There is a lack of moral leadership in America. The country is like a wheel: racism, consumerism, celebrity-worship, violence at home and abroad, sexism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and extreme wealth and income inequality radiate are like the spokes radiating outward from the moral vacuum at its center.
This article was originally published at Salon
Donald Trump’s election is one major effect of this moral crisis, but arguably not its cause.
How did this moral crisis come to be? How have racism and other forms of bigotry compromised the common good and social welfare of the United States? How does racism and white supremacy hurt white people? How do we explain the way evangelical Christians were so easily seduced by Donald Trump, a man who could be described as the living embodiment of the seven deadly sins? How do we correct America’s lack of moral leadership, and stop or reverse Donald Trump’s authoritarian political movement?
In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Michael Eric Dyson. He is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and the author of many books, including his most recent,”What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America” and “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.”
Dyson is also a regular guest on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” as well as CNN, NPR and MSNBC.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast or through the link embedded below.
When you think about this moment in America, with President Donald Trump, did you ever think you would see such a thing transpire?
Not in such naked intensity, that a man of such manifest incompetence and Herculean ignorance would be at the helm of the ship of state. It’s pretty depressing. It’s pretty remarkable. But given the kind of person I am and the kind of people from whom I hail, I am forced to think about the consequences of all this that could be productive in an ironic way.
One of them is that people should understand that in many ways Donald Trump is the manifestation of what black people have warned America about in regard to whiteness for some 300 years. This is what racism looks like, this is how it happens, this is what it does to you. It’s incoherent often, it’s narcissistic, it’s self-preoccupied, it’s irrational, it comes at you in such gusts and waves of hostility that it’s hard to manage. It knocks you off-kilter, and you try to stand back off to fight it. This is what a lot of America is feeling in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency. He’s not an aberration from whiteness, so to speak. He’s an extension of the logic of what that is, at its base.
That’s one of the good things. And then the second thing is to remind ourselves that this is, by far, not the worst thing to ever happen in America. It is pretty bad but when you look back at history, Civil War, enslavement, Jim Crow and a host of ills — as bad as Donald Trump is, it isn’t the worst thing that happened. So let’s put the brakes on and figure out how to handle him and move beyond him in the future and heal the country.
Trump represents an existential threat to American democracy. He is also the living embodiment of how racism and white supremacy hurts white people. It is exhausting to have to keep trying to communicate those facts.
That’s true. But take a page from Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia. She’s reaching out to the people who believe what she believes. She thinks they’re strong enough and there are enough of them to put her in office. I use a political example to deliberately juxtapose the powerful cultural and social logic that you just expressed. Because, on the one hand, trying to convince white folks that this stuff is evil has been fruitless. To convince them that it’s against their best interests hasn’t been very successful either, because they continue to vote for people who are not at all helpful for their conditions.
This reflects the psychological wages of whiteness that W.E.B. Du Bois explained in his seminal, essential text, “Black Reconstruction.”
The psychological wage is what they accumulate, is what they’re paid in, it’s the coin of the realm of white supremacy. Trying to show white folks the horror and the utter trauma that is visited upon them when they embrace a figure like Trump is fruitless, because what they get in compensation for voting for him is the feeling that he’s speaking for them. He’s amplifying them, he’s echoing their xenophobia. He’s echoing their belief that black people and brown people and others are benefiting from something they shouldn’t be benefiting from. When Trump brings that kind of psychological advantage, it’s hard for us to argue successfully against white people cooperating with their own oppression, so to speak, or at least the worsening of their conditions.
The best thing is to put our cards on the table and talk about what helps this nation the most. We need to organize with people who share the same values. There are enough white people out there, along with other people of color and others, who are tired of Trump. They might not be tired of him for the same reasons we’re tired of him, but if all of us who are tired of him come together and say, “We have in common an enemy to all of our interests,” then we can forge connections and build alliances that will allow this country to survive.
Now, maybe for the first time, white brothers and sisters can see in Trump’s face, in his body, through his actions, as a result of his governance, just how horrible whiteness in general is. Don’t make this an exception. Don’t make Donald Trump an aberration. Make him the extension of the logic — make him the fulfillment or the apotheosis of white privilege, white racism, white tyranny, white terror, white supremacy.
