In 1992 and 1993, I taught American history in a Brooklyn high school, students half African-American, half white. In discussing race, I mentioned that the American population was less than 15% black. My students were horrified.
They couldn’t believe it. “The country is half black,” one shouted, “just look around!” I was stumped; my own experience spanned a dozen states, rural communities, cities and small towns—in the North, the Midwest and the South. Theirs did not. Most had hardly been outside of New York City. Their education had been carefully calibrated to give equal weight to the experiences of those of African ancestry with those of European. How was I going to convince them of something different from what they saw with their own eyes and that years of schooling had seemed to confirm?
My students thought that I was echoing a lie put forth by racist America to denigrate to contribution of African-Americans to the development of the country—specifically, one said, it was an attempt to refute the movement for reparations for slavery. They continued to argue against me, pointing out the numbers of blacks in sports and in entertainment. What I was telling them just could not be true.
When I hear Donald Trump saying he’s ahead, that polls are lying (just look at the turnout at his rallies), I think back to those students. They had just enough information directly around them to gainsay any contradiction, just like Trump and his supporters. For a recent New York Times article, a Trump fan expressed sentiments similar to theirs: “‘I don’t believe anything the media says,’ said Brad Chilson, 47, a truck driver from Bradford County, Pa., who waited hours with his wife outside the 8,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre for Mr. Trump. ‘Look at the turnout we’ve got here.’” The media, for the Trumpanistas, play the role I performed for my history class.
What I finally did was turn to Mario Van Peebles. He had a new movie out, Posse, a revisionist Western that ends with a statement that 14% of Americans are African-American. I took my students to see it so they could get the information from someone they could trust instead of from me, simply a know-it-all teacher and tool of the establishment.
Something with similar credibility is going to be needed to counter the ‘echo chamber’ effect on Trump supporters today, particularly concerning charges of a “rigged” election. It doesn’t do any good for Barack Obama to call Trump out for “whining” or for Paul Ryan to say he is “‘fully confident’ in the nation’s elections system.” Even Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, whose conservative bona fides are impeccable, calls Trump’s claims “irresponsible,” but so what? He’s as much an insider as Ryan, so can’t be trusted.
What’s needed is for the people with as much ‘street cred’ among Trump supporters as the younger Van Peebles had among my Gen X urban students to stand up and, for the first time in most of their careers, act responsibly in terms of the great American political system that they all claim to adore. Such people include Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the rest of the Fox News crew, Glenn Beck and others (I don’t include Ann Coulter or Alex Jones, for I don’t think they have any respect for, or commitment to, the American system). All of them have claimed, at one time or another, reverence for the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.
They have a chance to prove that, right now. Some, thank goodness, are, including Bill O’Reilly, but there is nothing but silence (or attempts at justifying Trump’s words) from most of the rest.
Liberals and progressives, often painted as traitors by stalwarts of the right, proved their dedication to the American system in 2000, when Al Gore, though he had won the popular vote, was denied the presidency. More people in Florida likely voted for him than for George W. Bush but Bush was handed the state’s electoral votes through a 5-4 partisan vote by the Supreme Court. The outcome was both unjust and against the will of the people, but it was arrived at through a system that has been the bedrock of American society for two centuries. That was more important to the left (as it is to all real patriots) than the damage Bush would do as president (and that proved to be extensive). Even in hindsight, it is clear that Gore did the right thing in giving up his struggle and assuring a smooth transfer of power. His restraint make him a great hero of American democracy.
Will anyone with real influence over Trump’s supporters stand up and make a similar commitment to this country? Will any on the right act as heroes of America—or will they show that their claims of allegiance to the Constitution and the country are nothing more than what Judge Mark Walker (referring to Governor Rick Scott’s rationale for refusing to extend Florida’s voter-registration deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew) called “poppycock”?
We’re at a crisis point in the United States, one that could prove as significant to the survival of our old nation as that of the winter of 1776-1777 was for its birth. Thomas Paine’s words in December of 1776 need to be heard by Americans again today, especially by those who claim to love this country yet who have not yet stood up to the vote-rigging claims of a demagogue who could destroy it:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
We will soon see if any of the influential on the right are more than sunshine patriots. We will soon see if any of them has the integrity Al Gore showed. We will soon see if they are believers, or traitors.