Columnist Don Robinson: Nation must face up to stain of racism

  • President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a rally Tuesday in Charleston, W.Va. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/22/2018 9:48:43 PM

We are living through another national nightmare. The first one led to Richard Nixon’s near impeachment and resignation in 1974.

As midterm elections approach, Robert Mueller’s probe lurches along. Paul Manafort has been found guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of serious federal crimes. Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney, has surrendered and pleaded guilty to serious crimes.

John Brennan, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, lost his security clearance after he would not back down from accusing President Trump of treason, among other things, and retired Adm. William McRaven, former commander of special forces, asked the president to do him the “honor” of adding his name to the list of people so punished.

How bad, how destructive, has Donald J. Trump been? Sometimes his presidency, his whole administration, feels like fit punishment for a nation and a culture gone haywire.

Presidential historian Steven Skowronek has argued that the presidency is inherently disruptive. In our system of governance, that is what the presidency is for. Congress chugs along building a body of law. Candidates for the presidency can offer a fresh start, a new direction.

Sometimes the rupture is dramatic and tumultuous, as in the cases of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sometimes the experience is gentler, as with Ronald Reagan.

Now we are in the midst of another case of presidential disruption. For the nation, the Trump presidency has been a brutal experience, but we need to sort it out. In some ways it has been cathartic.

Alliances have been thrown into disarray, and our adversaries in the post-World War II, liberal world order, particularly Russia and China, are pouncing on the opportunities we are presenting them.

But there are upsides to these developments. North Korea has been drawn out of its dangerous isolation. The vulnerabilities of Russia, Turkey, and even the European Union have been exposed. People are learning to distinguish between support for Israel and allegiance to Benjamin Netanyahu. Mike Pompeo is proving to be a surprisingly effective diplomat.

We are also relearning old lessons. Experience is showing that trade wars are not easily won. They inflict pain on all sides and can cause lasting damage, as did the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that exacerbated the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Federal courts, especially but not limited to the Supreme Court, are finding their position in our constitutional order challenged as rarely in our nation’s history. In this case, the damage will not be easy to mend.

The capture of the courts for partisan purposes is in some ways endemic to our constitutional system. The current phase has been going on since the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan, and it continued, gaining momentum, under both Bushes. The case of Bush v. Gore, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush (close winner of the electoral vote, but loser of the popular vote by one-half million votes), brought baneful consequences, such as taking us to war in Iraq over the false claim that there were weapons of mass destruction, and neglect of the growing menace of climate change, among others.

The conservative momentum had reversed a bit under Jimmy Carter (who appointed no one to the Supreme Court, but many blacks and women to lower federal courts) and Barack Obama (who, despite bitter frustration over his appointment of Merrick Garland, appointed two outstanding female justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and many black and brown district court judges).

But it was Mitch McConnell’s brazen tactics in refusing to allow consideration of Garland after Antonin Scalia’s sudden death that did the greatest damage. It led to the appointment by Trump and lightning quick, if narrow, confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, leaving a bitter legacy which will require great magnanimity on both sides to overcome and begin to restore the Supreme Court’s authority, so vital to our system.

Two other sore points are worth mentioning. Our regulatory system is in disarray, most vividly in the Environmental Protection Agency’s abandonment of its statutory responsibilities. And in health care, while few doubt the urgent need to repair, if not replace, the Affordable Care Act, no one trusts the current administration or leadership in Congress to undertake this task.

As for the Republican Party, we need at least two viable parties to make our democracy work, but for now the GOP belongs, lock, stock and barrel, to Trump. Would-be party leaders like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Tim Pawlenty and Paul Ryan have been rudely dismissed.

Ryan and Kasich may be able to mount comebacks, and Mitt Romney, soon to be senator from Utah, still stands. How will our former governor do? He has shown commendable resiliency and stamina. We have not seen the end of him as a candidate for the presidency.

Democrats meanwhile are licking their chops. But can they capitalize? On one hand is Joe Biden, who represents an attempt to restore the party’s New Deal coalition. A President Biden would try to recover Obama’s momentum, restore his policies and preside with dignity while the healing begins.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders or someone of that stripe will offer a strong departure, attempting to introduce a new paradigm (to borrow Skowronek’s term), one that embraces bigger (national) government, while at the same time appreciating the value and energy of America’s federal system, honoring and supporting what states and local communities can do.

For the nation, as we emerge from the nightmare of Trump’s presidency, hard issues loom. We must decide how to mount and, if necessary, deploy new weapon systems within the limits of the financial and political resources we ought to devote to national security and defense.

And to the extent that it is not already too late, we must determine how to deal with carbon-burning fuels and cushion the impact for those hurt by the transition to renewables.

But the big one is this: What kind of nation are we? What is left of the ideals emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty? Should we wholeheartedly embrace our ethnic diversity? Should we throw open our borders? We have always gloried in “American exceptionalism.” But can we be oblivious to the turmoil that other nations around the world are enduring around this issue?

How can we deal with American anxieties about this? We cannot escape the peculiarly American dimension of this universal human problem: Can we ever overcome the legacy of slavery.

One of the benefits of the national agony of this past decade has been facing up to the stain of racism. We have been forcibly reminded, again and again, that overcoming this miserable legacy will require an honest and profound accounting of its cost.

We have seen how politicians can manipulate our feelings on this issue. Can we learn to embrace and love people whose skin and religious beliefs are different from ours? Unless and until we do, we will be vulnerable to would-be leaders who prey on our indifference, ignorance and hate.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He is currently teaching a seminar at Amherst College on political parties and elections. He can be reached at


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