(painting by Watson Mere at http://www.artofmere.com)
Yesterday was a day that just felt a little… off for me. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has long been one of the central celebrations of the year for me. It is the celebration of the life and work of a man whose courage, leadership, and theology I greatly admire. I have historically spent this day either in service or in reflection, sometimes both. It has been a holy day for me. Not so this year.
The cognitive dissonance of what will happen this week is just a bit too jarring. On Monday, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and then on Friday, the first black president of the United States will step down and hand over leadership of the nation to a man who has proven himself to be unfit to lead on so many levels. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I put as my Facebook status yesterday as my feelings began to crystalize:
I don’t know how else to say this: I’ve never been as disaffected by MLK day as I have been this one. Usually this is a day of great inspiration. I love to see all the quotes from a man I greatly admire. I love to see the services and the acts of service. I love to be inspired and re-energized.
But this year, nothing has gotten through. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lovely day. I’ve spent good time with my family and friends. But the holiday itself feels hollow. I can’t trust a nation that on one day will celebrate the anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-militarist King and four days later inaugurate racist, homophobic, hyper-capitalist Donald Trump. King’s legacy is in shambles and it has been decimated by those who would neuter him and reduce him to a few feel good lines about peace and dreams.
I don’t mean to be negative or overly cynical. But this country’s lip service must end. Either we are going to be a country about justice, the justice of Amos, Micah, and Jesus, or this might as well be “Great Americans Day” or even “Robert E. Lee Day”.
These thoughts seem to resonate with many. And while I was inspired to see the many ways that my friends celebrated and honored Dr. King’s legacy, even the most hopeful of them acknowledged that they did so from a place of deep concern and a nagging feeling of urgency. This was no ordinary King Holiday. This was a rally for those of us preparing for a battle with the incoming administration.
The dissonance I felt yesterday was similar to what I felt last week. On one hand, you had President Obama’s farewell address. While he certainly touted some of his accomplishments over his eight years in office, he did so in a way that invoked the common will and energy of the American people. We gave health care to millions. We created marriage equality. We strengthened the economy. He then shifted from the work that we had done collectively, to the work that we will need to do together to keep our democracy from falling apart. He encouraged us to stay engaged, to get out of our silos, and to participate in every aspect of our democracy, even running for public office. It was a warning against cynicism and hopelessness, the feelings that he knows many are feeling. He topped it off by looking lovingly at his wife and daughter and gave heartfelt thanks to those who have been with him on the journey. His love for his wife, his daughters, and of course, Joe Biden were on full display. Every part of his speech was about connection. He spoke of the ways that we are connected as a nation across race, economics, gender, and, orientation. He spoke of the need to strengthen our connections if we are to truly have a more perfect union. And he spoke of the bonds of family and friendship that keep us going when it feels like work is too overwhelming. Even I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as it began to register that this good, decent, flawed but very capable man still believed in the collective good of this nation and had faith that we could be our best selves.
That was set in contrast by the spectacle that was the Trump press conference. It may be helpful for someone to inform the Trump camp that a press conference is not a rally. The money spent for cheers and applause should have been reallocated for whatever cover bands they find to play the inauguration. Trump’s style could not be more different than Obama’s. Trump frequently referred to “I” instead of “we”. Trump is brash and confrontational where Obama is unifying and cerebral. Obama oozes a quiet confidence while Trump seems to think that saying things louder or more than once makes them true. I found it particularly distasteful that Trump continues to boast about his November victory when he should be shifting to the work of governance. In the boast is a deep lack of recognition that his electoral college win was coupled with a trouncing in the popular vote and that he is coming into office with the lowest popularity of any president-elect in history. One would think that this would lead to some humility. One would think. Trump’s press conference awkwardly shifted from his remarks to those of his lawyer who droned on with jargon explaining why Trump’s business interests do not create a conflict of interest with his presidency. It was much ado about something that remains in question with his unwillingness to release his tax returns to show where he is deriving income. It was smoke and mirrors. In an hour and a half (!!!) full of lows, the worst part was the confrontation between Trump and the media, specifically the dismissal of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Trump yelled at Acosta to put his hands down because he wouldn’t be taking questions from his “fake news” network that is a “terrible organization”. My jaw literally dropped. CNN, like all 24 hour news stations has its issues. But for the president-elect to so crassly dismiss one of the more trusted news outlets of the past few decades as “fake” is incredibly harmful at a time when figuring out who to trust is becoming more complicated. That the next question was taken from Breitbart, the right-leaning website that has several ties to the incoming administration, added insult to injury.
I know the context was very different, but I have to make a final note of contrast between the way that Obama spoke of his family and the way that Trump spoke of and used his. Obama teared up looking at Michelle, Sasha teared up hearing her father praise her mother. It was genuine or the Obama’s are the greatest acting family alive. It was moving, it was warm. It was loving. Trump speaks of his sons as a CEO would speak of any employee. He ended the press conference with the parting shot that if his “empire” which is being entrusted to the two sons wasn’t in the shape he wanted it to be at the end of his presidency, he would say to them “you’re fired”. It was tongue-in-cheek way of working in his catchphrase, you know… like presidents do, but it was also cold and decidedly unfunny. Trump speaks of his sons as you imagine the kings of old spoke of their male heirs. Not with love, but as an extension of his legacy and ego. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of molehill on this one. I don’t think I am though. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he interacts with his family.
The thing about King and Obama is that as flawed as they were, and both were hugely flawed in their way, they inspired people to be their best selves. They cast a vision for a world community that looks out for its neighbors and cares for its marginalized. I don’t feel that with Trump. Even his supporters don’t point to a feeling of being elevated personally. They like his personal style. They look at his success. They like that he speaks his mind. It’s not the same kind of inspirational or aspirational leadership. King and Obama both had charisma to spare and they used it to organize movements. Trump’s charisma, such as it is, seems only to serve his own interests and the interests of those like him (look at his cabinet choices). I think the burden falls on those of us who have been inspired by King and/or Obama to live into our highest ideals in new and radical ways. And maybe that’s what I was feeling yesterday, the heaviness that comes from feeling the baton pass into your hands. We have to be that collective strength in which Obama still has hope. We have to be that beloved community of which Dr. King often spoke. We have to be the best of us, now that it feels like the worst of us has power.