It is ironic but typical that President-elect Donald Trump would choose the eve of the national holiday honoring the great hero of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, to slander another giant of that movement, John Lewis (photo at top with the president-elect), by calling him “all talk, no action” and saying that his district, which includes such key institutions as Atlanta’s airport, Georgia Tech, and the Centers for Disease Control, is a total disaster.
No one deserved the rare distinction of having a national holiday in his name more than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not just because he waged a lifelong and ultimately successful fight to restore the most basic of human rights to an entire people and died for it. King also helped uphold the honor of the whole country by leading a mass movement that ended—in law if not totally in fact—Jim Crow, American-style apartheid, the shame of this nation.
One of his close followers was a young man named John Lewis. By 1966, Lewis had already acquired enough standing in the movement to be allowed to speak at the historic march on Washington.
Lewis didn’t get to stand at the podium because he possessed the soaring oratory of an MLK or a Barack Obama. Lewis got there, among other reasons, for having the courage to march in Alabama—in defiance of Jim Crow on its own turf—and, in the process, get his skull cracked by racist cops.
It took the guts and sacrifice of a Martin Luther King and a John Lewis for blacks to win equal rights in this country. Except for the blood spilled by King and Lewis, there could never have been a President Barack Obama.
John Lewis walked the walk over the roughest terrain, the Deep South. In contrast, Donald Trump talked the talk, working in his father’s New York real estate business, which practiced systematic racial discrimination. This at a time when Americans were protesting segregation in the South and getting killed for it. Trump talked the talk while hundreds of thousands of young Americans of his generation were fighting and dying in Vietnam.
Donald Trump is not worthy of shining John Lewis’s shoes. The young Lewis battled in the streets for a just cause. The young Trump talked the talk in plush corporate suites in search of the all-mighty buck and talked the talk in Manhattan’s clubs, looking for young women who would be attracted to a rich, handsome rogue.
Lewis recently attracted Trump’s ire by saying that because of Russian intervention in the election he doesn’t consider Trump a legitimate president and would not attend the inauguration.
An American sociologist of the early twentieth century said that a situation that is defined as real becomes real in its consequences. Trump’s electoral victory was defined as real by all the measures that matter and the players that count: the Electoral College, Congress, most of the American people, and the media. He will become president this week.
Lewis is right in questioning Trump’s democratic legitimacy. For one thing, it’s impossible to know whether Russian leaks of information targeted exclusively against Clinton turned the election. Was Donald Trump the choice of the American people or of the Russian government?
The second point, which is that, regardless of the Russians, Trump was clearly not the choice of the American people, makes the first practically moot. Trump backers talk about an overwhelming Trump victory, yet Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million. In any democracy, she would have been defined as and declared the winner.
But the United States is not a full-fledged democracy. This country, which in the eighteenth-century led the way in establishing republican government and some important democratic principles, never has become a full democracy. The United States faces the same problem as early adopters of technology. It still carries some of the baggage the Founders, who feared democracy, saddled upon it.
There is no more archaic institution than the Electoral College. Its existence belies the democratic principle of one person, one vote. Electoral votes are assigned by state. Thus, a vote in California counts less than one in Florida because California is solidly Democratic while Florida is contested terrain. Geography counts more than raw popularity.
Trump won all the places where livestock outnumber people. Clinton won all the college towns and the urban cosmopolitan places. If you were to sit down everyone who voted this year and gave them an SAT test, Clinton supporters would win by a mile. Eligibility to vote should never be conditional on education or a test of knowledge. But it is profoundly sad that for the next four years this country will be run by a man who won election on the votes of the least educated and most ignorant among us.