America's Lessons

"It is time to learn, to grow and to heed the warning of history"

Trump’s exit opens the door for a little truth and reconciliation, writes Dr. Tyrone Grandison. The Trump presidency, he argues, was no aberration. “It was as revealing as it was predictable,” he writes. We’ve been here before. Whether we come back here again depends on whether we choose to learn the lessons amply on display for us all to see.

As a Black immigrant who had the honor of serving in the Obama Administration, it was an honor to see Joe Biden sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. It was also instructive to marvel at the differences between the current transition and the transition in 2016-17.

The fact that the Electoral College, powered by over 62 million American voters, put into power a candidate shrouded in campaign fraud, misogynic behavior, racist actions, and treachery scandals, while being ill-equipped to live up to his proclaimed laurels as a successful businessman and negotiator was not lost on me. It was even more telling that they chose Donald Trump after electing their first Black president. Unfortunately, it was as revealing as it was predictable. The history of America is littered with periods of movement towards equality for all followed by white backlash against American Indians, Blacks, Asians, Muslims, etc.

The fact that Section 2, Article 1 of the Constitution calls out “free persons” and “Indians not taxed” and then gives a shout out to the three-fifths compromise is not accidental and shows that the Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they set up a democracy for whites and a caste system for Black slaves and all others.

In this piece, I won’t highlight the inhumanities inflicted on our American Indian, LatinX, Asian, and Muslim brothers and sisters by white Americans. However, it is paramount that we all understand that a perfect union requires decolonization and the distribution of power and wealth to all peoples of the land; not just the demographic segment that has commandeered it and kept it. 

The Trump Presidency is another notch in the cycle of the American experiment in democracy that has a lot to teach us; if we are willing to learn. 

Attempt to Destroy A Race

The first lesson is that racism is alive and well in your friendly, well-intentioned, white neighbor that has always come across as a good guy to other whites. For decades, many have wondered what happened to the white families that gathered for their regular Sunday lynching cookout after church. Did they realize the error of their ways and embrace a multi-racial society? Did the fear and loathing that sparked a white mob to massacre Blacks in Atlanta, Georgia in 1906 disappear? What about the children and grandchildren of the whites all over the United States that killed Blacks without impunity during the Red Summer of 1919,* where lots of Black lives were taken without a second thought in over 60 American cities from New York to Arizona? What happened to the lineage of the white destroyers that led the Rosewood massacre in Florida in January 1923? What happened to the FBI teams that targeted Blacks through the COINTELPro program? What happened to the law enforcement officers that bombed a group of Black liberation members in Philadelphia in 1985? 

These whites and their descendents became white collar professionals, policymakers, civil servants, members of the armed forces, technologists, and leaders. They used the benefits of their inheritance to influence American society. They created non-inclusive companies. They crafted and implemented discriminatory policies. They built biased technologies. They thrived. They propagated their beliefs. They kept their destructive actions in the shadows and away from public view. 

The Trump Presidency provided a safe space for them to publicly vocalize their beliefs and find comradery with their kindred spirits. It allowed for them to be explicitly and publicly racist; rather than being private about their values. The greatest value of the Trump era was the light it shed on the inherent and latent racism embedded in the foundations of America. It also highlighted that racists exist in every racial group. It is a condition of the mind and not limited by skin tone. 

For true American patriots, the four years of the Trump Presidency have brought to the forefront that America needs to honestly address its past, teach its history objectively, and take proactive steps to being accountable and being better. 

Checks and Balances

The American system of governance is built of the separation of powers and the checks and balances against misuse of power and public trust.  Both assumptions rest on having functioning political parties and elected officials that take an oath to the Constitution and place the good of the country over personal gain and the best interest of their party.

America’s Chief Executive has an awesome array of powers and privileges; many not codified in law, but passed down through tradition and assumed to be best practice for “being Presidential”. The Trump Presidency illustrated that an Executive without shame has no issue violating these norms and traditions; without consequence in the right context. The list of examples of deviations and infractions is long and well-documented. It is clear that the assumed behavior of America’s Chief needs to be formalized in policy.

Trump demonstrated that the current incarnation of the Republican party is focused on acquiring and wielding power; to the detriment of everything and everyone else. Their willingness to pack the court system with partisan and unqualified judges. Their drive to provide themselves and their funders with incredible tax cuts. Their subservience to the Executive in creating an alternate reality that is not grounded in truth. Their willingness to vote against evidence and the best interest of the United States in Trump’s first impeachment trial. Their blind eye to the Administration’s numerous human rights violations against marginalized communities. These are all indications of an incorrect assumption in our governance model.

