When in 2008 Barack Obama was elected the nation’s 44th president, American voters (some 69 million) fulfilled Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil-rights-era dream:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
And despite pundits’ warnings against reading too much into this victory, many of us were thrilled by the sight of the nation’s first African-American president and the realization that our nation had momentarily embodied the vision of its founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
So two years later, when Tea Party zealots stormed the nation’s capitol with the slogan of “Don’t Tread on Me,” images of a coiled rattlesnake and caricatures of the president as an ape, we knew (or should have known) the “white backlash” had arrived. How deep and widespread it was, was hard to fathom.
But one thing was evident: Tea Partyites perceived a particular, and peculiar, reality. They saw the nation’s traditional power hierarchy upended: A black man, America’s former “n-----,” was President.
It has long been the tool of politicians seeking to limit the influence of the nation’s minorities to issue calls for “Law and Order” and appeals to the “Silent Majority” (as Richard Nixon did) or to proclaim themselves “the law-and-order candidate” who speaks for “the forgotten American,” as Donald Trump did.
So let’s not be fooled. This rhetoric was, is, and forever will be shorthand for: Let’s reinstate America’s white supremacist culture, and let’s stifle the voices and visions rising from the country’s emerging multi-cultural plurality.
Donald Trump is a chronic liar and a con man. He’s an incompetent politician with a limited grasp of U.S. history. But he knows one thing well — powerless people hunger for, and are fascinated by, spectacles of power, real or not.
He knows economically distressed people want to hold onto the illusion of racial privilege, because his America is not offering much else.
He knows the inequities, the frustrations, that lie beneath our society’s polite veneers can be shortchanged if there are scapegoats, people to blame. And he’s betting those raw resentments can be directed at new immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Islam, the nation’s progressive agenda and even the idea of democracy itself. He’s also betting our fear of each other will overcome our capacity to seek and work for the common good.
We are in a battle, folks, for the nation’s soul.
Leslie Kelen, Salt Lake City, is a child of Holocaust survivors and the author/editor of five books, including “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.”