Is Donald Trump is trying to lead America away from John Lewis' legacy?
As the country mourned civil rights icon John Lewis, President Donald Trump spent the weekend conjuring scary images of "who knows" invading the suburbs, trying to appeal to his White supporters in his latest attempt to lead the nation backward instead of embracing the march to racial justice that Lewis championed.
Trump's rhetoric -- so discordant with where many Americans are headed on issues of race -- was a reminder that despite mass demonstrations in cities across America and signs of change within big corporations to show that Black lives matter, there have been very few tangible signs of progress on civil rights at the federal level since the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day.
The kinds of policies that Lewis fought for during his 33 years in Congress — voting rights, desegregation in housing and efforts to curb the disproportionate use of police brutality against Black Americans — have run headlong into the intransigence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the President's refusal to lead on issues of racial justice.
As Americans remember Lewis, who repeatedly risked his life in the name of progress on racism and prejudice, they also face a choice — to stand by passively and allow this moment of cultural change to evaporate or to demand action from their leaders, who risk a rebuke at the polls in November.
Despite Republican praise on Saturday for Lewis, a 17-term Democratic congressman from Georgia, McConnell has refused to bring up for vote legislation that would restore a key part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. The House passed the measure in December with just one Republican vote. Meanwhile, Trump routinely tweets false information about mail-in voting as Republicans back restrictive voter identification laws around the country.
Collapsing in the polls as he battles Joe Biden in his reelection campaign, Trump has settled on a strategy of defending the statues of racist Confederate generals and rolling back Obama-era fair housing regulations, using racist rhetoric and appeals to "the suburbs."
At the same time, the President has continued denying the threat of the deadly coronavirus, while ignoring the way it has disproportionately devastated Black communities.
Lewis abhorred those sorts of tactics and warned Trump against standing in the way of racial progress. One of his most memorable final acts was gaveling in the final vote of the House on the voting rights legislation in December, but it has since languished in the Senate on McConnell's desk.
That became a flash point Saturday after McConnell tweeted that the Senate and the nation are mourning the loss of "a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles."
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a top Democratic contender to be Biden's running mate, shot back that if McConnell "really wanted to really honor the life, legacy, and activism of John Lewis, he'd bring the Voting Rights Act immediately to the Senate floor for a vote and name it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020."
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who, with Harris, co-authored the recent legislation to curb police brutality following Floyd's death, referred to that "unfinished business" during an interview Saturday evening with CNN's Wolf Blitzer and said Lewis would have also been stung watching Republican efforts to design laws "with surgical precision to disenfranchise African Americans" in North Carolina and other states, where court battles over voting restrictions continue to rage on — including some new fights over access to the ballot during the pandemic.
When asked whether he had any hope that Lewis' death would lead to movement on the voting rights legislation, Booker noted that McConnell has relished his role as "the grim reaper" halting bipartisan bills from the House.
"When it comes to voting rights, I don't have confidence that this is something that he's going to prioritize in his remaining months as majority leader," Booker told Blitzer on "The Situation Room" Saturday night. "Where my confidence comes is our ability to, perhaps, shift the Senate and the White House. And if that happens, I know there are people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle who understand that this is an era where we shouldn't be restricting the franchise but making it more fair, equal and open."
Trump's tactics troubled the civil rights giant
Trump on Saturday had only a few words for Lewis, the son of sharecroppers from Pipe County, Alabama, who originally aspired to be a Baptist minister and often preached to the chickens on his father's land.
Trump ordered American flags to be flown at half-staff for one day Saturday "as a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding public service" of Lewis, who was arrested more than 40 times during his civil rights activism and was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
In a two-sentence tweet, the President said he was "saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family."
But he tweeted more than 40 times before issuing that message shortly after 2 p.m. ET Saturday -- a reflection of his reluctance to recognize the life achievements of his critics, even in death -- some three years after Lewis boycotted his inauguration.
Before Trump was inaugurated in 2017, Lewis said he was not a "legitimate" president: "I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton," Lewis said at the time. In response, Trump said Lewis was "all talk" and "no action."
"Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results," Trump tweeted that January.
In recent weeks, Trump has engaged in the kinds of campaign tactics that Lewis decried, trying to reinvigorate the passions of his base by stoking fear about the move toward cultural change after Floyd's death and the subsequent protests, which he have said brought chaos and violence to America's streets.
After spending many weeks condemning the removal of the statues of racist or slave-owning figures in American history, Trump's new central talking point is his decision to eliminate an Obama-era housing regulation aimed at desegregating the suburbs.
