10/31/2016 01:50 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

The Gravest Peril

Co-authored with Jonathan D. Greenberg, Scholar in Residence, Daniel Martin Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, Stanford Law School.
This the third of three blogs, Jonathan D. Greenberg and I have recently written about the impact of the possible election of Donald Trump upon the 20th century legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr and the legacies of earlier historical struggles for social, racial and economic justice in our country. The election is nine days away. Accordingly, we think, respectfully, that sharing the information recited below, and our point of view, might be useful to readers as they contemplate about voting, or even, not voting in this 2016 Presidential election.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s had a complex and powerful understanding of time, holding two opposite perspectives in sustained tension.  

On the one hand, Dr. King took the long view, and demanded that we do the same.   "For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated," Dr. King wrote in Why We Can't Wait (1964).  "The surgery to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed.  As a beginning it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease."  

On the other hand, he recognized that political history and moral obligation intersect in the immediate moment, demanding that we take a fateful stand, without delay.

On April 4, 1967, one year to a day before his assassination, Dr. King spoke at New York's Riverside Church about the imperatives of conscience at the height of the Vietnam War. "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now," he said. "In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late."  Only by attending to cause and effect, and the history that led to the present moment, can we fully grasp the moment's gravity and urgency, and the decisive action required of us. "The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history."

Today we are again confronted by the fierce urgency of now. Though we would prefer it otherwise, we face a national and moral emergency that threatens the integrity and survival of our democracy. Tragically, the harsh reality of this emergency, and the full measure of its gravity, is obscured by smoke and mirrors, trivia, invective and innuendo.

According to the Sunday October 30 Washington Post/ABC tracking poll, Clinton's lead over Trump has narrowed since October 22 -- from 12 points (Clinton 50 - Trump 38) to 1 point (Clinton 46 - Trump 45) - thus "cementing Trump's resurgence in the past week and marking the potentially critical role of turnout in the election's outcome."

Our urgent task is to mobilize voters. As if the future of our nation depends on it. Because it does.

This requires immense effort, even as we are exhausted, dismayed and overwhelmed.

How can we can find the energy and motivation necessary to accomplish this task?

We must step away from social media, network broadcasting and cable TV, and the circus sideshows they manufacture, to regain a deeper perspective.

We must X-ray our history, as Dr. King demanded, to understand Trumpism in the long narrative of white supremacy in America.

We must envision the catastrophe that would likely result should we fail, and assess the magnitude of that catastrophe with sober accuracy.

And then we must take all necessary actions to avert it.

Last July, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan reported on "four days of chaos" at the Republican National Convention ("Make America Hate Again"). Egan recounts the exhortations that came from the arena stage and the auditorium bleachers ("all Mexicans are rapists, all Muslims are terrorists, all crime is rising, Hillary Clinton is the devil and should be shot"). When it was over, "fear had won the hall.  And we should fear -- for the republic, for a democracy facing its gravest peril since the Civil War."

Three traumatic months later, in an October 11 op-ed in the Washington Post, ("Why we shouldn't forgive the Republicans who sold their souls"), Robert Kagan reaches the same conclusion: "[The Republican Party] has worked to place in the White House the most dangerous threat to U.S. democracy since the Civil War."

Two observers, looking back at our nation's history from different political perspectives, reach the identical conclusion: Donald Trump's candidacy is the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War. What are we to make of this claim? Is it hyperbole, or an accurate assessment?

In our judgment, this is a fair and compelling analysis - with an extremely important caveat.

The gravest peril to our democracy since the Civil War was the fragility of Northern support for Reconstruction. Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglas, and many other former Abolitionists warned of the dire nature of this threat. Their pleas, however, were drowned out by the emerging coalition of Northern business interests and Southern "states rights" politicians loosely organized under the banner of "Redemption." The majority of Republicans sold their souls in the bargain, as the slaveholding Democrats had years before, and the democratic and human rights of African American communities throughout the South were destroyed as a result. Constitutional rights supposedly guaranteed by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were eviscerated for a century.

As summarized by the great African American scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois: "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."

Martin Luther King, Jr. also emphasized this history, connecting the post-Reconstruction withdrawal of federal troops to the 1850 Compromise that created the Fugitive Slave Act. "The Negro was the tragic victim of another compromise in 1878," King emphasized, "when his full equality was bargained away by the Federal Government and a condition somewhat above slave status but short of genuine citizenship become his social and political existence for nearly a century." This political deal launched a hundred-year reign of black codes, indentured servitude, Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement enforced by law, political authorities, and white supremacist terror, conditions of oppression that were not reversed until the black liberation movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Our national history is replete with anti-democratic or authoritarian populist figures and movements across the decades since the so-called "Redemption" of the late 1870s.  The Ku Klux Klan, in multiple waves and incarnations, empowered by the Northern "Redeemers."  The Know Nothings and other nativist parties and groups. The anti-Semitism of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford.  William Pelley's fascist Silver Shirt movement, and pro-Nazi anti-Semitic elements in the America First coalition.  Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism.  Senator Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats.  Robert Welch's John Birch Society.  Alabama Governor George Wallace.  The Christian Identity movement, white supremacist and Neo-Nazi organizations, anti-government militias and related hate groups that Donald Trump's campaign has energized over the past fifteen months.

In this list of virulent racists, self-styled fascists, and populist demagogues, does Trump represent the greatest threat since the end of Reconstruction?

Though we prefer it otherwise, the answer is yes.

Neither Coughlin, nor Ford, nor Pelley, nor McCarthy, nor Welch, nor any Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, self-declared Bircher, Neo-Nazi or white nationalist came anywhere near as close as Donald Trump to capturing the unique and awesome power our nation bestows on the American President, Chief Executive of the largest domestic administrative regime and Commander in Chief of by far the largest and most destructive military apparatus in the history of the world.  

As President, Donald Trump would control all agencies of the Federal government. He has promised to prosecute Hillary Clinton; presumably, he would do the same for other political enemies. He's denigrated Black Lives Matter activists, and he has endorsed "stop and frisk" policing of African American neighborhoods under a new "law and order" regime. A Trump Justice Department could severely weaken the federal government's civil rights and voting rights enforcement efforts, enabling states to disenfranchise poor and minority voters under the guise of anti-voter fraud measures. Trump has pledged to direct federal immigration enforcement agencies to deport millions of undocumented individuals and families, and subject immigrants and foreign visitors to "extreme vetting." He's praised the use of torture against suspected terrorists, and the use of murder against their families. All of this is framed in racial terms by white supremacist groups that support him.

In sum, Donald Trump's candidacy, and the direct and indirect support it has garnered from Republican Party leadership in Congress, echoes the "Redeemers" betrayal of democracy and human rights of the late 1870s.

We note with trepidation a recent article ("Trump the Redeemer") in the racist "alt-right" online magazine American Renaissance. "The Obama administration has repeatedly humiliated whites for being white and ensured that there can be no defense against degradation... Donald Trump is like the post-Civil War Southern political leaders who sought to restore the honor of whites after bayonet-backed Radical Republican carpetbaggers imposed rule by former slaves." In the 1870s, "[t]he defenders of white honor were called 'Redeemer'." In 2016, "I believe that this unstated promise helps drives the passion for Donald Trump. He is a modern day Redeemer."

As Dr. King warned us: there's such a thing as being too late.

Understanding the magnitude of the catastrophe a Trump Presidency would bring to our nation, we must not be too late to stop it