Words matter and so do presidents

The contrast between the words of John F. Kennedy and today’s anti-democratic demagogue is inescapable, writes Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski.

I still remember three eloquent speeches by an American president. One happened in January 1961 and spoke about a “torch being passed to a new generation”. Two years later and one day apart, two speeches discussed issues still demanding attention.

On 10 June 1963, John F. Kennedy spoke about “genuine peace” as “the product of many nations, the sum of many acts”, and changing to “meet the challenge of each new generation”. A day later, he spoke on television asking Americans to think about equal rights as a moral issue.

As he told Americans, who included my then 15-year-old self, “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” He told us all Americans should have the right to vote and we must support equal rights.

The contrast between the words of that president and today’s anti-democratic demagogue is inescapable.

New Zealanders and Americans are asking what explains the lack of principle and corrupt leadership on display in Donald Trump’s Washington. Since one critical difference is that Kennedy was a student of history and Trump manifestly is not, history can offer an explanation.

The event in Washington last week was not unprecedented. The Southern states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860; in 1898 a mob overthrew a biracial city government in Wilmington, North Carolina, after killing and exiling many African Americans. When one of the state’s historians criticised the “reign of passion” that used anger to stir up a lynch mob, he was threatened and eventually exiled.

Combined with the rage expressed in words and deeds, the setting up of gallows and a noose on the Capitol lawn clearly identified last week’s perpetrators as a lynch mob. Such mobs have a long and bloody history in the United States using violence to terrify. They were the original domestic terrorists.

Other parts of the mob’s actions and attire point to other historical origins. Some carried flags with American Revolutionary War references, but forgot the principles enunciated in that revolution included equality. There were neo-Nazi insignia, although it was the US that helped to destroy the Third Reich. A few waved Confederate flags, failing to remember it was an emblem of defeat.

Still others displayed their allegiance to a historical tradition that goes back at least to the post-Civil War when paramilitary groups, then called the Ku Klux Klan, sought to threaten and strip away the freedoms African Americans had just received.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Klan revived to wave the Confederate flag and inflict violence on civil rights activists. The night Kennedy spoke about civil rights as a moral issue, a Klansman assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi. A year later, after Kennedy’s death, other Klansmen killed three civil rights activists.

Anti-communists formed the Minutemen to drill and prepare to battle against a communist invasion. Organised into secret cells of five to 15 members, they stockpiled weapons and trained together to defend the country against what they deemed subversives. In scattered incidents throughout the US during the 1960s, armed Minutemen clashed with law enforcement authorities and private citizens. They placed arms caches in various locations around the country.

In the 1970s, a neo-Nazi organisation called the Aryan Nations emerged in Idaho. When I was teaching in Idaho in the mid-1980s, men in camouflage patrolled the wooded areas and plotted how to make Idaho a ‘white nation’ following the model of the novel The Turner Diaries, which included an attack on the Capitol.

Members of ‘The Order’ assassinated a Jewish radio host in Colorado and killed a radical lawyer in Seattle. Militia groups became even more visible in the 1990s, including the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, a gun rights advocate influenced by the same Michigan militia that last year invaded the state capitol and plotted to kidnap the governor.

Conspiracy fantasies spread through these right-wing networks facilitated by social media. Conspiracies have included communist invasion, vaccinations, fluoridation, speculation about the causes of Kennedy’s assassination, New World Order conspiracies, and more recently QAnon portrayals of Trump as a national saviour from satanic Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi who seek to abduct and sexually abuse children.

Trump’s tweets and speeches have actively exacerbated these notions among those already prone to believe in them, with a ‘stolen election’ now added to the list.

Especially visible in the Proud Boys, but also present in other groups, is a militarised masculinity that seeks to restore a past where men supposedly held unchecked power over women and racial minorities. Pelosi’s office was a special target for incursion last week, and that fits with the militia mindset. She represents not only the opposition party but also a strong and outspoken woman, unafraid to challenge Trump’s leadership and the nostalgic, brutish masculinity he represents.

Although New Zealanders can be thankful our history does not include plantation slavery and the particularly violent history of the US, at least some people are susceptible to ideas, words and even deeds that resemble those in the US. We have people who worry about fluoride and vaccinations or think female leadership is ‘satanic’. Some people express fears about dictatorship and communism.

We need to be aware media like Fox, websites and just the nightly news can convince New Zealanders to admire Trump, worry about 1080 or 5G, or fear Islam.

A society that takes care of human needs, including a well-funded welfare state, is one form of protection so we don’t experience the same desperation as Americans. Education is another. Having leaders who tell the truth and rely upon knowledge instead of fearmongering is the most important guarantee New Zealanders will not join a mob, rather than witnessing a single man swinging an axe at our democracy.

Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski teaches topics in the history of the Americas, the Cold War and the 1960s at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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