[This post has been updated]
“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity …. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Good Samaritan,” 1966
I have come to greatly admire, even to cherish the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. His courage, his selflessness, his love for humanity, his willingness to stand against anything that threatened the common good – these are among the aspects of King’s character that deeply inspire me, as they do so many others. Today our common good is threatened, too; threatened by the ascendance of a selfish political demagogue who has made it his stock-in-trade to divide and deceive the people of this nation on a scale not seen for many decades. Those of us who cherish what Martin Luther King stood for must choose to stand as he chose to stand, and use our every resource to defeat this looming threat to the peace and wellbeing of our nation.
Throughout his public life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it a point to neither publicly endorse nor publicly oppose any politician or political party. In the tradition of the biblical prophets who so influenced him, he conscientiously avoided political partisanship, instead maintaining an uncompromising stance of principled nonalignment that would allow him to speak truth to power with complete integrity. To this he made just one exception: the 1964 Republican presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Because he saw the right-wing policies of Goldwater as dangerous both to the fabric of American society and to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, King set aside his principled stance of noninvolvement in electoral politics and vigorously campaigned against Goldwater, declaring with great chagrin that it was “disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States.” He later explained, “The prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.”
King denounced the implicit racism in certain of Goldwater’s proposals:
“The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding … of the KKK with the radical right. … While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.” A New Yorker magazine report from the 1964 campaign concurred: “Barry Goldwater had made it possible for great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy.”
King also denounced Goldwater’s approach to foreign policy, calling it, “a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Most of the American electorate shared King’s fear; Goldwater lost to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the greatest landslides in electoral history.
And with regard to the economic inequality and alleviation of poverty that weighed so heavily upon his heart, King was especially adamant: “On social and economic issues…. Mr. Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated.”
King concluded: “[B]ecause of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every … person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.”
It is quite striking that half a century after King’s rebuke of Goldwater the same troubling rebuke can be leveled against the current Republican nominee, Donald Trump, virtually word for word, albeit now with a far greater sense of outrage and alarm. For Trump’s political views are even more extreme – and much less coherent — than the ideas of Goldwater that King considered much too dangerous to go unchallenged. Yet, there is one of King’s observations of Goldwater that cannot be applied to Trump: there is no way that King could truthfully say that Donald Trump is not a racist. One cannot read Trump’s mind, it is true, but his despicable race-baiting that has been on loud and ugly display for the many years he has been in the public eye speaks for itself.
In Goldwater’s case, King did not believe that his social policies were especially based upon race; indeed, Goldwater was a founder of the Arizona NAACP. Although Goldwater’s apparent lack of personal racism did not make his policies less repugnant to King, nonetheless he understood that Goldwater’s unfortunate ideas were a function of his long held libertarian principles concerning the size and the role of government. In Trump’s case, however, there is little to no evidence of him ever having publicly taken a principled position on any issue of significance. In fact, Donald Trump has made patently unprincipled dog-whistle racism and race-baiting foundational to his candidacy.
At virtually every campaign venue Trump’s racist dog-whistle rants against Mexicans, Muslims, “the blacks” and others attract, in the words of the New Yorker account, “great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists” who, emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, quite gleefully turn his campaign stops into “great carnivals of white supremacy,” replete with Confederate flags and insignia, proudly cheering members of the Ku Klux Klan (whom Trump initially refused to disavow) and various other white supremacist miscreants, many of them shouting venomous racial insults and assaulting any blacks within punching distance who dared to challenge Trump’s uncivil spewings. And all this with the tacit support – if not the outright blessing (“I will pay for your court costs!”) – of candidate Trump.
If King, the uncompromising anti-war activist, feared what he called Goldwater’s “trigger happy attitude,” he would be horrified at the bellicose, trigger happy public statements made by Trump (and never disavowed by him), among them, “I love war” and “I would bomb the s**t out of them!” Surely as frightening for King would be Trump’s self-willed ignorance of even the rudiments of foreign policy and diplomacy. This is reflected, for example, in his cavalier statement that he would turn over nuclear weapons to other countries because, “it’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them.” Scores of high level diplomats, military and intelligence officials, even members of his own party, have publicly expressed fear for the nation’s wellbeing if Trump is handed the keys to the Oval Office, convinced as they are that Trump’s reckless and ill-informed approach to foreign policy would be disastrous. Martin Luther King would surely concur. As he wrote in Strength to Love, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
The man who uttered, “I choose to identify with the poor … if it means dying for them, I’m going that way,” calls us to oppose Trump’s economic plan because it treats the plight of poor and struggling Americans as an afterthought, yet benefits, in vast disproportion, the wealthiest Americans, including Trump himself. The plan proposes a deep cut to income taxes, elimination of both the inheritance tax and a tax on certain investments held by the very wealthy, all of which almost exclusively benefit those at the very pinnacle of the income ladder, yet it grants precious little of its largesse to those struggling on its lower rungs.
