Every July Fourth I write about the anniversary of the publication of the nation’s mission statement, the Declaration of Independence. Like most mission statements, it’s aspirational, a work in progress.
One of my favorite passages is rarely discussed: It’s in the very first sentence, just before the revelation of self-evident truths, about why bother to have a declaration at all. Jefferson says that when it becomes necessary for one society to dissolve political relations with another, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
A Decent Respect
I am a professor of communication, leadership, and ethics, and have spent two years studying Donald Trump and his language for a book that was published this week.
I spend a lot of time with my graduate students unbundling that passage, showing how decency and respect are drivers of trust and essential elements of leadership. But they have been sorely lacking in the American political ecosystem for some time.
And this week we saw a new low.
Yesterday President Trump held a rally at Mount Rushmore. Indecency and disrespect were on full display.
This week the daily new infection rate topped 50,000, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that it could go to 100,000 per day, and American fatalities will pass 130,000 today.
Thursday Trump said, for the 19th time this year, that the virus would just go away on its own.
Several of the speakers at Trump’s Tulsa rally two weeks ago have come down with the virus. And still, Trump’s Mount Rushmore rally had no possibility of social distancing: the metal chairs were linked together. Masks were not required, and very few people were seen wearing masks.
Public health experts warned that this kind of event puts at risk not only the people present, but many others. Such an event can become a super-spreader, with those present subjecting others to infection. The rally had 7,500 attendees from ten states, including states with record COVID-19 infection levels.
During the rally Trump made only a passing reference to health care workers, but not to the pandemic’s scope.
Fireworks were discontinued at Mount Rushmore ten years ago, for both fire risk and environmental contamination reasons.
A former fire management officer at Mount Rushmore told the local newspaper that fireworks “would be ‘ill advised’ even when conditions are not as dry as they are now.” Bill Gabbert told the Black Hills Pioneer,
“Burning debris, the burning embers and unexploded shells fall into a ponderosa pine forest and ponderosa pine is extremely flammable. Shooting fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest, or any flammable vegetation, is ill advised and should not be done. Period.”
Mount Rushmore is surrounded by one thousand acres of ponderosa pine forest. The Black Hills Pioneer notes that,
“The Black Hills have been home to several major fires over the years, the most recent coming in December 2017 when the Legion Lake Fire about 20 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore burned more than 54,000 acres over five days and required 350 personnel and $2.5 million in costs to extinguish. That fire started from a downed power line and was discovered within 10 minutes of ignition.”
Dishonoring Native Americans
Mount Rushmore is part of a national park.
But in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the land on which the monument was carved is the property of the Sioux, per the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The majority opinion in United States v. Sioux Nation wrote that the land had been taken illegally, and that,
“a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
Native American leaders expressed concern over the public health consequences of the rally. Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said,
“We are more than three hours from the nearest critical care facility. To expose our people to the virus would be devastating. And for our more vulnerable members who have underlying medical conditions, COVID-19 is far more deadly.”
Native American leaders had previously established COVID-19 checkpoints on roads leading to their lands. For the rally the Administration insisted that the checkpoints be removed. When leaders refused, the White House Chief of Staff and other officials “threatened to take control of policing on the tribe’s reservation and block federal pandemic relief spending if the checkpoints didn’t come down,” according to a lawsuit filed this week by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Dancing with White Supremacy
This week the New York Times reported that as many as 26 million people in this country took part in demonstrations following the deaths of George Floyd and others in police custody. That would make these protests the largest movement in the history of the United States.
This week more municipalities chose to remove statues of Confederate generals and other racist figures.
Also this week, two other events that seemed unimaginable occurred: Mississippi decided to remove the Confederate battle flag image from the state flag, and the Washington Redskins said it is considering changing its name and logo.
Trump’s response has been to try to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. He conflates Black Lives Matter with the looters and with Antifa. This week he called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” and a “Marxist organization.”
In his Mount Rushmore speech he accused those who want to remove the statues as being “angry mobs” engaged in “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” The same day he signed an executive order to create a “national heroes” statuary garden.
In my new book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I document what I call Trump’s dance with white supremacists. I posted about the dance the night of the Tulsa rally two weeks ago.
Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has followed a recognizable pattern: He signals to white supremacists, and they signal back. Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, has frequently referred to his followers having a “wink-wink-wink-wink-wink” relationship with Trump.
This week Trump retweeted a video of a white Florida man shouting “White Power, White Power” at a Black Lives Matter activist. Trump thanked the “great people” shown in the video. After an outcry that included Republican members of Congress, the tweet was taken down. But that’s part of the pattern.
So was hosting the Tulsa rally two weeks ago on Juneteenth weekend (originally scheduled for Juneteenth itself). The choice of the city, the site of the largest massacre of African Americans in the nation’s history, as the first public rally since the reopening, was also a signal.
So is the selection of Mount Rushmore. Two of the four presidents depicted owned slaves. Theodore Roosevelt is reported to have said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.” And Abraham Lincoln, though celebrated for having led the emancipation of black slaves, approved the hanging of 38 Dakota Native American men, according to the Library of Congress. It was the largest government sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history.
Dishonoring the Troops
But there is a further display of indecency and disrespect that is likely to continue to haunt Trump and erode some of his base: this week’s growing recognition of his indifference to reports that Russia paid subsidies to Taliban insurgents for killing American military in Afghanistan.
After the story broke and after the White House said that Trump had been verbally briefed that day, he tweeted,
“No corroborating evidence to back reports.” Department of Defense. Do people still not understand that this is all a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party. I was never briefed because any info that they may have had did not rise to that level
More recent news accounts say that the report of bounties for American fatalities was included in the President’s Daily Brief in February. The National Security Advisor took the reports seriously enough to prepare response options. And NATO allies revealed that they had been briefed by U.S. officials about the bounties.
The New York Times has since reported about wire transfers from an account controlled by the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence agency, to the Taliban. It also identified by name members of the U.S. military thought to have been killed in an attack funded by the Russians.
Representative Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, may have been speaking for many Americans, including those in uniform and their families, when he expressed bafflement about Trump’s seeming indifference:
“I find it inexplicable in light of these very public allegations that the president hasn’t come before the country and assured the American people that he will get to the bottom of whether Russia is putting bounties on American troops and that he will do everything in his power to make sure that we protect American troops. I do not understand for a moment why the president is not saying this to the American people right now and is relying on ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I haven’t heard,’ ‘I haven’t been briefed.’ That is just not excusable.”
One of the patterns I document in my book is escalation: Trump escalates both the intensity and frequency of his dehumanizing and demonizing language and his divisive policies in two circumstances: when he is feeling vulnerable, and as an election approaches. He did as the 2016 general election got closer, and he did again as the 2018 mid-terms approached.
But now he seems particularly desperate. So this is the time for civic leaders, journalists, public officials, and informed citizens to hold him accountable for the consequences of both his policy choices (COVID-19, Russia, etc.) and his incendiary language.
On this July Fourth, when we celebrate, among other things, the tangible demonstration of a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, we are more than ever in need of decency and respect.