World, Politics

Trump v Lewis: It was always gonna be an Unequal Fight

By J Brooks Spector 17 January 2017

With just a few days to go, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks over the Trump transition as the US president-elect picked yet another snit fight, this time with civil rights legend, Congressman John Lewis. Sigh.

Years from now, when historians start digging into the boxes in storage from Donald Trump’s university years, it might be a good bet they will find a beat-up, old copy of Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 classic text, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Perhaps it would even be a real “Rosebud” moment for scholars of the Trumpian imperative. There in that volume, Schumpeter had first fully elaborated upon his depiction of creative destruction as the key to the success of capitalism.

Schumpeter himself had written back in the midst of World War II, “Capitalism… is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary…. The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organisation that capitalist enterprise creates…. The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organisational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as US Steel illustrate the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.”

The extraordinary moment for scholars of the evolution of early Trumpian economic thinking might well be the discovery that along with all the marginal notes in that volume where he described how to accumulate wealth, written in Trump’s still-juvenile but distinctive handwriting, where they may find the word “destruction” underlined in red, but the word “creative” left unmarked and unremarked upon. Eventually it has finally become a character trait.

Since his election, among other things, he has continued to double down on his bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin; he has put China on notice that he is having second (and some third) thoughts about the “one China” policy that has been a staple of US policy since 1979 with his phone call with the president of Taiwan, continued shout-outs for harsh import duties and muttered dark threats about the hundreds of billions of dollars the Chinese are stealing (that pushed the Chinese to insist he start acting like an adult). And then he has continued to insist that the Mexicans will pay for his wall between the two nations, even if US taxpayers must do so first. And most recently, he has come out as a cheerleader for the UK prime minister’s “Full Monty” of a Brexit strategy as Theresa May’s government girds itself for negotiations with the EU – and he has pronounced Nato obsolete because it hasn’t rid the world of terrorist behaviours.

Veteran European commentator Josef Joffe (a long-time, committed supporter of the Atlantic ideal) recently wrote of these latest haymakers from soon-to-be-President Trump, “While presenting himself as a ‘big fan of the UK’, the president-elect bestowed faint praise on Angela Merkel, Germany’s eternal chancellor looking at her fourth term this fall. ‘Yeah,’ she is ‘by far one of the most important leaders.’ And he ‘liked’ and ‘respected’ her.

But then, Trump bared his fangs. Her open-door policy on Syrian refugees was a ‘catastrophic mistake’, a term he repeated thrice. How could she give up control of her country’s borders, ‘taking in all those illegals?’ Would he vote for Merkel in the autumn? Asked Kai Diekmann, his German co-interviewer. Well, he didn’t know. This barb falls just short of a vote of no confidence.

Nor were the Germans amused by Trump’s next broadside that targeted Germany as master of Europe. ‘Look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany.’ Of course, Berlin is number one by dint of economic clout and strategic position. But we don’t utter such inconvenient truths in polite western society. Sticking to protocol, Merkel’s spokesman did not fire back. He just noted that his boss had read the interview with ‘great interest’. Make that: ‘You are out of bounds, Mr Trump.’”

Joffe then asked, “Does this sound like a remake of the 1920s and 1930s? It does. It was just empty campaign rhetoric, most seasoned observers, including this one, shrugged when Trump declared the alliance ‘obsolete’, adding: pay up, or we pull out. We were wrong, as we have always been on The Donald, who reaffirmed precisely these slogans in his tête-à-tête with the Times and Germany’s Bild. And yes, he will cosy up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, telegraphing his willingness to lift sanctions imposed after the Crimean grab.” Along the way, Trump’s own cabinet appointees have pointedly disagreed with him in confirmation hearings in the US Senate, but as president he will have the final vote, largely regardless of what his subordinates say.

As rough – or astonishing – as all of this has been to swallow internationally, especially since it has all come forward before he is actually the occupant of the Oval Office, his domestic escapades have been about equally as astonishing. We’ll probably have left out some of these, but, at a minimum, they include the following from the ridiculous to the obnoxious: devising an oleaginous way to keep his business empire in the family with the smokescreen of a fig leaf of a plan to distance himself from the enterprise; caustic insults hurled at film stars; nasty insults thrown at television satires mimicking hizzoner; insults tweeted at a Broadway show when the cast had the temerity to speak directly to his vice president-elect; and promises to rescind every executive order signed by his predecessor over eight years (especially on environmental protection, refugees and immigration) the moment he can grab a pen.

