Lewis V Baldwin
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. This is the fiftieth anniversary of that tragic episode in our history, and memories of what happened still linger in the minds and hearts of millions. As we remember Dr. King in this “age of Trumpism,” we wonder if there is any consistency, congruity, or moral equivalency at all between his struggle “to make the American dream a reality” and President Donald John Trump’s promise “to make America great again.” Undoubtedly, countless questions along these lines will be raised in the coming weeks, as discussions about Dr. King’s life, death, and enduring legacy occur in academic settings, churches, and in the larger public sphere of our society.
Trumpism has encouraged and inspired several developments in our society which pose a threat to the continuing realization of Dr. King’s dream. First, the breakdown of reality-based, rational, and critical-analytical thinking. In other words, all too many in our nation seem to have lost the ability to face reality and to think in accordance with the dictates of reason and a careful process of intellectual discipline and discernment. Trumpism has created a climate in which truth is under assault, reality is too often denied in preference for “an alternative reality,” logical thinking consistently bows to beliefs and conspiracy theories that are manifestly ludicrous, the non-sensible is routinely packaged as that which makes the most sense, and lofty idealism frequently surrenders to small-mindedness, narrow interests, and mindless nihilism. Sadly, we are increasingly uncomfortable with Dr. King’s image of a society in which citizens cherish “the search for truth,” “an open and analytical mind,” and an unwavering receptivity to “the best lights of reason.”
Second, Trumpism is contributing to a radical departure from basic standards of human decency and civility, which are essential to strong character, great leadership, and the building of community. Civilized conduct, courtesy, politeness, and empathy are too often sacrificed on the altar of incivility, outright rudeness, and a consuming attitude of inconsideration. Although Mr. Trump epitomizes this spirit in so many instances, it is by no means confined to him alone. Die-hard supporters of Trumpism frequently ignore and scoff at the idea of political correctness, rampart partisanship is increasingly leading to governmental dysfunction, and rarely do people greet each other with genuine respect, kindness, and hearty exchanges of civilities. Since the election of Mr. Trump, feelings of anger, bitterness, and disenchantment have reached fever pitch in America, and the widening chasms that divide Americans are painfully evident in the mounting incidents of road rage, bullying in our schools, and the active shooter scenarios that unfold in homes, schools, the streets, and even in churches. Americans would do well to reject the factional dynamics of both our national politics and our daily existence, and especially Trumpism’s sense of “us versus them” scenarios, while revisiting Dr. King’s vision of a nation in which people relate to each other in the spirit of understanding, nonviolence, forgiveness, goodwill, and cooperation.
Third, Trumpism is largely responsible for the normalization and/or legitimation of forms of bigotry and intolerance. Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments about Mexicans and Muslims and his overall record of dealings with women, minorities, and the poor are too often overlooked, casually dismissed, and even fiercely defended in some circles. Our growing inability to experience moral outrage in the face of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, nativism, and all of the other “isms” that afflict our society is exposed daily. Dr. King always warned Americans against becoming too comfortable with bigotry, injustice, and intolerance, for he understood that such evils could only insure endless cycles of dehumanization. Thus, his challenge around the need to cultivate a culture of openness and enlargement that embraces all, irrespective of human differences, is as relevant today as it was a half century ago.
Fourth, Trumpism is associated with the mounting distrust of well-established democratic norms, values, institutions, and structures. Trumpism seems oblivious to the democratic norms and values that define America, and it consistently bombards and challenges us with the most negative images of the media, the two-party system, the judiciary, the justice department, the intelligence community, and other institutions and structures that have claimed so much of our loyalty over time. We are left with the growing impression that we are much better off when we turn to Trumpism for answers about who we are and how we should define ourselves as Americans in these times of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, and glaring polarization. Dr. King believed deeply in the power of America’s democratic creed and traditions, and this grounded his quest for the fullest realization of its constitutional and participatory democracy. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation, as he read them, spoke to the ideals of a nation that is constantly moving toward the fullness of what it can and should be as a democracy.
Fifth, Trumpism is breeding a disturbing tendency toward national isolationism. It attacks globalization, isolates allies, uses name-calling, threats, and reprisals as tactics in U. S. diplomacy, promotes a foreign policy rooted in amateurism and incoherence, and encourages the kind of self-centered nationalism and isolationism that stand in stark contrast to our traditions of faith, the hallmark of our participatory democracy, and the reach of our ecumenical loyalty. Trumpism’s “America first” doctrine, on so many levels, is increasingly becoming an “America only” and an “America alone” doctrine, and there is virtually no commitment to the actualization of Dr. King’s vison of a better, just, and more inclusive world. In his last two books, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) and The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), Dr. King warned America about the perils of isolationism, and he challenged us to a greater awareness of our world citizenship. He framed this in terms of “the social nature of human existence” and “the interrelated structure of all life and reality,” declaring that what affects one of us directly affects all indirectly. This nation needs to reclaim a healthy sense of the essential oneness of humanity, irrespective of national boundaries and the artificial barriers of race, religion, economics, politics, and culture. There is not better tribute to this “drum major” on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. After all, the legacy of Dr. King should remind us that humanity functions best not when walls of separation are constructed, but when bridges of unity are established.
Finally, Trumpism is the force behind the silencing, marginalization, and cooptation of potential prophetic voices and profiles in courage. Dr. King believed deeply in the necessity, power, and efficacy of prophetic and courageous leadership, and we can only imagine what he would say about so-called moral and spiritual leaders who remain silent and noncommittal in the face of Trumpism. King felt that the Christian Church should provide society’s strongest prophetic voices and profiles in courage, and he would undoubtedly be appalled at the lack of moral seriousness and commitment on the part of religious leaders, and especially evangelicals, who quietly accept, justify, and even sanction some of the worst aspects of Ttrumpism. Mega and super-mega church leaders, who have a platform to speak to the whole world, are actually a gift to Trumpism and an insult to Dr. King’s legacy. And as long as this is the case, Trumpism will continue unabated, unaccountable, and unchecked. We can find some relief and hope in the fact that Trumpism is recharging calls for social justice and social change in this nation, and the leadership is coming not from the religious and political establishments, but from Black Lives Matter, the Me-Too Movement, and high school kids who are leading the March for Our Lives. They are the true caretakers of the King legacy.
Trumpism and its effects will continue for years to come, but we must never forget Dr. King’s parting words to the people of this country, on April 3, 1968. He declared, in essence, that the choice is ultimately between chaos and community. If he was with us today, I believe he would remind us that we are stronger when we choose freedom, democracy, and community over tyranny, fascism, and tribalism.
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Dr. L. V Baldwin was born and raised in Wilcox County, Alabama and is a graduate of Camden Academy, a stronghold of student civil rights activism in the 1960′-70s. Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University and the author of six books on Martin Luther King, Jr. He is also a co-author of two, the editor of two, and a co-editor of two, for a total of twelve books on Dr. King. He currently resides in Nashville, TN with his wife Jacqueline Laws Baldwin.