This resulted in the American experiment being hours away from a successful coup; where white supremacists were emboldened and felt a need to overthrow a government that they do not believe will sufficiently do as much as possible to maintain white dominance. Yet still, members of the Republican party bolstered the rallying cry of these domestic terrorists; after the incident and in spite of many of them being in harm’s way. Then the same Republican officials that took part in inciting the insurrection call for unity and healing; by moving on and not holding anyone accountable. Most likely, because of the consequences that they themselves would face.

It should be clear to any observer, who lives in a fact-based world, that the current Republican party does not provide the check and balance that the framers assumed they would. Thus, something needs to be done to ensure that the framers’ intent is a mandatory part of being an elected official; irrespective of party. 

The mantra of “our systems are strong and will hold” proved to be more aspirational rather than factual. It is time to rectify this.

Character & Principles 

It has long been thought that 1) the person holding the office of President should have strong morals and be of good character, and that 2) political parties in the American electoral system have a set of fundamental tenets that form their backbone. The Trump Presidency showed, once again, that both of these notions are rhetoric without substance.

The two parties, Democratic and Republican, have undergone multiple shifts in their platforms over the centuries. The most significant, most noticeable, and most recent, being when the white racists left the Democratic party in the 1960s and embraced the “Southern strategy” to become the Republican party of today. Since then, the Republican party has proclaimed itself the party of the southern states, fiscal conservatives, devout Christians, and dedicated to family values. The election and dogged support of Trump has shown that those talking points were more conveniences than actual bedrock convictions. In the Trump era, the Republican party supported separating families fleeing war-torn countries (where American had interests and played active and secret roles in some wars), ballooned the Federal deficit (for their benefit and that of their friends and supporters), and threw their complete support behind a leader that never exhibited Christ-like conduct.

America elected, and survived, a President that revelled in female degradation (i.e. unwanted "pussy grabbing"), that ignored science and health facts (i.e. mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic, let 400,000 Americans die on his watch, and embraced the “magical thinking” of the virus’ disappearance), that embraced extreme narcissism in its purest, most cruel and evil form, and that lied constantly to everyone. Prior to Trump, any single incident of any minor aspect of any of his tolerated behavior would have been grounds for resignation or dismissal. This period in American Presidential history may signal a turning point where Presidential character is secondary to winning and getting a party’s agenda pushed forward. It may also signal a time for introspection and improvement. The path taken is completely up to the current branches of government. In the next two years, they will decide the future they want for their children.

The lesson here is that political actions supersede any words or marketing that any Elected official gives credence to. As an informed public, we should focus on and make our electoral decisions based on the actions taken; with the words spoken being only given minor credit. 

Generational Benefit 

Whether extroverted racist, subtle racist, progressive and mildly racist, or anti-racist, all whites benefit from the systems, laws, policies, and institutions that exist today. They were crafted with racist intentions and have led to the unfair and inequitable system that we all see today. The unequal treatment of Blacks by law enforcement. The school-to-prison pipeline that primarily impacts girls of color. Cities being divided into rich and poor neighbours, where racial minorities and limited resources are characteristics of poor neighbours. Horrible health outcomes for American Indians and Blacks compared to whites when being treated for the same issues. 

The over-representation of Blacks and other minorities in the court, prison, and jail systems when the level of criminal activity across racial groups does not warrant that being the case. The inability of Blacks to access the tools and resources used, and often forgotten, by whites to create inter-generational wealth and security. The actions of white decision-makers, up and down the corporate ladder and spread across all sectors and industries, that limit and stymie Blacks. All of this has been in the making since the American Declaration of Independence. The role of all whites, racist or not, in this system had a spotlight put on it during the Trump Administration. What white Americans do with this awareness is completely up to them.

Learning From The Past 

Historically, political compromise has meant meeting in the middle and sacrificing the things that would be beneficial to the least privileged in American society. Whites can live through it because it has little impact on them; for the most part. There are too many examples of this type of behavior in the political arena. 

White supremacists start from a  place of eradicating Blacks, Jews, and anyone not considered a part of the Aryan race. Compromise with them would mean subjugation of non-whites, the retreat of white supremacists into the shadows to exact their beliefs in secret, and them patiently waiting until they can safely publicly exert themselves again. The Trump years highlight that this sort of compromise is not in the best interest of America. 