And, he has even been undercutting his own congressional caucus with unexpected – and unknowably costly – promises to expand federal medical coverage to the entire nation somehow, plus save money and then jawbone the medical industry to toe his line on prices, even as his own caucus wrestles with how they can abolish Obamacare without throwing medical insurance nationally into chaos. And then there have been snit fights with corporations over the cost of a new Air Force One and the F-35 fighter jet, as well as any corporate production line changes that might possibly involve new jobs in Mexico. Now, admittedly, some of these might conceivably make some sense after serious rational debate and research, but surely not on the basis of a raucous, bullying 3am tweet or two. And all of this leaves out his increasingly bitter and nearly incomprehensible argument with the entire national intelligence community over the election hacking and the electronic threat to democratic processes emanating from Russia, as well as the news media’s supposed collusive participation in fake news reports that embarrass him, such as that unsubstantiated report on Trump’s activities in Russia that could fatally compromise him as president.

But then, astonishingly, he also chose to pick a nasty public fight with Congressman John Lewis. Lewis is a Democrat representing much of the city of Atlanta. While his district includes some of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it also includes prosperous ones such as the oh so posh Buckhead District. Oh, and just by the way, Lewis is a longstanding member of the Democratic caucus with three decades of service – and an unrivalled personal history as a civil rights advocate and fighter.

And Lewis isn’t just any run-of-the-mill civil rights leader. In his early 20s he had already been part of the Freedom Rides, the segregated lunch corner sit-ins, the 1963 March on Washington (where he was one of the main speakers), and the march in Selma, Alabama where he received a fractured skull at the Pettus Bridge for his efforts. He eventually became an Atlanta city councillor and then it was on to a long career in Congress.

Once Trump won the election and began his Twitter assaults on the world, Lewis announced that he saw Trump as an illegitimate president, adding that he would be boycotting the inauguration ceremonies. (Over 40 other Democrats have now said they will also do so. Now, that kind of thing is not entirely unprecedented – historically, other congressmen have previously chosen to stay home with their families for a change, rather than sit outside in the winter weather for hours. But our Donald was outraged, then provoked beyond measure.)

Watch: John Lewis On Trump, Russia: ‘We Must Not Be Silent’ (Full Interview) | Meet The Press | NBC News

Thus a bitter Twitter storm from The Donald that came over the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend (talk about appalling timing), accusing Lewis of having never done anything besides talk and talk without any success – and that Lewis represented a district that was all death and destruction – and it was all Lewis’ fault. Bear in mind that Trump was well into one of his several military deferments while at university (for bone spurs) when Lewis was getting his head beaten in by Alabama state troopers for insisting on the right to vote. And of course, Trump, once he joined his father’s real estate firm, was, with his dad, taken to court several times over discriminatory rental practices preventing African-Americans from renting Trump-owned apartments. This was happening while Lewis was pushing for effective civil rights programme enforcement as a city councillor.

Not surprisingly, the firestorm over Trump’s remarks about Lewis has provoked a fierce blowback from a wide range of his critics – from conservative and liberal columnists in various newspapers, including some African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. The president-elect’s stated position of hoping to gain more support from minorities almost certainly has been wounded by the nastygram tweets he tossed Lewis’ way.

Typical of the critiques of Trump’s performance included Adam Howard’s words for NBC News, when he wrote, “ ‘You know, I would hope that the president-elect would today pick up the phone, put down the Twitter stuff and just give John Lewis a call,’ added Rep. Elijah Cummings on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. ‘He is indeed a hero. The 40 some members of the Congressional Black Caucus would not be in the caucus — we wouldn’t be in Congress probably if it were not for people like John Lewis who put their lives on the line for us.’ New York Times columnist Charles Blow was even more blunt in a piece published on MLK Day: ‘Donald Trump doesn’t even deserve to stand in John Lewis’s shadow. The spectacular obscenity of Trump’s comment is incomparable and deeply repulsive.’ ”

Photo: Alabama state troopers swing nightsticks to break up the ‘Bloody Sunday’ voting march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. John Lewis, front right, of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, is put on the ground by a trooper. (Associated Press)

And Cleve Wootson, writing in The Washington Post, added, “In the past year, Trump has gotten into public disputes with a beauty queen and the Muslim parents of a dead soldier. But on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr holiday, Trump went back and forth with a man whom John McCain once called ‘one of the most respected men in America’. It’s a widely held opinion. For a lifetime of civil rights work, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Last year, the Navy announced it would name a ship after him, making Lewis one of just a few to get that honor.

