|Richard Ford. |
Photograph by Karen Robinson
ON DONALD TRUMP
Friday 12 August 2016 15.00 BST
My old mentor and friend Shelby Foote used to say that a person couldn’t understand the United States without understanding the American civil war. As a Mississippi kid who was glad the south had lost the war (100 years before!) and who felt that slavery was a blight on American history we would do well to try to “live beyond”, I thought Shelby’s insistence was a lot of hooey intended to prove the south’s undeserved centrality to all things American. In my naive view, the south and “southern values” were a garish anomaly, not typical of what America stood for – those values expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
I maintained this view until I unexpectedly experienced the American right wing’s irrationally hostile opposition to the Obama presidency. From questioning – completely without justification – Obama’s birth and religion, to opposing virtually all Obama’s policy initiatives, to slandering the president personally, to denying his actual right to hold office, the right wing formally and informally waged a campaign not only to discredit our legally elected head of state but, in essence, to erase him.
Okay, I said I was naive; but this shocked me. And it puzzled me. What was it about Barack Obama that incensed the right to such bizarre extremes? Here is a superbly intelligent man, dignified and persuasively presidential, a good communicator, an exemplary “family man”, remarkably scandal free; he knows the US constitution, he was and is strongly supported by the other party. He in every demonstrable way has had the country’s best interests clearly in his sight. One could disagree with him policy to policy. But the right’s reaction was outsized and… well… mindless. And all these views – to get around to the point – are the views put forward by Trump, both today and for the past nearly eight years.
It couldn’t just be his race – could it? – that set the right so against the president? Though, in America, one cannot – must not – ever discount the lowest sort of political urgings, and must never overlook race prejudice as a motive for most anything. If it quacks like a duck, etc.
All of what I heard in the rightwing contumely, then and now – including Trump’s stump speeches in the past week – certainly reminded me troublingly of the anti-integrationist, anti-black, so-called states rights – now hygienically rebranded as “nativist” or “populist” – calumny from my apartheid youth in Mississippi: the unrelenting attempt not just to disempower African Americans as political actors, but to extirpate them. How might I inform myself better about this growing sense of unease regarding the president’s race being a primary consideration – acknowledged or unacknowledged – in the right wing’s intransigence?
Well, first, I thought, read about the civil war, the vast crucible of American race politics, the “proving ground” where vitriolic, mindless anti-black rhetoric found its full voice and first prominent advocates. And what was the best history of the American civil war? Everyone knew that – probably even Shelby Foote, who wrote two volumes of his own. James McPherson’s Pulitzer prize-winning civil war history, Battle Cry of Freedom.
Read it. It will open your eyes about race history in America. It will shock you for what it tells you about politics in America today. And it will open your eyes wide about Donald J Trump and what we all have to fear from him.
• Richard Ford’s latest book is Let Me Be Frank with You (Bloomsbury).