This July 4 weekend inspired a lot of talk about U.S. history from the two men vying for the presidency. The way each candidate spoke about the past tells us everything we need to know about the kind of future he wants for America. This rhetorical skirmish over where we’ve been is, in reality, a battle over where the nation will go.
President Charlottesville has been spewing racist rhetoric long before last weekend. After all, as Ta-Nehisi Coates declared in 2017, “(Donald Trump’s) ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” Nevertheless, Independence Day brought out some of Donald Trump’s worst bile. At Mt. Rushmore on July 3, he spoke about America in a way that, for the sake of our country, I hope no other president ever does again.
In the seven weeks since George Floyd told Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—whose knee was on his neck, choking the life out of him—that he couldn’t breathe, Americans have taken to the streets in protest. The protests—in both their numbers and in their diversity—appear to be truly unprecedented in American history, and have hopefully kickstarted a push that will lead to necessary, fundamental changes in our society.
Trump connected those marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter to U.S. history, but he did it in a way that ignored their successes and, all too predictably, condemned them using lies and hate. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” he intoned after a recap of the historic events that culminated in July 4, 1776. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” he added.
The racist-in-chief, knowing exactly what he was doing, equated the protests as a whole, which were overwhelmingly peaceful in most places, with the actions of a small group. Please also notice that—losing even the slimmest tether to reality—he defamed the protestors with that old racist stand-by of urban (read: Black) crime. George Wallace couldn’t have said it better himself. Trump also called the broader movement “totalitarianism” and “completely alien” to American culture and values. Only Trump, and the people who think like he does, are the real Americans. His opponents are “bad, evil people” whose “goal is to end America.”
Tying these slanders directly to electoral politics, the Man Who Lost The Popular Vote went after “liberal Democrats” and railed against an “extreme indoctrination” that has supposedly led “our children” to be “taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but … were villains.” Trump contrasted this fiction about what our kids are learning with another fiction—his own whitewashed version of American history. Despite including a handful of Americans of color and a nod to the idea of racial equality, he essentially argued that we have already completed the project of perfecting our union—positioning himself as the man who made America great again (what coronavirus?), and he’s running as the only one who can keep it that way. All is well in America, no injustice to see here, no improvements to be made, in 2020 and beyond.
Trump spoke largely from prepared remarks, demonstrating that his campaign team embraced this approach—and that there can be no excuses about him going “off script.” In fact, in terms of his reaction to the Movement for Black Lives and related protests, the speech fits the script he’s been following for weeks, as demonstrated by what Daily Kos’ Hunter rightly termed the “assault on St. John’s church.”
In the days since the Mt. Rushmore remarks, Trump continued with more racist garbage. He restated his support for preserving Confederate monuments and for the Confederate flag—perhaps in his mind, the “A” in MAGA refers to the C.S.A. Then the guy who once sued the NFL—and was awarded exactly one big fat dollar—attacked sports teams that are considering changing their racist names and mascots. Trump also falsely accused Bubba Wallace, the only African American NASCAR driver in the top tier, of lying about a noose found hanging in the stall assigned to him at the Talladega racetrack. This accusation also contained a lie about NASCAR—which defended Wallace and banned the Confederate flag from all future events—getting its “lowest ratings EVER!” In fact, the most recent race’s ratings came in up 39% from the 2019 average. Trump’s lies and race-baiting will not change any more than a Cheeto can change its hue.
Trump’s divisive falsehoods about statues aside, the matter of which ones communities should remove from their current location does represent a complicated issue. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden on June 30 drew “a distinction” between statues of Confederates—people who were “committing treason trying to take down a union to keep slavery”—and those of figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves and expressed some opinions that today’s society now rightly rejects, but who also had “much broader views.”
Biden also pointed out that structures like the Jefferson Memorial were not built to “rever[e]” pro-slavery views, unlike the Confederate statues. He also showed his trademark empathy for those who feel marginalized: “I can understand the anger and anguish that people feel by having for years and years been under the statue of Robert E. Lee if you’re an African American.”
Trump, on the other hand, defends all statues equally, including the Confederates (All Statues Matter!), because he thinks that’s how he’ll win in November. His campaign website now includes a lengthy attack on Biden over the statues, accusing him of “remain[ing] silent as his supporters attack statues of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Washington.”
Incredibly, when a statue of Frederick Douglass was pulled down on July 5 in Rochester, New York, Trump even blamed “anarchists” and connected them to the same people he’d attacked over the weekend. By going after an imaginary group of people while tying them to the very real people marching for Black lives, Trump essentially accused Black people and allies of taking down the Douglass statue.