The Lewis-Trump fracas started Saturday, when Lewis told NBC’s Meet the Press that he didn’t see Trump as a legitimate president and wouldn’t be attending the inauguration, for the first time in 30 years. Trump struck back on Twitter, saying that Lewis needed to focus on his congressional district in Georgia, ‘which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.’ Trump said Lewis is ‘All talk, talk, talk – no action or results.’ ”

Perhaps the most savage but eloquent riposte (and worth quoting at some length) came from New Yorker editor David Remnick who wrote, “John Lewis represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, one vote of four hundred and thirty-five. He is also the singular conscience of Capitol Hill. Lewis is a dismal institution’s griot, a historical actor and hero capable of telling the most complex and painful of American stories – the story of race. That is his job, his mission. With Dr King and Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker long gone, Lewis remains nearly alone in his capacity to tell the story of that era as a direct witness and, because of all that he has seen and endured, to issue credible moral judgement.

Only a heedless few would reject that judgement out of hand, no matter how wounding. Who would think to call John Lewis ‘all talk, talk, talk – no action or results’? Who would have the impoverished language to dismiss the whole of John Lewis as ‘sad’? As it happens, the President-elect of the United States.

Nevertheless, Trump did not think twice before dismissing Lewis, bing, bing, bing, as ‘all talk’ and that, in turn, unleashed his chorus. Roger Stone, one of Trump’s more notorious campaign operatives, said on Twitter that Lewis ‘negates his heroism on the Edmund Pettis [sic] bridge by acting like a partisan hack asshole, never to [sic] taken seriously again.’ Nearly as eloquent, Dinesh D’Souza tweeted, ‘John Lewis is not a “legend” — he was a minor player in the civil rights movement, who became a nasty, bitter old man.’

Trump avoided the draft by citing bone spurs in his feet. He has said he has made ‘a lot of sacrifices’ for his country because he has created jobs and ‘built great structures’. The sacrifices that Lewis has made for his country and for the cause of justice are manifest in the scars on his skull. It is a safe bet that he will not be wounded by any tweet. And there are those who know well what he has done to advance the cause of justice and human rights. Eight years ago, at a lunch following the inaugural ceremonies, the new President signed a piece of paper for him with the inscription ‘Because of you, John. Barack Obama.’ John Lewis surely believes in the orderly transfer of power as a tenet of democracy, but asking him to keep quiet and sit through the inaugural ceremonies this time is asking too much.”

In the past two months, Trump’s slash and burn comments have become an almost daily, often tawdry spectacle playing out before Americans (and the world) – with the insults directed at John Lewis simply the most recent version. These come from a man who often says the first thing that pops into his head, regardless of whether it contradicts something he said a minute earlier; and they are often from a man who hunt-and-pecks his way through mean-spirited, intemperate (and misspelt) messages on a handheld electronic device in the small hours of the morning. In doing this, he has antagonised whole segments of the American population, has picked fights with long-standing allies, and has cut the legs out from underneath the leaders of yet others.

Still, even after all of this, Trump may yet be forgiven much by many Americans, if he makes a new beginning in his inaugural address on Friday – if he reaches for the magnanimous, the inclusive, the thoughtful, the articulate, and the visionary. Perhaps he has been secretly reading Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other great presidential inaugural speeches for inspiration and he has finally drawn the right messages from these examples. Perhaps his speechwriters are struggling gamely to incorporate the kinds of language that will cheer on his supporters, but will even reach out to the hundreds of thousands who will also have gathered to protest his election. We shall see soon enough. DM

Photo: Democratic Representative from Georgia John Lewis responds to a reporter’s question beside members of the Congressional Black Caucus at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 08 July 2016. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

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