There is a deep contradiction in the rise of Donald Trump. On one hand, none of this is at all surprising becauseTrump is a result of deep problems in this country that have lingered for centuries. But he seems like a character of the present — a reality-TV culture, consumerism, a disregard for the very idea of facts and universal truth. How do we work through this tension?
There it is, between those two things, surprise and expectation. Surprise because it’s such a blatant expression of racial narcissism and the collective instinct of whiteness to have a bunker mentality and to protect itself from knowing and being responsible for the horrors that whiteness brings. There’s a reinvestment in white racial innocence as a protection against the conception of their own complicity in what we see going on. If we can just put it on him then, “It’s him, not us.”
But no, it is us. It’s collective whiteness that’s at stake here, because white folks as a group would like to exempt themselves from the specific species and variety of white animus that they see going on there. But no: This is you all. This is your baby. He was fed on lies, mythologies, the accreted mendacity of a white culture that will not confront its own erosion and its own corruption. Ultimately, this is the culmination of what we know whiteness to be. It certainly is, if not expected, then predicted, that something like this could occur. We are in a moment where the doubling down on a kind of racial apocalypse that Donald Trump represents is in the offing.
Black and brown folks, especially African-Americans, have saved this country and its democracy many times. It seems like it’s going to be on black and brown folks’ shoulders to do it again. How do we manage this exhaustion — and the unfairness, given how nonwhites have historically been treated in this country?
To be even more focused it is black women, and women of color more generally, who are saving this democracy. Even if you narrow it down to electoral politics, black women voted some 90 percent for Hillary Clinton. They voted to put Doug Jones in office [in Alabama]. They have been saving many elections around the country. They have been far ahead of the curve in understanding the necessity for translating your idealistic, prophetic, collective aspirations about social transformation into tangible, digestible form. And what is that? Voting the right way. What is that? Showing up at the polls. What is that? Making certain that we elect officials who can sway the future in the right direction.
It’s extremely important to understand that, yes, we do have that burden. Is it right? No. Is it just? No. But we have always saved this nation. We’ll continue to do so. This is why by the way we reserve the right to criticize, as James Baldwin said, “I love this country above others,” but to paraphrase him, I reserve the right to criticize her perpetually. The reason we understand patriotism as deep is because we pay the deepest price for patriotism. When white people think they pay the ultimate price for patriotism, when they stood on those Civil War battlegrounds, when they stood up for this nation in foreign theaters of war, they think they have given the ultimate price.
But think about black and brown people who’ve done that, plus were denied their equal rights back home, their validity back home. How about standing for something that you were willing to die for — and then to be killed for trying to exercise it back home? For white brothers and sisters who think they paid the price: Look again, dig deeper. Other people have paid a deeper price for democracy than you, because they died for it in foreign theaters of war, and they died trying to pursue it at home as well.
In light of Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico, of children being stolen from their families by his ICE enforcers, and this moment in general, I have been thinking a great deal about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the sermon where he offered prophetic witness to America’s ills and predicted a national reckoning.
Consider the contrast between Obama and Wright, the politician and the prophet. For one of the first times, if not the first time, in African-American history, the prophetic was trumped by the political. Usually, whatever the prophet says goes. In the name of God, you must be held to account. But Obama brilliantly – some would say deceptively – absorbed the political capital of the prophetic expression in public and then articulated it as his own quest for office. Thus the prophetic was reduced to the shape of Obama’s aspiration for the presidency and black people were complicit because they believed God chose him to be the witness for this moment.
And the bitter irony is that Rev. Wright was literally crushed under the iron feet of black people running toward Obama, as well as being thrown under the bus by Obama himself. So, yes, there’s a way in which that prophetic witness needs to continue to resonate, to continue to rise up. Black people and others across the board have to continue to tell the truth and bear witness as much as they can, which is in part why I wrote my new book.
There I talk about the tension between Bobby Kennedy and James Baldwin and his compatriots. Because Kennedy, after leaving that meeting [with Baldwin] was so disappointed. He said, “They’re more interested in witness than in policy.” No, it’s not that they’re not interested in policy. It’s just that they understand that policy alone won’t shift the terms of the debate. We need policy in a critical fashion. But there are already laws on the book that suggest you shouldn’t go around killing unarmed black people. But anti-black animus continues to express a virulent degradation of black identity and a fear and a disregard for black humanity. Now, public policy can try to shift that so that we don’t have those horrible practices directly toward black people.
