Last Wednesday, John Jennings posted one of his latest sketches on social media. The image of a tattered American flag lying on the ground as flies hovered over it with “The Untied States of America” as the caption. Jennings’ image hit me hard, especially after the racism on full display at the Presidential Debate on Tuesday night. I knew the debate was going to be a hard watch, no matter what. I laughed at various points during the first few minutes at the absurdity of the whole thing. I laughed to keep my anger from rising within him. I laughed to cover my fear. I laughed to keep from crying.
My laughing ceased when Trump refused to shut up and specifically when Chris Wallace asked him if he would denounce white supremacists. The exchange is worth quoting in full. (The text below comes from CNN)
“Sure, I’m willing to (tell them to stand down), but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Trump said.
“Say it. Do it. Say it,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden responded, encouraging Trump to condemn White supremacists.
“Who would you like me to condemn?” Trump asked Wallace. Biden could be heard twice saying, “Proud Boys.”
Trump continued: “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem.”
First, Trump tells Wallace he’ll say something but he pivots, immediately, to claim that “the left wing” is causing all of the violence and he “want[s] to see peace.” He falls back on the tired racist trope of “law and order,” the same language used to oppose the Civil Rights Movement. Trump did not address Wallace’s question about condemning white supremacists. Biden tells him, “Do it. Say it,” to which Trump asks for Wallace to tell him who he wants him to condemn. At this moment, Trump works to have Wallace “define” the white supremacists group(s), placing that on the moderator, and not on himself. When Biden says, “Proud Boys,” Trump tells them, “stand back and stand by” before he goes after Antifa.
The audacity and brazenness at this response caused me to sink, literally, sink. It’s nothing new, and we know that, but refusing to condemn hate, racism, xenophobia, and oppression, and at the same time signaling violence is horrendous. He’d done this before, and we know that. Look at his comments after Charlottesville. Look at his comments about Kyle Rittenhouse. And more.
In the debate, Biden specifically called upon Trump to denounce the The Proud Boys, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group. They label themselves as “western chauvinists.” They appeared in Charlottesville, and one of the organizers of Unite the Right, Jason Kessler, was part of the group before bein “expelled” after wide-spread condemnation the event.
Leading up to the event, Kessler was on Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes’ show, and he said, “What’s really under attack is if you say, ‘I want to stand up for white people. I want to stand up for western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians.’” McInnes responded with more examples saying, “I’m against immigration…I’m against jihadis. I’m against radical Islam.”
At its core, this is what the Trump administration is doing through its policies and through events such as the White House Conference on American History and the 1776 Commission. During the conference, Trump stated the signing of the US Constitution “was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.” Earlier during the Republican National Convention, Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk claimed that since Trump had become president he has been “the bodyguard of western civilization.” He concluded by saying, “We will build a future where America remains the greatest country ever to exist in the history of the world. All of that is within our grasp if we secure four more years for the defender of western civilization, our champion.”
When Trump, Kirk, Kessler, and others say “Western civilization,” they mean white, Anglo-Saxon and European civilization, a civilization supposedly that birthed America in all of its glory and “civilized” the world. This is simply not the case. Any look at history shows the ways that cultures and nations interact with one another, how they take pieces from one another and graft them into their own lives and cultures. At its core, this language is nationalistic.
All of this is nothing new. It reminds me of the history, specifically the early and mid twentieth century. Remember, Woodrow Wilson, back in 1915, held the first movie screening in the White House. You know what the film was, right? Well, it was D.W. Griffin’s Birth of a Nation. The film that was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen. Dixon was Wilson’s college roommate. That screening, of a blatantly racist movie, gave endorsement to violence and oppression from the highest office in the land. What followed? World War I, the 1917 influenza outbreak, the Red Summer (over 250 Blacks murdered in 25 riots started by white mobs), the Tulsa Massacre (estimates of murdered vary between 75–300 Blacks). . . on . . . and . . . on .
Telling a white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by” is not a dog whistle, it is, as countless others have noted, a bullhorn. Joined together with Trump’s call at the end of the debate to have “poll watchers,” essentially people at voting sites to intimidate and deter voters from casting their ballots, the message becomes clear. I can’t stress enough how utterly fascist this whole situation is. I’ve held off on using that word for a long time, mulling over if we were really headed towards fascism. If we’re not already there, we’re on a very thin precipice.
Remember, the Nazis looked to the US for their own gynocidal policies. The Nuremberg Laws are directly connected to Jim Crow. Yet, the Nazis felt that the laws on miscegenation went too far. Did you hear that? THE NAZIS THOUGHT THAT SOME JIM CROW LAWS WENT TOO FAR!
Misinformation, anti-intellectualism (1776 Commission), fearmongering (pick your speech), bullying, para military groups being told to “stand back and stand by,” xenophobic rhetoric, unbridled and unquestioned nationalism, poll watching (i.e. voter intimidation and suppression), and on and on, these are all fascism, through and through.
We need to be like Albert Einstein and others. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson talks about Einstein escaping Germany right before Hitler became chancellor. He was, as Wilkerson puts it, “one of the smartest men alive,” and he and his wife settled in Princeton, NJ. When he arrived, he saw the similarities in the ways African Americans were treated in the US and Jews in Germany. He could, as he said, “hardly believe that a reasonable man can cling so tenaciously to such prejudice.”
When Marian Anderson performed at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, she could not stay at the Nassau Inn because they refused to rent to her because she was Black. Einstein and his wife asked her to stay with them, and they formed a friendship. Every time Anderson was in the area, she would stay with the Einsteins, even after hotels in the area would accept Anderson. All of this, and more, caused Einstein to act. He was part of the NAACP. He worked to combat lynching. He spoke up.
Einstein had seen fascism, nationalism, and white supremacy firsthand. He knew what was occurring. He would write, “The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feelings of complicity in it only by speaking out.” Einstein did not accept many awards or speaking engagements. However, he did accept an invitation to speak at Lincoln University, and HBCU in Pennsylvania. He told the students at Lincoln University, “The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people, but a disease of the white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”
We need to be like Einstein, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and others. Because, as Lillian Smith put it in “Growing into Freedom” (1943): “The warping distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child from birth also. Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is there. As in its twisting distorted form it shapes and cripples the life and personality of one, it is shaping and crippling the life and personality of the other. It would be difficult to decide which character is maimed the more — the white or the Negro — after living in the Southern framework of Smith continued by talking about breaking the frame that encircles us.”