At this unprecedented moment for our country, a former president has been indicted four times for actions he took before, during, and after his presidency. The most serious charges against him include conspiracies to defraud the United States, obstruct an official proceeding, and deny rights. Even more disturbing is that many in the Republican party (once the law-and-order party) support his determination to be president again. Those of us who never will vote for Trump are ever confounded by those who always will. How can we live in and love the same country when we are worlds apart on what kind of leader we want?
America’s Jekyll and Hyde history might shed some light. We are a two-faced nation and the face you encounter depends on your status. The founders created a nation for the benefit of wealthy white men. In freeing the colonies from Britain, they rejected monarchy in favor of plutocracy, granting privileges to those like themselves that were purposely denied to others.
These “liberty keepers” protect their own rights while guarding others from enjoying the same. They’ve crafted laws in their own favor and brandished wealth, weapons, and influence to wrest land and labor from sea to shining sea, claiming God-given credit for the creation of a country with an economy second to none. Never mind the free labor they exploited during 246 years of chattel slavery.
Everyone else, the “liberty seekers,” has had to fight for rights piecemeal over long, arduous decades and against the tireless resistance of those privileged with entitlements from the start. Liberty seekers confront hostile American institutions at local, state, and federal levels every time they dare to consider themselves included in the lofty language of the founding documents.
The lie at the heart of American mythology is that we are a land founded on the rule of law and that no one is above the law. It’s a mantra we repeat on the one hand while doing precisely the opposite with the other hand. The repressed American shadow that we vociferously deny is that liberty, justice and wealth is more accessible for those included by our founders than for those left out in the cold. In name we are united, but at our core is hierarchy and division whether by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and so on.
So threatening is the truth to the folklore that forms our national identity, that GOP candidate for president Ron DeSantis has prohibited students in Florida from learning our own history: Indigenous people forced off ancestral land; European settlers given land grants in violation of federal treaties; massacres and death marches of women, children and elders; enslaved women raped to birth enslaved children; white families attending church in the morning and lynchings in the evening; Black-owned businesses burned to the ground to drive out competition; homes razed to maintain segregation and property values; and all but white men at risk of arrest or worse for daring to vote.
Donald Trump is nothing if not a story teller. But his stories are filled with lies where he is the sole protagonist. He has purposely ignited America’s fearful shadows to create the myth that he alone can protect us from them. There is indeed much to fear about our past transgressions. But who would Trump have us fear? All of those “others” denied rights in the first place and clamoring for them ever since.
Instead of fearing those who have been doing the enslaving, raping, and lynching, he would have us fear the victims of these “crimes.” The fact that many of these assaults were not even unlawful at the time underscores the defects in our early “rule of law,” and the critical contributions liberty seekers have made to our nation’s understanding of justice.
Donald Trump’s dystopian lie that has hooked his followers is that all those left out of America’s original promise are interlopers to be feared. Liberty keepers like himself are the only ones deserving of a place at America’s bountiful table. and he does not flinch one iota from our violent past. Rather, he embraces violence, deceit, and treachery against anyone in his way to the power he feels entitled to so he can turn back the clock on the rights of others.
A voting block of Americans made Trump who he is: a man who thinks and acts like he can do no wrong. He told us as much back in 2016 when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK.” No bully ever gains the power to control and intimidate without silent bystanders and self-serving enablers. Are his enablers really about to let him shoot the country and get away with it?
Unlike South Africa, a nation with an equally racist, exclusionary past, America has never engaged in a Truth and Reconciliation process or torn up a fundamentally flawed constitution to begin anew. Until we confront our brutal, greed-driven, repressed, national shadow it will threaten us with irrational decisions driven by lies and fear rather than truth and reason.
We can be better than our past. We can widen the tent of inclusion rather than narrowing it. We can move from plutocracy to true democracy with rights granted to all who reside here. Or we can embolden a despot. If Republicans take us down that road and we lose what little ground we have gained, those of us who will never support Trump or his ilk, will forever be reminded that we were all sufficiently warned by Trump’s own words and actions. For when people like him come for some of us, eventually they come for all of us.
Candace Waldron, MDiv., is former executive director of HAWC, Healing Abuse Working for Change in Salem, and the author of “My Daughter He: Transitioning With Our Transgender Children.” She blogs at www.candacewaldron.com and lives in Rockport.