LEST WE FORGET: Donald Trump And Jefferson Davis

This Blog is co-authored by Jonathan D. Greenberg, Scholar in Residence, Daniel Martin Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, Stanford Law School
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On September 3, Donald Trump addressed congregants at an African American church in Detroit: "Becoming the nominee of the Party of Abraham Lincoln -- a lot of people don't realize that Abraham Lincoln, the great Abraham Lincoln was a Republican -- has been the greatest honor of my life," http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/donald-trump-detroit-transcript. He said "It is on his legacy that I hope to build the future of the Party but more important the future of the country and the community."

On October 22, Donald Trump came to Gettysburg, "hallowed ground where so many lives were given in service to freedom. Amazing place." If we as a nation elect him as President, Trump proclaimed, "we will once more have a government of, for and by the people."

Donald Trump likens himself to Abraham Lincoln. Is Jefferson Davis a better comparison?

In 1846, national war-fever followed President James Polk's claim that "the Mexicans invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil." In a dramatic speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, first-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln proved that Polk's claim was a lie. Lincoln opposed the Mexican invasion as a racist, immoral war initiated for the purpose of expanding slavery. To further this purpose, young Jefferson Davis led a volunteer brigade of Mississippians deep into the Mexican heartland, proudly "writing their valor... on the bodies of our enemies with lead and steel."

U.S. soldiers and militias conquered land and people from Santa Fe to Matamoros, from Veracruz to Mexico City itself.   Washington demanded roughly half of Mexico's territory, as "reparations" for war costs, if Mexico wished to end U.S. military occupation of its nation. Over subsequent decades, these Mexican lands would become incorporated into ten new U.S. states:  Texas, California, Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.  Mexican citizens and indigenous peoples who lived in these conquered territories did not migrate across the U.S. border -- the U.S. border migrated across them, erasing their citizenship and property rights overnight.

Later, as a politician, Jefferson Davis loved speaking to crowds. "Happy am I to greet this vast multitude..." https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content."With us, and with us alone, the white man attains to his true dignity in the Government." https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx

As President of the Confederacy, Davis emphasized to his white constituents the core issue that fueled secession: "Will you be slaves? Will you consent to be robbed of your property?" https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx.

Davis denounced Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as "the most execrable measure recorded in the history of man." https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/03/reviews/001203.03byrdlt.html

At the 1890 Harvard University commencement, African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois discussed Davis, his character and legacy, twenty-five years after the Confederacy's defeat. "Jefferson Davis was a typical Teutonic hero," he said. "[T]he history of civilization during the last millennium has been the development of the idea of the Strong Man of which he was the embodiment."

Davis was Lincoln's nemesis. Poignantly, Du Bois did not attack the man - just the toxic racial culture in which he emerged a leader. As a human being, Du Bois observed, Davis had admirable qualities. "The Anglo-Saxon loves a soldier," he said, and "Jefferson Davis was a soldier." He was "[a] soldier and a lover, a statesman and a ruler; passionate, ambitious and indomitable; bold reckless guardian of a people's All."

To Du Bois, Davis was a heroic figure, even as he represented a decadent, inhuman society. "[J]udged by the whole standard of Teutonic civilization, there is something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis," Du Bois insisted, even as that standard violates "every canon of human justice."

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Du Bois understood that racism cripples and deforms its perpetrators no less than its victims. White supremacy is a social pathology, "a system of human culture whose principle is the rise of one race on the ruins of another." Such a system "is a farce and a lie." For Du Bois, "this is the type of civilization which Jefferson Davis represented," a civilization of "moral obtuseness and refined brutality."

Yet even a racist, evil system could produce a Jefferson Davis, "a naturally brave and generous man," a leader of "stalwart manhood and heroic character." However noble or courageous Davis might be, his life represents "the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole: the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the Thou."

Donald Trump shares with Jefferson Davis the moral obtuseness and refined brutality of white nationalism. More than any major figure in contemporary America, Trump projects "the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the Thou."

So it is not surprising that millions of his followers see Trump in this historic light.
But Trump is not a soldier, nor a statesman. Nor he is a naturally brave and generous man. And there is not a trace of nobility about him.

In sum, Donald Trump is no Jefferson Davis.

But this doesn't seem to bother many of Trump's most ardent supporters.
In a national Economist/YouGov poll conducted in January 2016, 20 percent of Trump's supporters said that they disapproved of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states (an additional 13 percent were "not sure"). (https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/bpdyys33xc/econTabReport_20160116_EO_X_REPNOM.)

Last summer, editor of the Neo-Nazi "Daily Stormer" (self-identified as "The World's #1 Alt-Right and Pro-Genocide Website") endorsed him: "I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President." Most if not all of the largest white supremacist organizations and websites have followed suit, and many of their adherents look to Trump
as a national savior.

On November 2, the Ku Klux Klan's official newspaper The Crusader ("The Political Voice of White Christian America! THE PREMIER VOICE OF WHITE RESISTANCE") added their enthusiastic endorsement: "Can America really be great again? That is what we will soon find out," the newspaper promised. "America was great not because of what our forefathers did - but because who our forefathers were. America was great because America was founded as a White Christian Republic. And as a White Christian Republic it became great."
(http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/10/donald-trump-2016-white-nationalists-alt-right-214388)

Also on November 2, the New York Times reports that a historic African American church in Greenville Mississippi was badly burned "with the words 'Vote Trump' spray-painted on the side of the building, an episode that comes amid rising concerns over possible violence in the final days of a polarizing and racially charged presidential race." Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons "said that firefighters, responding to a call around 9:15 p.m., discovered the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church 'engulfed in flames.'" Fire Chief Ruben Brown "said investigators had concluded that the fire was 'definitely arson' after discovering 'some type of solvent or flammable substance' inside. According to the Times, "[t]he 200-member church has been a fixture for more than 110 years in Greenville, a Mississippi Delta city of about 32,000."

In the mid-20th century, as African-Americans struggled to integrate the Deep South, church bombings were among the ugliest acts of retaliation by recalcitrant white racists... The mayor said he visited church members Wednesday. "I talked to folks who were fearful," he said. "I talked to people who were intimidated. I talked to people who, quite frankly, were saddened and crying last night. This should not happen in 2016. It happened in the '50s. It happened in the '60s. But we're in 2016."

Also on Wednesday, about three dozen people gathered in a park along the Greenville waterfront to pray and speak about healing and the primacy of faith over politics. Joining a Methodist preacher, an Episcopal priest and a synagogue president in the cool of the night was Alice Washington, a member of Hopewell. "We had good church on Sunday," she said, saying it had been some time since she remembered such a good service. "We've been trying to figure out who would do something like this to our church," she said. "Whoever done it, may God bless them."

Lest we forget.