I heard a great televised speech by Barack Obama last night that helped me place the surreal trauma of the Donald Trump presidential candidacy in a broader context, that reminded me of certain core principles I'd managed to forget.
I don’t think the President mentioned Martin Luther King in this speech, but Obama’s thoughtful, measured words reminded me that his whole political journey has always been grounded in Martin Luther King’s great project, the American satyagraha movement that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955. The glorious success of the bus boycott and of the civil rights movement in the United States of America is our proud legacy — a part of the historic legacy we need to represent and protect in 2016.
A question occurred to me at this moment: what would Martin Luther King say to Donald Trump, if he were alive today to see the bizarre spectacle of his presidential campaign? And what would King say to Trump’s voters, and what would he say to all Americans?
I believe Martin Luther King would begin by reminding us all to be extremely serious. This is a hard feat to pull off when the tone of our conversation is initiated and dominated by a professional loudmouth, an unrepentant chauvinist and bigot — America’s drunk uncle. But too many Americans have allowed Trump’s blowhard style to infect their own tone of discourse, and our media outlets are greedily amplifying the noise and the spectacle, making the entire 2016 election feel like a disgrace or a joke.
Martin Luther King would remind us to be earnest, focused and goal-oriented ("eyes on the prize") in the face of this barrage of mindless defeatism. I have had several frustrating arguments with friends and relatives who may consider themselves Republicans or conservatives but can’t find words (the words don’t exist) with which to support Trump. Their only recourse is to present the case that Hillary Clinton is just as bad, that the Democratic party is as weak and rotten as the Republican party, that nothing matters in 2016 because “they all suck”.
I have struggled myself to respond to arguments that descend into crass insult and vast moral emptiness, and have especially struggled to avoid falling into rabbit hole debates that lead towards ultimate “does it even matter?” defeatism about the future of America itself. At times like this, it helps to remember how much doing the right thing mattered at various times in our shared history: how much it mattered after the Al Qaeda attacks of 2001, how much it mattered when the Soviet Union began to fall in 1989, how much it mattered when blacks, women and gays all stood up for the right to basic self-respect in the 1960s and 1970s, and even how much it mattered in the late 1930s and 1940s when fascist warlords in Europe and Asia terrorized the world for six grim and murderous years.
I’m pretty sure that if Martin Luther King were around today, he would remind us not to let Donald Trump or his boorish supporters control the tone of argument. They can take the low road — indeed, Donald Trump has brought the low road to a new low in American history, and caused the Republican party and the American conservative movement to shame itself beyond recognition. Trump’s candidacy is certainly an assault on our shared decency, on our love for our neighbors, on our belief in basic self-respect.
Here’s what Martin Luther King reminds us in times like this: “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
I will oppose Donald Trump with everything I've got, but I will not surrender my dignity to do so. You should not either. We will defeat him and defeat the hatred and racism he stands for without sinking to his level.
The Republican and Democratic national conventions are now ending, and the 2016 election season is swinging in to full gear. There will be plenty of moments in the months to come when we will feel we are losing our own dignity, our own sense of purpose, our own self-respect. We’re going to hear a lot of screeching noise from our wealth-besotted drunk uncle in the painful months to come. But we also have a solemn and dignified father figure whose words we must remember when we lose our sense of place. "One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.” It's time to recall our roots and remember whose footsteps we are following when we fight for what is right.