Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and the Misuse of American History

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tags: Trump, Ben Carson



Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2012, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.

 

... In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism. ...




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