The plans for Virginia’s commemoration of 400 years of democratic governance on July 30 were proceeding without too much drama — until President Trump decided he would attend and speak at the event. He’s arriving after one of the most bizarre months of his presidency. This has led to some creative arranging for those of us who want to commemorate this important milestone for democracy, but would prefer not to participate in an event where Trump is on the program.
DIVERSITY OF PURPOSE
The events of this month include a commemoration of the origins of Democratic institutions in this hemisphere, which, though imperfect, have provided inspiration for future generations, and impetus to create a better nation and world. Specifically, on Tuesday we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of what became Virginia’s House of Delegates, the oldest representative legislature in the Western hemisphere. Importantly, events are also planned that acknowledge our nation’s history of racial oppression, a fact that has been with us since the first slaves set foot in the Jamestown settlement. The emphasis on both themes is important, and Trump’s presence will make that not only impossible, but potentially derails the power of the event. I understand why some may attend the Jamestown events with the President out of respect for the office, but I have chosen, out of respect for democratic institutions, to reject the normalization of Trump’s behavior. I will be attending many of the Jamestown events, but will forego those where the President is present.
HOW I WILL HONOR OUR HISTORY
My decision is informed by two principles: Democratic institutions matter and race matters. My commemoration and acknowledgement of 400 years of our history proceeds with these in mind.
I began by visiting an exhibit sponsored by American Evolution (the organizers of the Jamestown event) at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond. “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” is an installation that provides a summary of 400 years of racial struggle in our nation, highlighting “the long history of black Americans as they have fought for freedom, equal justice, and access to opportunities.” It is an amazing story of the struggle to secure civil rights, and is well worth a visit.
Race has been at the center of our politics and our struggles for equality from the time our ancestors set foot on this continent. Trump either does not understand this or chooses to ignore it. This is not new for him. From his race baiting comments in the Central Park jogger case or discriminatory actions of his companies decades ago, to his use of the bogus “birther” conspiracy to stoke anger against President Obama and build his own candidacy for the presidency, to his insensitive and inflammatory suggestions after Charlottesville that some white supremacists are “very fine people,” to his most recent suggestions that four members of Congress—all women of color—ought to go back to the countries from which they came (three were born here and the fourth is a naturalized citizen) and his attack on Baltimore as “a dangerous and filthy place … [where] no human being would want to live” as he lashed out at the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Trump has shown his willingness to play the race card for political gain, and has proven, again and again, that he cannot assist in building a more just and equal society. One of our strengths as Americans is that we do not tell our citizens to “go back;” with his recent comments, Trump has again tried to obliterate one of our founding principles. And with his recent moves on the census, he came very close to crossing the line of direct refusal to follow a court order (the U.S. Supreme Court). No wonder that so many of us feel we are in a fight to save the bedrock tenets of American democracy.
400 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY VS. TRUMP
Strong democratic institutions are one reason why we have made some progress on race, even though much remains to be done. When civil rights activists put their lives on the line for equality, their arguments were and are framed in the language of the Declaration, and their legal fight empowered by the Constitution, democratic institutions, and respect for the rule of law. If those foundations are undercut, something that we are now facing, we will go backward as a nation, and it will be those without power and wealth who will bear the brunt of the assault.
The Trump presidency has been continuously attacking the institutions of Democracy itself. Despite voluminous evidence of “widespread and systematic” Russian interference in our 2016 election to support a Trump victory, he constantly argues that this is a hoax and “fake news.” The callous disregard many of Trump’s associates have shown for our institutions have led to significant indictments and convictions; yet instead of criticizing the criminals, Trump dangles pardons in front of them. Trump’s assaults on the civil servants of government, whether they work in national security, environmental science, or diplomatic relations, continue unabated, as he labels those with whom he disagrees as part of the “deep state.”
The more these assaults on our institutions continue, the more dangerous they become, if only because they tend to normalize activities and attitudes that are anathema to our democratic values. Trump’s recent comments only solidify his disdain for these values and institutions, and, for that reason, my commemoration will not include the President.