It’s not too late to re­pu­di­ate

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— Ev­ery na­tion has sa­cred places, where his­tory has stopped and lin­gered, and vis­i­tors are hushed by mem­o­ries of redemp­tive sac­ri­fice. One is the bal­cony out­side Room 306 at the Lor­raine Mo­tel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated. On this spot a fa­mil­iar voice was stilled, but also some­how mag­ni­fied, be­com­ing part of our col­lec­tive con­science.

This site is now part of a fine mu­seum — the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum — that un­folds the story that King told and shaped. How 12 mil­lion Africans were shipped as slaves across the At­lantic, the largest forced mi­gra­tion in his­tory. How they built re­silient in­sti­tu­tions that main­tained their iden­tity and de­manded their free­dom. How a great war ended slav­ery but not op­pres­sion. How AfricanAmer­i­cans suf­fered a cen­tury of cruel and sys­tem­atic in­dig­nity.

Then came a move­ment of con­science in which be­ing a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer could de­mand the courage of a sol­dier and get your head cracked open. A move­ment op­posed by do­mes­tic ter­ror­ists who bombed homes and churches, and mur­dered chil­dren (should we re­fer to them as “rad­i­cal Chris­tian ter­ror­ists”?).

This story of a cap­tive peo­ple who forced Amer­ica to ful­fill its own ideals — the story of pris­on­ers who freed them­selves and also freed their jail­ers — is one of the most com­pelling moral nar­ra­tives out­side of scrip­ture. Lead­ers such as King be­lieved that his­tory has an arc, de­ter­mined by the ap­peal of free­dom and the Author of free­dom. And their vi­sion of hu­man rights be­came an insep­a­ra­ble part of the Amer­i­can story: a na­tion that de­clared high ideals, then was judged by them, and now is mo­ti­vated by them to ex­pand the cir­cle of in­clu­sion, pro­tec­tion and prom­ise.

I hap­pened to visit the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum at the same time that a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date at­tacked the mother of a fallen Amer­i­can sol­dier by em­ploy­ing an anti-Mus­lim stereo­type (“maybe she wasn’t al­lowed to have any­thing to say”). Don­ald Trump went on to as­sert that the sol­dier’s fa­ther, Khizr Khan, had “no right to stand in front of mil­lions of peo­ple and claim I have never read the Con­sti­tu­tion” — a state­ment that proved Khan’s point.

My point here is not that Trump is a class­less, ego­tis­ti­cal sadist — though the case is strong. It is that Trump’s view of na­tion­al­ism is based on cul­ture, eth­nic­ity and ex­clu­sion. It does not even mat­ter if sus­pi­cious out­siders have made what Abraham Lin­coln called “so costly a sac­ri­fice upon the al­tar of free­dom.” Their faith, in Trump’s view, is for­eign and im­me­di­ately as­so­ci­ated with stereo­types of op­pres­sion and vi­o­lence. The same is true with Mexican eth­nic­ity, which Trump has iden­ti­fied with sex­ual ag­gres­sion and mur­der. Trump is not merely in­dif­fer­ent to the lan­guage of racial and re­li­gious in­clu­sion; he is ac­tively hos­tile to the premise.

Lead­ers who sup­port Trump — mem­bers of Congress, con­ser­va­tive thoughtlead­ers, fig­ures of the re­li­gious right — do so for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. But what­ever their mo­ti­va­tions, they are en­cour­ag­ing an al­ter­nate and de­graded ver­sion of Amer­ica’s story. In Trump’s telling, this is a na­tion that was once great, but is now be­sieged and in­fil­trated by threats to its iden­tity. Other na­tions — “France is no longer France” — have al­lowed their dis­tinct cul­tures to be over­whelmed by im­mi­gra­tion and out­side in­flu­ences. Amer­ica must be pro­tected by a strong leader from the same fate. And Trump’s Amer­ica is de­fined as the fa­mil­iar na­tion of decades past, which was largely white and Chris­tian.

In fact, Amer­ica is the model for the world when it comes to in­te­grat­ing Mus­lims and peo­ple of other faiths into a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety. Rather than rec­og­niz­ing this achieve­ment, Trump would undo it, and fos­ter the kind of con­flict he warns against.

But there is even more at stake. Those who sup­port Trump are set­ting the Repub­li­can Party at odds with the Amer­i­can story told by Lin­coln and King: a na­tion­al­ism de­fined by striv­ing to­ward uni­fy­ing ideals of free­dom and hu­man dig­nity. Is this what the speaker of the House, the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader, the chair­man of the Repub­li­can Party and so many other good peo­ple in­tended when they en­tered pol­i­tics? Is this how they de­fine their soul’s high pur­pose?

In his last pub­lic ad­dress, the night be­fore his mur­der, King mused on mor­tal­ity, say­ing he would die “happy” and “not fear­ing any man” be­cause he was sure of his life’s mis­sion, which in­cluded “stand­ing up for the best in the Amer­i­can dream.”

Which Repub­li­can lead­ers can now rest in that con­fi­dence? It is not too late to re­pu­di­ate.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.

MEM­PHIS, TENN.

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