President Trump began his State of the Union speech by recognizing two anniversaries: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when the American-led invasion of Europe initiated the defeat of the Nazis, and the 50th anniversary of America putting a man on the moon, pointing to astronaut Buzz Aldrin as an invited guest in the gallery. But he left out the most significant 2019 remembrance: the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves sold into human bondage in Jamestown, Va., in August 1619.
That early omission struck me as important and revealing. After several state of the union speech-like affirmations about American “unity,” he couldn’t help coming back to his wall — the fundamental symbol of his presidential campaign and presidency. “I will get it built,” he proclaimed. In the midst of an hour and a half speech dealing with myriad other issues, Trump went to the wall as he always does.
He repeated his falsehoods about terrorism, drugs, and crime coming to America through our southern border, which his fantasy of a wall would not protect us from. All the facts and testimony — even from his own administration and elected officials on the southern border from both parties — were unsurprisingly left out of Trump’s State of the Union speech.
Terrorists don’t come into the United States at illegal border crossings — they come through airports and legal points of entry and often overstay visas. Drugs come into American in trucks, cars, and vehicles through legal entry points and through tunnels — not by walking across unprotected deserts. And again, the facts show that immigrants to America, including undocumented immigrants, commit less crime than native born American citizens. Donald Trump’s idealized wall always ignores those facts and the truth.
In his speech last night, Trump demonized immigrants, just like he has since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower to begin his campaign — same speech, same Trump. As I’ve said before, Trump’s rhetoric reveals that his wall is a mere symbol of a promise he made to his white nationalist base — to keep non-white people out of America via a 2,000-mile monument to American racism, which he would still love to have. As Pope Francis has said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
There are, of course, plenty of other lines in Trump’s speech that deserve reflection and clarification.
On the special counsel investigation:
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way. We must be united at home in order to defeat our adversaries abroad.”
Pay attention to what Trump is saying here: Was this a threat that we will have no legislation unless the Congress relieves him of all investigations into his campaign or presidency?
On North Korea:
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
Trump called his relationship with Kim “a good one” and announced a meeting scheduled for Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Remember that it was President Trump who created the bellicose threats of nuclear war and whose own intelligence officers just last week reported that North Korea shows no signs of giving up its nuclear arsenal.
In summary, Trump offered up that traditional line: “The state of our union is strong.” But is it? The real state of the union was shown elsewhere this past week.
Look no further than the shameful news involving Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia. First he apologized for a photo in his medical school yearbook page showing men dressed in KKK gear and blackface, but the next day said he realized it wasn’t him after all — while confessing another incident of dressing in blackface as Michael Jackson that same year. Nearly everyone, on both sides of the aisle, has called for his resignation, and with good reason.
But is resignation enough response to yet another blatant manifestation of the hateful and violent symbols and practices of racism?
As a faith leader I say no, resignation is not enough — we need to something further and deeper. We need repentance. What if Ralph Northam were to say something like this:
This incident around my yearbook page has revealed to me, and to the whole country, how oblivious and utterly clueless so many of us white people are when it comes to the hateful, violent, and sinful history of racism in our country. I will indeed resign, but that is no longer enough. I first need to repent of the sin of racism, on behalf of myself and on behalf of the state of Virginia of which I am the elected governor. I will practice that repentance as governor of the state of Virginia that was the cradle of the Confederacy, which was not only treason against the United States but a violation of the image of God by putting African human beings in bondage. On this year’s 400 th anniversary of bringing slavery to the United States at Jamestown, Virginia in August of 1619, I will declare by executive order that all Confederate statues in the state of Virginia will now be removed from all public places — and their removal protected by the Virginia national guard. I believe this is the right way to recognize the 400th anniversary of human bondage for black people in America — which happened in my state. I will also declare the end of any more racialized voter suppression in Virginia, as well as the continuing racially unequal and unfair policing and mass incarceration in our state — with concrete policy decisions to make it so. After such repentance, I will resign.
That would be an acknowledgement of the real state of the union in America and the right way to begin our repentance of the sin of racial bondage on the occasion of its 400th anniversary in America.