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Between Trump, Obama and what South Africa has taught me

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A Black Lives Matter protest – Photo credit: John Rothwell

The people of South Africa have taught me many lessons since I first became aware of the freedom struggle in the mid-80s and later spent a year that began a quarter century ago this month teaching and coaching at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat.

The remarkable courage of those who fought to overthrow the apartheid regime’s oppressive yoke.

The unstinting generosity of my exchange partner Vukani Cele and his friends, who took me in as a brother that year and have not let go in the following decades.

The achingly slow path toward societal transformation for this beautiful, wounded and blood-soaked land.

One of the most powerful lessons has been the positive role music can play in a liberation fight.  Senzenina is near the top of that list for me.  The song’s mournful, soulful and defiant strains sung at mass funerals lament, “What have we done?”  moved me deeply from the first time I heard it.

We could sing that song every day in the United States during the Trump era.

On Thursday, January 19, 2017, I boarded a bus in New York City headed to Washington, DC to cover the inauguration.  I went because I wanted to witness the transition from our nation’s first black president, a man of elegance and integrity and grace, to the man who had drawn national attention by advancing the false and racist theory that President Obama was not born in the United States.  A man who oozed contempt for, and campaigned explicitly against, immigrants and openly invoked a mythic all-white past.

I rode next to a Columbia University sophomore from California who was heading there to meet his father. He said that he first gained a positive impression of the incoming president while watching The Apprentice.  In our nation’s capital I spoke to a Latina from New Mexico who said she was staunchly in favor of building the border wall promised by Trump in his campaign.

I also listened to the newly inaugurated president issue his fiery speech decrying what he called “American carnage” and closing with his pledge to “make America great again.”

I wrote the following after the ceremony:

If there was any doubt before Donald Trump’s searing, angry inaugural address and initial actions as President of the United States, let that be permanently gone.

Everything is on the table:

  • America’s role as a leader engaged in transnational alliances;
  • A national commitment to fight climate change;
  • The right of Americans to healthcare that has been under assault from Republicans since the passage of the landmark Affordable Care Act in 2010;
  • Government agencies that have supported the arts and public for decades;
  • The belief that our country’s diversity is an asset to be appreciated and embraced;
  • And, according to some, the core and soul of our democratic nation.

Close to four years later, I have come to the sad conclusion that I was correct. If anything, I underestimated how bad things could become.

My purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive chronicling of the Trump Administration’s misdeeds, but rather to place them into four major categories.

The domestic policies that have focused largely on erasing all manner of regulation and oversight and easing the wealthiest Americans’ tax burden.

The aggressive, relentless gutting of the American government.

The constant assault on the media and truth.

And the constant egregious violation of presidential and behavioral norms.

Let me give just a few of the many examples of the latter:

In 2017 he called white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville “very fine people.”

The following year he labeled Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries.”

Earlier this year he said that the coronavirus would “just sort of disappear” and then predicated state-level aid on how nicely governors asked for assistance.

Some of these statements are offensive, while others arguably are punishable by our constitution.  All go against the spirit of who we are as a national community and what we have pledged ourselves to be.  All contribute to the steady degradation of our imperfect, sometimes backward moving democratic experiment.

Together, Trump’s actions and statements have led to a stomach-churning, teeth-gnashing feeling, a sense that the bottom has not arrived and may never get here.

A daily feeling of new lows, of yet another barrier breached.  A disorienting feeling of our democracy being defiled with a pollutant daily filling its lungs.

And yet, another of the powerful lessons I’ve learned from South Africa has been the way that the very people who would attend the funerals where the song was sung would dry their tears, dust themselves off and continue in the push toward justice. They were strengthened, not diminished, by what they had endured, undaunted and fortified by the importance of moving forward.

That is what we must do now.

As a society we must channel those feelings of disorientation, dismay and outrage into fighting for this election and our democracy.

It will be a difficult one.

A Biden-Harris triumph is by no means guaranteed. Even after all that has happened during his tenure, some polls still project Trump to receive 50 percent of the white vote.  This says nothing about all of the antidemocratic moves many Republicans officials are engaged in to suppress the vote-particularly among people of color and poor folks who tend to vote Democratic. Trump has already made repeated efforts to cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy by lying about mail-in voter fraud.

We also must be honest and say both that many inequalities existed long before Trump and that without his inept handling of the coronavirus, he would likely have cruised to victory.  I’ll acknowledge that Biden is a flawed candidate whose victory will by no means heal all of society’s ills.

And yet a central truth of this moment is that our democracy, already battered and wounded, could suffer irreparable harm should Trump be elected to a second term.

For many people the fight for our democracy began the day of the inauguration, when they gathered in cities across the country to prepare for a Women’s March. It has continued through the 2018 election that flipped the House of Representatives, and has erupted in unprecedented numbers following the murder in May of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street under the knee of Derek Chauvin.

The election is in 76 short days.

After that we will know if we will be able to consider the Trump era as a difficult period from which we must begin the necessary work of healing and repair, or if we will be singing Senzenina with even more feeling than before.

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Chair of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University and the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ).

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