swept into power by a wave of so-called populism, become a retreat for Wall Street executives, and as we note that the single legislative accomplishment of a government dominated by Republicans is a giant tax scam that enriches the economic elite while breaking the backs either of today’s or tomorrow’s poor. The alliance between the Republican Party, the “God and Country” Christians, and the white supremacist next door was always a cynical power play. Until the inmates, led by Donald Trump, succeeded in taking over the asylum.

So on January 20, 2019 – two years into Trump’s Presidency – we see the child of this deformed ideological monstrosity, fresh from a “March for Life” and wearing a red MAGA hat, confronting the diversity of America with a self-satisfied sneer. And we wonder how such a thing could have happened.

The reality is that the “pro-life” movement is no longer focused on life but on white nationalism. A pro-life outlook would value the life of the elder as much as the life of the unborn child. A pro-life outlook would see beyond criminalizing the symptom and confront a culture that causes mothers to believe killing their own children is in their best interest. And behind the pro-life mask is a so-called “Christian” population whose focus is no longer on the teachings of Christ but on white nationalism. A “Christian” outlook would promote universal brotherhood, not exclusive ethnocentricity. The irony of American ethnocentricity is that there is no ἔθνος (ethnos – nation).

Behind the dilemma embodied in the picture of the boy’s disrespect for the man is the conniving of the wealthy elite to seize the reins of power in order to funnel the wealth of the nation into their coffers. And they are winning. So we see the conflict between Dr. King’s person-oriented and thing-oriented society. Are we to be a nation that values the wealth of a tiny elite over the well-being of all of the people?  If so, we should engrave this photograph on our currency.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” in James Melvin Washington , ed., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003), 240.

[2] Adam Serwer, “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” The Atlantic, November 20, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/the-nationalists-delusion/546356/.