Here is a taste of my recent piece at History News Network:
Four days before Inauguration Day 2017 Civil Rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis questioned, in light of Russian hacks that seemed to hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. As is his custom, Donald Trump responded via Twitter: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S….” It happened on the day before America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
As expected, this exchange of words fueled the usual partisan politics in Washington. Some thought Lewis was out of line to say that Trump was not a legitimate president. Others were appalled that Trump would respond in the way he did to a living legend who almost gave his life in the Civil Rights Movement.
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson tried to steer a middle course in the debate, but in the process he put his finger on a serious problem with the Trump presidency. Trump’s response to Lewis, Gerson wrote, suggested that he “seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson added, “He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover it’s ideals; and that was only redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed.”
Gerson is right about Trump’s failure to understand his presidency as part of a larger American story. His inaugural address only reinforced this point. Trump made no attempt to situate his vision for the nation in a shared past. In this sense he echoed the revolutionary Thomas Paine who told the British-American colonists in 1776 that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”