Eugene Robinson is one of my favorite political commentators. His Washington Post editorials always help me better understand his chosen topic. I rarely disagree with him.
In today's Akron Beacon Journal, his most recent piece was reprinted and, again, I found it incredibly valuable in my efforts to sort out the Trump disasterouscy. I highly recommend it.
At the same time, there is one aspect of his argument I do not agree with. An aspect I have heard repeatedly from others I generally agree with as well.
He is correct to put John Kelly's recent comments in the context of Trumpism: where "by not it should be clear that racism is a feature of the Trump administration, not a bug." Most of his analysis focuses on this larger context and it is spot on.
Trump set the tone early during the campaign by calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists...contrary to the best available data that shows communities with more new immigrants have lower crime.
Trump continues to attack Muslims, despite repeated defeats in court, in his efforts to use religion as a litmus test for who gets to be an American. Trump has repeatedly doubled down on his 'both sides are to blame' explanation for the battle between American Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville.
Trump frames the Las Vegas shooting as a mentally deranged lone wolf (read: nothing we can do beyond punishing that one person), but the driver of the truck in NYC as an 'animal' whose crime reveals the weakness of policies (Trump inaccurately claims) were created by democrats and there is lots we can do (beyond punishing the perpetrator) to stop Muslim terrorists like him.
"With remarkable consistency, Trump has picked fights that portray white Americans as besieged, offended or disadvantaged by dark alien Others.... He encourages whites to fear the coming day when they are no longer a racial majority. He stokes anxiety by dividing the country into 'us' and 'them.' And Trump does all of this cynically and deliberately."Black athletes kneeling respectfully to protest police violence disproportionately directed at young black men were singled out by the president because they fit is sound-bite sabotage: take something that actually happened and tell a misleading-by-design story about it that fits into a tweet.
The design is to misrepresent the situation so he can use it to rile up his white male Christian base by seeming to reinforce the phony conspiracy theories they cling to in their efforts to explain their frustration, declining wages and standard of living, and their deeply held belief that America has been stolen from them.
"Making whites feel embattled and aggrieved is central to the Trump presidency."All of this is important and accurate and smart. And this context is what we need to make sense of John Kelly's recent comments. And Kelly emphasizing the a man 'who committed treason and took up arms against the United States' was an "honorable man" deserves to be read as an entirely unacceptable way to frame that conflicts, because as Robinson points out it "buys into the racist, revisionist, dripping-with-Spanish-moss version of history that white Southerners concocted as they were imposing the system of Jim Crow repression."
When John Kelly said "lack of an ability to compromise" caused the war, however, Robinson and many others conclude that he is saying the war was not about slavery, or that only the compromises that had been tried (in the Constitution and afterwards) where retaining some form of slavery was the objective are the types of compromise that might have prevented a war.
It is possible that this is what Kelly meant. But claiming that a compromise, such as abolishing slavery in exchange for a massive infusion of Northern industrial cash like an internal Marshall Plan for the South, might have prevented war is not the same as saying the specific compromises on the table at that time are the one's I am referring to. The general statement about a failure to compromise can also be read to be a observation about a failure of leadership.
Kelly deserves all the criticism he is getting for choosing to call out Lee as "honorable man" in this context, particularly (as Robinson emphasizes) because it "echoes President Trump's 'many sides' analysis of Charlottesville." In my view, that criticism needs to focus on the 'honorable man' comment (and the people of good faith on both sides comment) and, as Robinson does, in the Trumpist context. But we open ourselves up to counterattack when we conflate a comment about a failure to compromise with being "ignorant enough to believe the war was about anything other than slavery."
Kelly's comments about Lee suggest he is ignorant in precisely this way. His defense of Trump and decision to continue to work for Trump reinforce that conclusion. Reading his suggestion that compromise might have prevented war as Robinson does here, however, creates an opening for our opponents to persuade those not already on our side by claiming that we are straining credulity, willing to say anything to weaken Trump, and in this way contributing to the deeper problems associated with fact-free political communication.
Do I believe this counter argument would be accurate or that Robinson cannot support his claims here? No. I do, however, believe we can make just as strong a case without inviting this retort. In a context where Trumpism is often about distraction, this strikes me as a non-trivial mistake, an unforced error.
Here is a good counter argument. I wonder if thinking historically and thinking politically are pulling us in opposite directions here. Probably not that simple.