Donald Trump Jr. went further: He directly accused the anti-racist movement—which he also called Marxist—of vandalizing the statue. Carvin Eison, who helped bring the statue of Douglass to Rochester, provided a different take: “Is this some type of retaliation because of the national fever over Confederate monuments right now? Very disappointing, it’s beyond disappointing.” For now, we don’t know, but at least Eison posed his far more reasonable theory as a question, whereas the race-baiter-in-chief—as is his wont—just went straight to an answer, despite having no evidence on which to base it.
Make no mistake, this language of hate is all about 2020 for Trump. He can no longer run on his record of appointing conservative judges or presiding over a strong overall economy (the one that he inherited from President Obama); his utter failure on COVID-19 erased any chance of that working. No longer can Trump rely on the kinds of attacks he leveled at Biden even a few months ago, before the pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives took to the streets. Desperate, Trump now has to brand his opponent as anti-American, and as anti-white—knowing that the two falsehoods represent the same thing to the sort of people who respond to this kind of white identity politics. That desperation is why Trump talks about our history and our future the way he does.
Meanwhile, the former vice president has offered a version of history that differs profoundly from the delusions of the Orange Julius Caesar. On June 2, a week after George Floyd’s killing, Biden made a major address on race in Philadelphia in front of a number of elected officials. “It’s in some of our darkest moments of despair that we’ve made some of our greatest progress. The 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments followed the Civil War […] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 came in the tracks of Bull Connor’s vicious dogs.” Note that Biden doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in our past, and he doesn’t skip past it in an attempt to present a journey that highlights only our progress.
Biden’s Independence Day remarks, which Daily Kos’ Jessica Sutherland aptly called “the ‘presidential’ Fourth of July address America deserves,” struck a similarly balanced note. The vice president showed how progressives can define celebrating the July 4 holiday in a way that, hopefully, works for all Americans, including members of marginalized groups.
Our nation was founded on a simple idea: We're all created equal. We've never lived up to it — but we've never stopped trying. This Independence Day, let's not just celebrate those words, let's commit to finally fulfill them. Happy #FourthOfJuly! pic.twitter.com/1WrATlx8Xl
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 4, 2020
The video is only about 90 seconds long, and I urge you to listen to the whole thing, both for the content and for the passion with which Vice President Biden delivered it. At the heart of the statement is how we talk about our history. Again, Biden didn’t tiptoe around the uncomfortable truth. For example, Biden cited Jefferson’s ownership of human beings, and our country’s discrimination against women—while also emphasizing that putting those all-important words “all men are created equal” down on paper provided support for those fighting to help America become the place we have long aspired to be.
Through it all, these words have gnawed at our conscience and pulled us toward justice. American history is no fairy tale. It’s been a constant push-and-pull between two parts of our character: the idea that all men and women—all people—are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart.
As for how that history connects to our future, Biden added: “We have a chance now, to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed, a full share of the American dream. We have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country. We have a chance to live up to the words that founded this nation.” On our country’s birthday, only one candidate for president gave us a story of our past that will enable us to craft a viable journey forward. In terms of politics, Biden’s position is one that far more Americans can identify with than Trump’s, as polling has demonstrated. I am hopeful that holds up over the next four months, although we must all do our part to help make sure it does.
Ultimately, as a people, we require for our survival a story of our country that reflects the full, balanced truth of our past, one that Americans of every background can feel includes them. President Barack Obama has offered that sort of historical narrative throughout his public life, and Vice President Biden is doing the same thing in this campaign. Trump, on the other hand, offers nothing but hate—because he’s the one who seeks indoctrination. Historian Jill Lepore wrote last year about the danger of leaving the crafting of a unifying national narrative to those who would use history to divide us. “They’ll call themselves ‘nationalists,”’ she wrote. “Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.”
In 1984, George Orwell famously wrote: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell was talking about an authoritarian government having the power to rewrite history however it liked, and thus control the minds of those over whom it ruled.
Trump does not possess that degree of power, despite his delusions. Over the July 4 weekend, he presented a twisted, whitewashed version of our past that he expects will help him extend his time in power. It also might tear America apart permanently, but that’s only a problem for people whose love of our country is greater than their love for Donald Trump. Since there’s nothing more Trump loves than himself, we know where he stands.
Joe Biden put forth a very different version of America’s history, one that actually tells the truth. It acknowledges our struggles to put into practice the worthy ideals our founders laid down in 1776, and demands a future where we make them fully and finally real for every American.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)