It is instructive to examine the history of the hero of white supremacists - Adolf Hitler. In 1923, Hitler attempted to seize the government through a failed coup. He was imprisoned for five years. He wrote Mein Kampf while in jail. He was released early (in 1924). He re-gained popularity with his pro-German rhetoric; think America First but for Germany. He was appointed as chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933 (ten years after his coup attempt). Germany has since made it their responsibility to do an honest reckoning of its past in an attempt never to repeat it. America has yet to take up the mantle and address the genocide, racism, and xenophobia at its core. 

Advocates for moving on and moving forward, without accountability, risk repeating history’s dark lessons. 

Conclusion 

As shocked as I was in 2016 that the Electoral College (and the American people) installed a pale, stale, frail, white male who was unqualified for the job, the Trump presidency was anything but an aberration. Trump represents the culmination of centuries of American exceptionalism, unaddressed systemic racism, inadequate critical thinking, and a lack of meaningfully addressing the original sins of the American experiment. It is time to learn, to grow, to heed the warning of history, and finally serve all Americans.

The path forward so that the American experiment with democracy does not fail must include 1) a candid reckoning with its past, 2) a systemic overhaul and objective teaching of American’s history, 3) an enhanced focus on teaching critical thinking and civic responsibility at all education levels, 4) a nationwide program for codifying and incentivizing behavior that is fair, just, and equitable and penalizing behavior that is racist, prejudice or biased, 5) a series of actions that hold those who have attacked America and Americans accountable for their actions and words in a consistent and just manner, and 6) a decades’ long commitment, backed by meaningful action leading to positive outcomes, that reverses the institutional and policy roadblocks, which have been in place for centuries, to harm and subjugate Blacks and other minorities.

*Red Summer of 1919 refers to the fact that white mobs destroyed Black cities throughout that year. Cities included Bedford County, Tennessee (January 22), Blakeley, Georgia (February 8), Pace, Florida (March 12), Memphis, Tennessee (March 14), Morgan County, West Virginia (April 10), Jenkins County, Georgia (April 13), Sylvester, Georgia (April 14), Millen, Georgia (April 15), Pickens, Mississippi (May 5), Charleston, South Carolina (May 10), Sylvester, Georgia (May 10), El Dorado, Arkansas (May 21), Milan, Georgia (May 26), New London, Connecticut (May 29), Putnam County, Georgia (May 27–29), Monticello, Mississippi (May 31), Memphis, Tennessee (June 13), New London, Connecticut (June 13), Annapolis, Maryland (June 27), Macon, Mississippi (June 27), Bisbee, Arizona (July 3), Scranton, Pennsylvania (July 5), Dublin, Georgia (July 6), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (July 7), Coatesville, Pennsylvania (July 8), Tuscaloosa, Alabama (July 9), Longview, Texas (July 10–12), Baltimore, Maryland (July 11), Louise, Mississippi (July 15), Port Arthur, Texas (July 15), Washington, D.C. (July 19–24), New York City, New York (July 20), Norfolk, Virginia (July 21), New Orleans, Louisiana (July 23), Darby, Pennsylvania (July 23), Hobson City, Alabama (July 26), Chicago, Illinois (July 27 – August 3), Newberry, South Carolina (July 28), Bloomington, Illinois (July 31), Syracuse, New York (July 31), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (July 31), Whatley, Alabama (August 1), Lincoln, Arkansas (August 3), Hattiesburg, Mississippi (August 4), Texarkana, Texas (August 6), New York City, New York (August 21), Austin, Texas (August 22), Ocmulgee, Georgia (August 27–29), Knoxville, Tennessee (August 30), Bogalusa, Louisiana (August 30), Clarksdale, Mississippi (September 10), Omaha, Nebraska (September 28–29), Montgomery, Alabama (September 29), Elaine, Arkansas (October 1–2), Baltimore, Maryland (October 1–2), Corbin, Kentucky (October 31), Macon, Georgia (November 2), Magnolia, Arkansas (November 11), Wilmington, Delaware (November 13), and West Virginia (December 27).

Dr. Tyrone Grandison is the Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and a political partner at the Truman National Security Project. He works at the intersection of technology, data, and social good. He has spent the last two decades developing and deploying data-driven, impact-focused, people-centered products and services that improve the lives of under-represented, and often ignored, communities. Follow him on Twitter at @tyrgr.

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