Remarks to the Silver Jubilee Installation Luncheon of the Democratic Club of Greater Boynton Beach
Sunday, January 14, 2017
It gives me no pleasure to say what I am about to say. In fact, I never thought, even in my wildest dreams, that I would be saying what I am about to say about my country, the country I love.
Now, as an historian, I am only too familiar with dark moments in our past, instances when fear replaces fact and paranoia supplants civility. America is no stranger to such devices and episodes—one only needs to consider the horrors of slavery or the legacy of the reservation system forced upon the First Americans. But here we are in the opening days of 2018 . . . and we must, once again, have this discussion and face an age-old adversary.
I regret to say that there really are two Americas, and we, yet again, find ourselves in a clash of these two competing visions for our nation—a clash of ideas and, increasingly, a clash of values. And it is a struggle being waged on many fronts, not just in Congress or state legislatures, but in our schools, on our airwaves, in our boardrooms, and so on.
I don’t like to use military metaphors in politics . . . but we must be real: Donald Trump’s supporters mean business and they are hell bent on achieving their utterly ruinous, misguided, and self-centered objectives.
I say “Trump’s supporters” because I don’t think he knows what he wants; he has, after all, demonstrated time and again an infantile understanding of even the basics of public policy . . . heck, even a rudimentary awareness of the workings of government and the events of history. And he has shown himself shockingly incapable of introspection and humility, devoid of intellectual curiosity and shame. So too has he demonstrated a penchant for flip-flopping in ways never before seen, even in politics. The man changes his position on any and all issues inside a single sound bite, which seems to be the only way, other than Twitter, he can communicate.
Trump knows not what he is doing and has not articulated a position on any issue other than that he wants a “huge” wall that Mexico will allegedly build.
His “agenda” is not a reasoned approach to problem solving, nor is it based on careful study or even evidence. He seems only interested in dismantling every institution, process, treaty . . . every “norm” in America. He is, quite simply, an odious political wrecking ball.
It is also undeniable that his supporters have rallied around his destruction and madness, and they are approaching it like a war—they “take no prisoners,” so to speak. They are wild-eyed. They are fanatically willing to excuse, overlook, and even justify the most foul behavior and noxious comments . . . in the name of, whatever.
They have been whipped up into a reality-denying frenzy. They wage war against the progress of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Environmental Movement. They assail journalism, science, academia, the courts, and even the law.
They wage a culture war against equality and basic rights, while their leader wages his war against facts, rationality, modernity, science, and evidence-based reality as well as against the cherished principles of civility and common courtesies, decency and decorum.
What are the stakes? It is no longer a difference of degree in a policy debate. No, Trumpism poses an existential threat to the cherished ideals upon which this nation was founded. We must fight for American ideals and values, but, unlike the President, we must conduct ourselves with principles and civility. Michelle Obama was right, “when they go low, we must go high” – take the high road. But that does not imply that we go soft.
Enough is enough! Everyone must take a stand.
This struggle and this foe is not a new struggle. Permit me a very brief historical example. The U.S. was born on the basis of truly revolutionary, liberal principles. The Founders really were revolutionary in their thinking–they challenged an age-old model for governance or what scholars call “classical conservativism.”
Governance was, seemingly for all time, based on four institutions: a monarchy; state church; aristocratic class; and the military officer corps.
But the Founders rejected all four pillars of power and privilege. For instance, they rejected a “sovereign” for “popular sovereignty.”
They rejected a national religion for the notion of a “separation of church and state.” They rejected aristocratic entitlement for the radical notion that “all men are created equal.” And they rejected militarism for “civilian control over the military.”
And so, American began, forged in a new paradigm–“classical liberalism.”
But the old order did not go down without a fight—and the two competing visions—one conservative, one liberal—of the American experience have locked horns ever since. Whereas conservatives rooted themselves to the status quo and exclusion, the liberal “pièce de résistance” has been progress and inclusion. There have been, for over two centuries, many battles in this struggle for the soul of America.
Let me spotlight 10:
(1) Slavery. On this foul issue, conservatives sided with slave owners, the status quo, and exclusion, seeking to perpetuate the “peculiar institution” of human bondage. Liberals fought to end slavery and promote equality for all. They were on the right side of history.
(2) Voting rights. In the struggle to enfranchise all the nation’s citizens, conservatives sought the status quo, exempting blacks, women, and others from their fundamental rights. Liberals embraced progress and universal suffrage, and in so doing were on the right side of history.
(3) During the Industrial Revolution there were numerous momentous socioeconomic questions such as what to do about child labor, the rights of workers, and food and workplace safety, to name a few. Once again, conservatives sought the status quo, arguing that the poor, workers, and even children should be excluded from basic protections. Liberals embraced social justice, inclusion, and a basic quality of life for all people. They were on the right side of history.
