Donald Trump’s presidency ended with the United States leading the world in the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He left Washington, D.C., as more federal troops were in Washington than at any other time since the Civil War, and after his extremist followers stormed the Capitol and threatened the U.S. government, a result that had not been tried since the British Army invaded Washington during the War of 1812.
Trump’s tenure as the 45th president of the United States will forever be despised. History will forever show him to be the first (and hopefully only) president to be impeached twice. Time will tell whether Republican members of the U.S. Senate have enough honesty and integrity left to convict him after they enabled and excused Trump’s white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobic and classist bigotry, and disrespect for the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution during his entire tenure.
If they do, Trump will become the first president to be convicted of an impeachable offense (citing insurrection against the United States in his case). He would become the first to be banned from seeking or holding another political office or position of trust. And he would become the first to lose the honors and benefits allocated to every other past president, including former President Richard Nixon, who resigned his office due to the Watergate scandal and threat of impeachment.
Trump will forever be remembered as the most vicious, politically incompetent and corrupt president in U.S. history. He left office dishonored, defeated and despised by most people who value justice, truth, integrity, peace and hope. For most of us, his presidency did not end a moment too soon.
And it is a fitting irony that Donald Trump’s presidency ended immediately after the United States celebrated one of its greatest prophets, Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his courageous nonviolent leadership of the effort to end racial segregation in the U.S. He was arrested several times for opposing unjust laws.
King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., while supporting sanitation workers who were mistreated by municipal politicians and a year after he denounced the U.S. war in Vietnam during a sermon preached the evening of April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City. King was murdered after he spent years urging the United States to undergo a “radical revolution of values” to overcome what he termed “the giant triplets: racism, materialism and militarism.
Trump never agreed with King’s vision for social justice. However, that is not what makes the end of his presidency and the judgment of history on it so ironic.
“The United States suffered Trump’s vicious presidency because it refused to accept and follow King’s prophetic values for two generations after his death.”
The irony is that people in the United States rejected King’s vision and elected, ignored, endorsed and even applauded Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia and vicious capitalism. The United States suffered Trump’s vicious presidency because it refused to accept and follow King’s prophetic values for two generations after his death the same way the nation refused to undergo a “radical revolution of values” away from racism, materialism and militarism from its beginning in 1776.
However, the U.S. is not suffering from Trump’s presidency merely because people elected him in 2016. The U.S. is paying the mounting cost associated with disregarding prophetic calls to justice during every presidency, but especially since King died in 1968.
Politicians and pundits pimped King’s prestige at will even as they openly distanced themselves from his calls for universal health care, desegregated public education, fair labor laws, and his calls for repair and remedy for generations of systemic racial injustice. Instead of King’s values, people in the U.S. embraced the racist, materialist and militarist values of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and the materialist and militarist values of Barack Obama.
“Of the presidents who served after King’s death, only Jimmy Carter seems to have tried to incorporate King’s moral and social outlook into public policies.”
It is especially telling that people who self-identify as “religious” rejected King’s value system. Of the presidents who served after King’s death, only Jimmy Carter seems to have tried to incorporate King’s moral and social outlook into public policies. It is ironic that religious people rejected Carter’s 1980 bid for re-election the same way they rejected King’s pleas for a “radical revolution of values.”
Preachers, priests, politicians and pundits paid lip service to King in their sermons, speeches and columns at the same time they refused to implement policies and practices that kept faith with King’s values. Congregations and constituencies refused to condemn them for doing so.
Now, as in the past, politicians reject King’s values by mislabeling them as “socialism,” “Marxism” and “un-American.” So-called “religious conservatives” denounced King’s values — including his condemnation of racism, materialism and militarism — as being “incompatible” with the religion of Jesus.
It is not over-simplification to say that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016 because during the 48 years between 1968 and 2016, people in the United States chose political and religious leaders who refused to heed the prophetic insights of Martin Luther King Jr. about justice. The carnage the society experienced and will continue suffering due to Trump’s sorry presidency are part of the cost of rejecting King. This carnage includes the reality that 75% of Republicans believe Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 presidential election.
“Political and religious leaders pimp King’s moral authority without honoring his values in their public policy decisions.”
Yet, sad as that is, it is not the saddest truth facing the nation. The saddest truth is that, even now, the nation’s political and religious leaders refuse to admit their error. Even now, they are unrepentant about rejecting King’s truth. Even now, political and religious leaders pimp King’s moral authority without honoring his values in their public policy decisions.
Consider the Senators, members of Congress, other state and local politicians, and religious people who profess to be “Christians” yet who refuse to denounce Trump’s lies, attempts to incite insurrection and flagrant corruption in office.
It appears that President Biden will perpetuate the national error by calling for unity. Many pundits and preachers will applaud him for doing so. But Biden’s appeal for unity will be mistaken, even if it is sincere. The United States cannot heal without confessing and repenting from the transgressions King preached about.
Grace for national guilt, like grace for personal guilt, requires repentance.
Repentance for centuries of racism, materialism, militarism and hypocrisy about these and other “isms” including sexism (including homophobia and transphobia), imperialism, techno-centrism, classism and xenophobia requires more than an inaugural speech. Biden and other political and religious leaders must lead the nation to dismantle systems of white supremacy, religious nationalism, patriarchal oppression, capitalist greed, xenophobic fear and hate, and the militarism that cause U.S. society to choose violent conflict as the default solution for differences. Together they must develop, embrace, implement, execute and constantly improve new systems of justice, peace and truth, and lead people to trust and practice them.
“Although the U.S. should welcome the end of the Trump presidency, people should not deceive themselves.”
Although the U.S. should welcome the end of the Trump presidency, people should not deceive themselves. The U.S. society suffers from woes caused by choices to select and follow political and religious leaders who rejected King’s prophetic vision. Biden’s inaugural address did not correct the consequences of those choices. Healing will happen only by societal contrition, confession and repentance.
King would prescribe that it is up to Biden and other leaders — political and religious — to call and lead the nation in repentance. Then King would say that it is up to everyone to embrace that call and join the repentance effort. Until U.S. leaders call the society to unite around the ethics of repentance, the nation will continue to die by its own hand — it will die from suicide.
Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.