Does anyone remember where America was at this time last year? It was just three weeks after Donald Trump's upset presidential victory, and so lots of folks were still reeling in shock. Trump had shown that it was possible to capture the White House through a campaign larded with crude appeals on race or sexism, floating on a bed of lies, and even devolving on occasion into violence. As a stream of unlikely characters — the bard of white nationalism in the West Wing, climate deniers at the EPA, and public-school deniers at Education — raced to a golf resort in central New Jersey to join Team Trump, a popular refrain emerged.
Because that was the very real fear as 2016 wound down and our dark nights grew longer: that four years of Trump would "normalize" things that Americans had long held as outrageous and unacceptable; that a steady feed of slurs, lies, and misogyny would now come stamped with the presidential seal of approval.
Flash forward one year to the scene on Monday in the Oval Office, when Trump tried to officiate at a ceremony honoring three surviving members of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, whose bravery in using their complex native language to confound the Japanese during battlefield communications helped win the war for America — even after America had treated the Navajos so poorly for generations. The White House tribute was a suitably uplifting and celebratory event, until Trump took the podium, brimming with narcissism and his petty sense of grievance.
Trump, the poster child for Don't Know Much About History, was at least candid that he knew next to nothing about what these Navajo heroes had actually done. His chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, told the commander in chief: "You have no idea how great they were — what they've done for this country, and the strength and the bravery and the love that they had for the country and that you have for the country." True … he had no idea.
With no substance to add and showing genuine disinterest, Trump veered into his familiar and tired racist trope against Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her 'Pocahontas.' '" Trump then put his hand paternalistically on the shoulder of Code Talker Peter MacDonald. "But you know what," the president added, "I like you because you are special." He might well have called him "one of the good ones."
Gazing down on this sad scene was a portrait of Trump's favorite White House predecessor, Andrew Jackson — signer of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, triggering the so-called Trail of Tears for the Cherokee people and the brutal, forced death of thousands. If you can imagine, it was much as if the Trump White House had decided to honor the Tuskegee Airmen in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee — but to be truly shocked would be to imagine an executive branch that takes seriously its mission to be the government of all the people.
The aftermath to Trump's latest cocktail of ignorance and contempt was rather predictable. Those of us who still have the battered capacity to express outrage … expressed our outrage. For me, I was lucky/unlucky to have my rant placed in Twitter Moments, meaning I was flooded with angry retorts from Trump partisans, some of whom may not have been Russian bots. They told me that Sen. Warren is "the real racist" here.
Look, the reality is that the Massachusetts senator has a minor supporting role in this drama; yes, she made a small, tiny mistake when, earlier in her career as a law professor, she relied on unexplored family lore to claim Native heritage in some law directories — something she never pushed and seems to have had no bearing on her well-deserved success. The haters don't really hate her for that, but for her knack for making powerful men uncomfortable. And she wasn't ultimately who Trump insulted on Monday.
No, Trump greatly insulted the Navajos — and all Native people — by treating them not with the awe that their feat and their courage deserved, but as mere props to do one of the few things our president knows how to do: belittle and bully a political rival. Trump didn't see the marvelous humanity in Code Talkers like MacDonald, Iwo Jima veteran Thomas Begay, and Fleming Begaye, who was hit by gunfire on the beaches of Saipan and has lived to 97, but only their skin color. That's racism, pure and simple — and many Native leaders saw it the same way. Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye called Trump's comment "derogatory" and "disrespectful to Indian nations."
This is not normal. But what — if anything — are we going to do about it?
Trump's latest blast of racism didn't happen in a vacuum chamber. To the contrary, it comes at a moment where the concepts of free speech and a free press, open and reasoned discourse, and the very notion of truth itself are coming under assault in American life, largely thanks to Trump's presidency. The anti-media strategy of Trump and his partisans is coming into full focus; control of our communications is concentrating in the hands of fewer powerful interests — this will only accelerate if the FCC successfully kills net neutrality — more prone to unquestioned support of Trump, from Sinclair Broadcasting's takeover of your local news to the Koch Brothers-backed buyout of Time Inc.
That narrowing media comes as Trump's effort to put a fantastical stamp on reality is hitting a new low, with the president now insisting to associates that the Access Hollywood tape in which he endorsed sexual assault — and which he conceded last fall is real — actually may be fake. There are enormous real-world consequences to Trump's slide into fantasyland. It is enabling his allies in Congress to do the Orwellian work of passing a "middle-class tax cut" that raises taxes on the poor and, ultimately, on the middle class, while encouraging his supporters to not believe the beyond-credible media reports about the GOP's Alabama Senate candidate's predatory behavior toward young teenage girls. And that's the short term. The long term is a rapid spiral into the depths of autocracy.
In the face of this, members of Congress — and we, the voters who elect them — have a stark choice. One is for society to look Trump's open racism and dishonesty in the eye, shrug and do nothing. Or we can respond to presidential hate speech in the way that society should respond to any hate speech. Condemn it, publicly.
Congress has the power — and, many would argue, the obligation — to pass a resolution censuring the president for his racist remarks, both on Monday and also earlier this year, when he not only refused to condemn neo-Nazis and other racist protesters in Charlottesville but called them "fine people." It would be the second time that the legislative branch has formally censured a president. The other time — most fittingly — was Andrew Jackson.
I'm not naive enough to think this could actually happen, not in a GOP-led Congress which in a few weeks is likely to open its arms to an accused molester of teens so it can pass a giant tax cut for its billionaire donors. But I do want to see decent lawmakers — Democrat or Republican — stand up and fight for this, in the spirit of a fictional senator who once said that "lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for." A real push to censure the president's overt racism would show the world that there is still a small sense of decency in the American body politic, that we will not normalize the ugly image that Trump is projecting live from the Oval Office.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." We must not be silent about racism when it's coming directly from the Oval Office. If we do not actively condemn Trump's horrific words and deeds — with the powerful stamp of a vote by Congress to formally censure the president — then we as a society are saying, in essence, that nothing matters anymore. And that's a horrible thing to tell our children and grandchildren who'll be inheriting this flaming mass of rubble that we've left for them.