(4) Earlier in our history, there was a struggle to create national parks and wildlife refuges. Yet again, conservatives sided with corrupt businesses, timbering, and self-interest, putting profits over people. Liberals supported the nascent conservation movement and fought to protect our nation’s natural heritage for future generations. They were on the right side of history.
(5) In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, we found ourselves in a struggle to establish programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. No surprise here–conservatives opposed basic protections for the elderly, they opposed expanding health care to all citizens and to the needy, voting against improvements to the quality of life and for programs that would save lives. Liberals fought for human dignity and quality of life, again finding themselves on the right side of history.
(6) In the 1960s, the nation was nearly torn apart by the long overdue struggle for civil rights and desegregation. Appallingly, conservatives hid behind “state’s rights,” stood with racism and bigotry, and supported disenfranchising much of the nation. Liberals were on the right side of history—they fought for the promise of equality for all.
(7) Another critical and long overdue social movement was the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet again, conservatives stood with exclusion, status quo, and sexism, seeking to deny half the population—including their own mothers, wives, and daughters—even the most basic of rights. Liberals again fought for the promise of equality for all and were on the right side of history.
(8) Over time, the unmitigated, relentless pursuit of profits and a ballooning population took a toll on the planet and America’s natural resources. Despite the onslaught, conservatives opposed environmental protections, including clean air policies and water quality. Liberals gave this country the environmental movement and, in doing so, were on the right side of history.
(9) Over the past half-century, a number of other important issues have been debated including a minimum wage, consumer protections, Head Start, family planning, school lunches, pre-natal care, and, more recently, same-sex equality. You guessed it, conservatives opposed them all, voting to exclude much of the population from such transformational services. Yet again, however, liberals fought for all of them. They were on the right side of history.
Before I discuss #10… let me simply state the obvious: The forces of conservatism, status quo, and exclusion have been on the wrong side of history each and every time! Conservatives have opposed these vital social movements, improvements in the quality of life, and progress in the human condition. It must be asked: how are they still managing to win elections? Their ideology and priorities have been, time and again, utterly and completely discredited. And yet, here we are—forced to refight age old battles.
Know this, however—we will win. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently put it back in 1962, “The long arc of history bends toward justice.” Indeed, the arc of history moves ever forward, not backward, despite the occasional set back.
To be sure, it does not always come easy. Progress often comes with blood and great opposition. The evils of genocide and war, pride and prejudice, fear and blame, seem always to be with us. Yet, the key word is forward. The grand human adventure—just as the American experiment—embraces progress, inclusion, and the expansion—not contraction—of rights over the long pull.
And so, we must not give up. We must not retreat no matter how wretchedly difficult it is to even read the headlines; no matter how shockingly reprehensible Trump’s actions and behaviors. On the contrary, this is a time to engage. To fight.
We now have a President who makes fun of the disabled, disrespects Gold Star families, brags of molesting women, stands with the KKK and excuses neo-Nazis, spews racist filth, bigotry, and homophobia on a daily basis, doesn’t believe in climate change, evolution, or vaccinating children, revels in shocking ignorance, bullies young women . . . and nearly everyone around him, disregards the First Amendment, alienates our allies, traffics in conspiracy theories, provokes a madman in North Korea over thermonuclear war, and is so delusional and such an impulsive liar that he insists at every turn and on every matter that he is the smartest, best, and greatest of all time.
Which brings me to #10:
There is no mistaking it, there is no softening or misinterpreting it. Trumpism does not just embrace exclusion or delusion. It is promoting hate over tolerance, bigotry over equality, fear over dialogue, nativism over internationalism, xenophobia over diplomacy, ignorance over education, propaganda over fact, and conspiracy over science. Trumpism is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-labor, anti-healthcare, anti-education, anti-science, anti-rationality, anti-civility, anti-fact, and anti-reality. It is pro-gun and pro-wall.
Yet, perhaps most shocking, as I speak, Trumpism is supported by one-third of the country. Many Republican leaders have stood by while Trump divides the nation, alienates the U.S. from the international community, and assaults the most basic of sensibilities and decency. Republican leaders and right-wing pundits, through their acquiescence and silence or through their excuses and reinvention of the truth (and at times their “dear leader” adulation) have enabled, emboldened, and facilitated his madness.
There seems nothing he could do to dissuade them to defend America over Trumpism.
It is, therefore, up to the rest of us to fight for inclusion, progress, and other true American values. Trumpism is not America and our children’s children will one day look back on it and know that it was on the wrong side of history.
Robert P. Watson
Dr. Robert P. Watson is a Professor of American Studies at Lynn University, Senior Fellow at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship and the political analyst for WPTV 5 (NBC).
He has published 36 books and hundreds of scholarly articles on topics in American politics and history, and has served on the boards of many scholarly journals, academic associations and presidential foundations.
Professor Watson has won numerous awards, including the Distinguished Professor of the Year awards at both FAU and Lynn (twice) and FAU’s Faculty Service award (twice).
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