But when attorneys general or prosecutors and other local law enforcement officials do not bring these cops and others to responsibility before the law, then public policy alone won’t change the extraordinary hostility towards blackness that needs to be addressed at every level.
That signals to these long-running “national conversations” about race and the color line in America. What is there left to discuss? The fact that black and brown people should be treated as equal citizens is self-evident.
Yes that is an understandable position. It is tough. It is difficult. It is exhausting. You keep teaching the lesson and people keep not learning.
But we have to do it. It is part of our collective character. The nation‘s future hangs in the balance. Tired as we are, exhausted as we are, we got to keep going. We got to keep fighting. This is book No. 20 for me. Why do I continue to write? As long as the tragedy occurs, as long as the hardship and heartbreak arise, we have to continue to meet them blow for blow and figure out new ways of saying the same thing. Hopefully, at some point, we can get a different response and positive change will occur.
What would America look like, in the best sense, if Bobby Kennedy had lived?
If Bobby had lived, what a beautiful world this would be. And look, this is not to romanticize Bobby, because Bobby was a complicated figure. He worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. He wasn’t quite a henchman, but he was a fearless advocate for him. He evolved in awareness and became far more humane, but he was still a tough SOB as a politician.
The Kennedy brothers were on both sides of civil rights, so to speak. But Bobby was a bit more progressive than his older brother. He was curious about how these things would shake out, and willing to have dialogue and conversation. After that famous meeting in 1963 with Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Clarence Jones, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne and Jerome Smith the freedom rider –the latter being the most important figure there because he told the truth when others were trying to be polite — after that meeting Bobby was pissed, he put the FBI on many of the people who were there. If their dossiers had not yet been started by the FBI he started them after that meeting.
But Bobby also fought actively against his own bigotry, he acknowledged the limitations of his own racist outlook, to a degree. He was willing to confront the contradictions of his own perspective straightforwardly and grew far more interested in figuring out how to relieve black suffering and to address the plague of violence and rage that was besieging black America. He was a much more complicated figure than many give him credit for. Had he lived, I think we would have had a much more honest, nuanced conversation about race and been more straightforward in our attempts to grapple with it and make the country better.
Trump’s presidency and movement are a moral crisis. Yet right-wing Christians have gotten in bed with this man. They go so far as to say he is a tool for doing God’s will. How do we fill such a huge void in moral leadership?
They not only got in bed with him, they conceived an evil. These right-wing Christians who support Donald Trump conceived a troubling, barbarous, monstrous child of insistent white innocence tethered to nearly unprecedented, bigoted power. When you’ve got that, you’ve got something horrible on your hands. Shame on these conservative evangelical Christians, who were lambasting Barack Obama, berating him as a morally detestable figure. The right-wing, the evangelicals, the white Christians who constantly dare to criticize black and brown people for their supposed “bad culture” and “immorality” stand here not only ignoring Donald Trump, not only embracing him, but insisting that his particular way of doing things is the manifestation of a divine edict to change the culture. This, my friend, is not only blasphemous, it is ultimately traitorous to the faith that Jesus Christ has inspired. The real religion in America is not Christianity. It’s whiteness.
In this moment, what are you most hopeful for? What are you most worried about?
The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said there’s a great difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is based upon a reading of the tea leaves of what can be a positive outcome from some significantly damaging or chaotic circumstances. Hope, he says — regardless of when it’s dark, regardless of what it looks like, when it’s nearly impossible to imagine and conjure a future that will somehow grow from this — that’s what hope is.
What I’m worried about is that we won’t maintain that hope. What I’m worried about is that present circumstances will get us off our game, knock us off-kilter, make us believe that this is the worst it’s ever been. And it isn’t. Things have been far darker, far more harsh. It’s horrible now, and given the weaponizing of white supremacy and white innocence and white gullibility as a political tool for manipulation and crypto-fascism, it is indeed highly unnerving.
We must continue to persist in our belief in the future of this country, and those who believe in the future of this country are not the loud, obnoxious patriots. They are the people who insist that when this country goes off its rails, we try to get it back on track. We’re willing to tell the truth about the horrors done in the name of a democracy that we all love and embrace. What I’m worried about is that we may fail to understand and see that, thus circumventing our own progress by investing in the pessimism and the shortsightedness of which Donald Trump’s presidency is the perfect expression.