While he claimed at one point Saturday that his policy change was not aimed at any one racial group, his language of fear and his warnings about crime and nefarious outsiders who could infiltrate America's suburbs have sometimes echoed that of desegregation opponents from the Jim Crow era.
Trump mentioned the Obama-era rule during three separate "telephone rallies" with supporters in Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan this weekend, warning that electing Biden in November would lead to policies that would "abolish" the suburbs.
"They want to eliminate single family zoning, bringing -- who knows -- into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down," Trump told listeners in Wisconsin and other supporters who listened to the Facebook broadcast.
"Housing prices go down, crime goes up, it's ridiculous," Trump said of the housing rule during the call with Michiganders Saturday, seeming to link the policy aimed at desegregation to his obsession with halting efforts to tear down statues of flawed heroes from America's past.
"We're going to keep America great. We're going to keep our standards. We're going to keep our history and our culture," Trump said during the discussion of the housing rule on the Michigan call. "And we're going to be proud of the people that built our country."
In recent years, Lewis called out Trump's racial dog-whistles and his efforts to create racial tensions as a key plank of his political strategy, going so far as to compare Trump's tactics to those of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who "used the language of rage and hate to rise to power and become a force in national politics," Lewis wrote in a 1998 New York Times Op-ed.
Wallace famously declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" and two years later sent in troops who beat peaceful marchers during the landmark 1965 march in Selma. Lewis' skull was fractured in the violence.
In a 2016 interview with CNN's John Harwood, who was at that time the chief White House correspondent for CNBC, Lewis said he saw parallels between Trump's campaign strategy and the maneuvers used by Wallace, an infamous demagogue who often warned about the threat of the federal government ordering Americans to change their way of life on issues of race.
Trump, Lewis said in that interview, believed that stirring up those kinds of tensions "would be his ticket to the White House."
"Many of my Republican friends fear where he can take them," Lewis said prophetically. "They feel that it may mean the destruction of the Republican Party."
Lewis also harkened back to the history of the civil rights era when he warned against Trump's threat to use military force to stop the protests that followed Floyd's death.
"The way this young man died, watching the video, it made me so sad," Lewis told Gayle King on "CBS This Morning" in early June. "It was so painful. It made me cry. I kept saying to myself, how many more? How many more young Black men will be murdered? That the madness must stop."
The congressman said that "it would be a serious mistake on the part of President Trump to use the military to stop orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protests."
"You cannot stop the call of history," Lewis told King in that CBS interview. "You may use troopers. You may fire hoses and water. But it cannot be stopped. There cannot be any turning back. We've come too far, made too much progress to stop now or to go back. The world is seeing what is happening."
Divide in GOP reflected in reaction to Lewis' death
Some prominent Republicans like former President George W. Bush -- who worked closely with Lewis to achieve his 15-year quest of an African American museum on the National Mall -- heralded Lewis' legacy on Saturday.
"As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope," Bush said in a statement. "Throughout his career as a civil rights leader and a public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union. America can best honor John's memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, called Lewis "one of the strongest and most effective voices during the Civil Rights era."
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska both mistakenly posted images of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, instead of Lewis, in social media posts paying tribute to Lewis. Rubio apologized and posted an updated tribute to Lewis. Sullivan's spokeperson told CNN his "staff made a mistake trying to honor an American legend."
Some Trump acolytes like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who served alongside Lewis in the House, chose to stay silent. When DeSantis was asked to reflect on Lewis' legacy Saturday in a press conference on coronavirus in St. Augustine, he refused.
"I appreciate the question, but we're trying to focus on the coronavirus," DeSantis replied, cutting off the reporter. Mirroring Trump' strategy on the virus, DeSantis has refused to halt the reopening in his state even as the surging cases put lives at risk and inflict a much higher toll among Black Floridians.
One of Lewis' most powerful traits was his capacity for forgiveness, embracing a Ku Klux Klan member who came to his office seeking absolution after beating Lewis as a young man.
Lewis also met with Wallace in 1979, when he said the former Alabama governor had "acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused," according to the New York Times Op-Ed that Lewis wrote.
In a 2017 interview with David Axelrod on his CNN show "The Axe Files," Lewis was still hopeful about the opportunity for enlightenment even in the darkest corners of America.
"Hearts can change," he said, "and we shouldn't give up on anyone."
So far, the President has no interest in changing his tactics, even if the rest of America has moved on without him, and efforts to divide America along racial lines are testing both the nation's conscience and his own political fortunes in November.
Analysis by Maeve Reston, CNN via The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
The Gayly. 7/19/2020 @ 8:17 a.m. CST.