I started this series of articles saying that I was thinking about things that I might have gotten wrong about our political world over time. This time, I will propose something that I might be right and wrong about.
The events of January 6th, 2021, specifically, the insurrection at the Capitol, has provided a moment of reckoning for our country, an illuminating moment for what Joe Biden called the fight for the soul of America.
If nothing else, the riot (including the speeches of Trump, Giuliani and others that preceded the mayhem), was a crystalizing moment in our understanding of Trump and Trumpism. It was similarly clarifying about various Republican members of Congress and the Republican Party, as well as some Republican members of state and local legislatures, law enforcement officers and many of Trump’s most fervent followers.
Starting with Trump’s birther accusations about Obama and all through the 2016 campaign, I asked myself, is Trump a racist or is he using racism as a political tool? Is one worse than the other? There are those who were already sure; I was willing to give him a chance, a chance to demonstrate that he wasn’t really a racist. Early on, there are some who thought Trump was a would-be dictator; I said, Let’s give him a chance. Right from the beginning, there were those who said that he cared about nothing other than himself; I said, maybe he’ll grow into the job as so many others have before him.
As time has amply demonstrated, I was wrong about each one of those things. He is a racist. He is a would-be authoritarian. He cares about no one, about nothing other than himself and maybe his family (although, if push came to shove, I think he’d throw them under the bus, too).
At its core, Trump’s two presidential campaigns were entirely about race. Yes, in 2016 he had Hillary to kick around. In a way she was an easy target. The political right had been spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars trashing the Clintons from the time Bill was Governor of Arkansas. Millions of voters ultimately didn’t care about his sexual escapades any more than a different group of millions of voters cared about Trump’s sexual behavior. Clinton’s enemies tried and tried to prove criminal activity but failed miserably. Maybe, as the years go by, we’ll be able to discover the full range of Trump’s felonies.
But the real campaign in 2016 was about race, about Muslim and Hispanic immigrants and Blacks who were supposedly creating “carnage” in the cities. If you were White, you should be afraid of the brown invaders and Blacks. In 2020, with the failure to dig up legally credible dirt on Hunter Biden, Trump’s campaign became all about race, about the evils of Black Lives Matter and antifa. If the campaign failed, it wasn’t for lack of trying. When you get down to its essence, even the voter fraud claims were about Black voters,.
Moreover, as Trump’s presidency and his 2020 campaign went on, he made more and more overt appeals to what I called in my last column, the fringiest of White groups: White nationalists, White supremacists, White separatists, White Christian extremists, White anti-Semites, and White neo-Nazis (did I leave anyone out?). Although many of these groups have existed for decades, often in isolation, they’ve communicated with each other through the Dark Web, various online chat rooms, and social media, or, sometimes, in person. They’ve been living right next door to us.
We can thank Trump for helping them to coalesce, to finally come together on January 6th, 2021 by the thousands. Who and what these people are is plain for all to see if your eyes are open. And, since we and law enforcement have seen so many of their faces, we know who many of them are. It is clear that these people don’t care a whit about democracy. They don’t care about law and order unless it’s their law and their order. No matter what they say, they don’t care about America, an America where all people are created equal. The January 6th insurrection wasn’t instigated by a single speech by Trump or his henchmen on that day but came after a daily barrage by Tweet, rallies, faux press availabilities, and ads over four years that culminated on the 6th.
Furthermore, it should be obvious now if not before, how right the Black Lives Matter movement is. It is clear that racism in police forces is systemic, that they are infected with racism, that the racism of some police, some judges, some DAs, affects the entire justice system. No doubt you’ve heard this over and over again since the 6th: If the rioters had been Black, the police response would have been different. It’s credible, though unproven. Was there collusion between capitol police, the White House, the Defense Department, Homeland Security, etc., with the rioters? Time will tell.
It is distressing to have to come to grips once more at how fundamental race and color is to the existence of America. Ever since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, racism has been an element in every Republican presidential campaign that I can think of, even if it was just one ad. In 2020, it was all race all the time for Trump.
The Democrats have not been entirely innocent, certainly not before the end of Jim Crow. Even Bill Clinton had his Sister Souljah moment to demonstrate that he was not being controlled by Black activists. We now have Black women being described as the backbone of the Democratic Party.
The NY Times’ controversial “1619 Project” sought to demonstrate that slavery lies at the center of America’s history. In some ways, it understates the case. Racism has been at the heart of the entire history of North America. When Columbus (or someone else) first discovered America, it was not, as claimed, uninhabited. It was populated by Native-Americans. They were thought to be savages and barbarians. Europeans felt it entirely within their rights to disposes them of their land. In other words, the entire colonization of North America was accomplished by war, a war between two peoples of different customs and habits, language and dress, two cultures alien to each other, two people of different colors. Europeans transplanted to America thought they were superior but the truth is that Native-Americans were no more savage or barbaric than the invaders trying to displace and uproot them.
It is instructive to read, for example, the things written about Native-Americans in Alabama and Georgia by public officials in the 1820’s and 30’s. Over and over they and Black slaves are both described as “colored people.” If anything, Native-Americans were held in lower regard than slaves. They were forcibly and dishonorably shoved out of thousands of square miles of western Georgia and Alabama, land they inhabited by treaty with the United States with no regard for their legal rights so that slaves could be moved in to plant and harvest cotton. To read the history and the texts of things written about them is to recognize the similarity of the way “people of color” are described today by racists. To begin to understand that history is to understand how extraordinary the nomination of Native-American Deb Haaland to be Secretary of the Interior is.
The insurrection of January 6th, 2021 has clarified how persistent racism is in America, how far way too many of us are from trying to understand, much less live, the principles of equality, justice, and pluralism by which the United States of America was founded. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to our Prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constiution for the for the United States of America.”
On January 6th, 2021 Donald Trump and his most ardent followers tried to break America. They failed. So far.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.