From all that we know of Martin Luther King, these political and economic considerations would be reason enough for him to exhort our nation to reject the candidacy of Donald Trump. They are more than enough reason for us to stand against Trump’s toxic politics. However, in the spirit of King, there are reasons beyond political and economic considerations that compel us to labor for Trump’s defeat. Those reasons reside in Trump’s character.
Dishonesty. King said, “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” Donald Trump incessantly savages the truth to serve his own ends. Independent, nonpartisan fact-checkers attest that routinely 70-80 percent of Donald Trump’s claims are completely or mostly untrue. That means that he has never given a speech to the American people that was not laced with lies, as any studious listener can well attest. Some of his lies are foolish and easily debunked. Others have been quite vicious, like his malicious claim that he witnessed “thousands of Muslims” cheering the destruction of 9/11, or his claim to have heard the young people of the Black Lives Matter movement advocate killing police. An above-the-fold headline in one of the nation’s largest newspapers says it all: “Scope of Trump’s falsehoods unprecedented for a modern presidential candidate.” Dishonesty has long been a feature of his much touted business dealings as well. By numerous accounts, he has cheated hundreds of venders by refusing to pay for goods or services rendered, or paying far less than was legitimately owed. As a result of Trump’s sleazy, unethical cheating, a number of those businesses were forced into bankruptcy and shut their doors forever.
Lack of empathy for others. King has insisted, “An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity….Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” Donald Trump does not hesitate to hurt, insult or humiliate anyone when he feels the urge, regardless of the impact upon them. He sneeringly advocates torture of political prisoners and has even advocated wreaking vengeance against foreign terrorists by murdering their entire families, including their children. Glenn Beck, no bastion of compassion himself, said of Trump: “Have you seen him during the last year and a half truly feel for someone that couldn’t help him? Truly connect on a human level, and say ‘…. I am deeply sorry for what I have said?’ A sociopath is somebody who doesn’t really see the human experience in anyone else …. I haven’t seen him deeply affected by the human condition in an individual. Frightening.” Trump is too stunted, too self-involved, too devoid of empathy and compassion to lead this nation. It truly is frightening, because a leader without compassion and empathy is just a step or two from becoming a despot and an agent of repression.
Lack of respect for democracy. King spoke admiringly of America’s “great wells of democracy” in his first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association at the outset of its iconic bus boycott. He fought tirelessly for our nation to fulfill the promise of democracy until his dying breath. Trump, on the other hand, has shown little respect for the demands and accepted protocols of democracy, and less respect for the United States Constitution. He has repeatedly indicated his desire to abridge the rights and privileges, and to violate the privacy of certain Americans solely on the basis of their chosen religion. The autocratic tenor of Trump’s pronouncements, the dictatorial tone with which he speaks to supporters at his rallies (“get ‘em outta here,” “throw them out!”, “don’t give them their coats”) suggest that he views the presidency not as an opportunity to serve our nation, but as a coveted chance to rule it. He has spoken of his admiration for the authoritarian regimes of strongman dictators and nominally elected presidents like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. His pledge to limit the freedom of the press in whatever ways that suit him; his strident advocacy of torture; his preposterous vow to deport America’s eleven million undocumented workers; and his oft-voiced plan for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” would directly violate the first, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the US Constitution, respectively.
Lack of love for others. In the final analysis, it is the perception of a lack of love for all of humanity, regardless of their nationalities or religious origins, that compelled King to actively oppose the presidential bid of Barry Goldwater. Trump’s hair-trigger eruptions of insult and meanness, his disdain for the Gold-star Khan family’s loss of their decorated US soldier son, his cavalier attitude toward the torture of other human beings, his willingness to continually lie and cheat small-time and vulnerable vendors, particularly his propensity to lie and mislead millions of trusting Americans aspiring to a better way of life, all point to a manifest lack of love for humanity that King could not countenance. And we who cherish King must not countenance it either.
With the full measure of our courage and our convictions, in this fraught and dangerous time we must echo the principled pronouncement of Martin Luther King and declare to every listening ear: “The prospect of Donald Trump being President of the United States so threatens the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that we cannot in good conscience fail to take a stand against who he is and what he represents.”
And then we must act.
Obery Hendricks, Jr., Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow with The Opportunity Agenda, Professor Emeritus at New York Theological Seminary, and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.