Today, governments in Washington and Maine are headed by men whose idea of history goes back no further than their own memory span and whose concept of the American political tradition is limited to their own opinions.
While President Trump’s economic policy looks backward at failed and outmoded moves like protectionism, he and his team otherwise fail to look deep enough or wide enough into American history to understand their place in it.
Trump and Gov. Paul LePage (if not a member of Trump’s team, certainly in tune with it) believe that African Americans are not grateful to the white people who sacrificed for the cause of racial justice. They even believe one leading black civil rights leader didn’t really do anything.
History reveals hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow oppression of blacks at the hands of whites. For centuries, human beings were bought and sold with their families destroyed. For Trump and LePage, history apparently began only with the civil rights movement.
The problem with not going deep enough into American history is that these men cannot understand major undercurrents of American politics. African Americans understandably know their history and continue to be influenced by it. Many European Americans share their sentiments.
Because race has perhaps been the most important, continuing element of American history, it is difficult to govern fairly and successfully without knowing more of its history. The country suffers if gradually increasing racial understanding is now displaced by even more affronts.
A deeper knowledge of history would also reveal that Trump must act within the framework of American law as it has evolved. John Adams wrote we have “a government of laws, not of men” and that remains true, though it is severely challenged.
In short, history did not begin on Election Day. In American history, values are bound into law. President Obama liked to talk about common values, though they were difficult for some to identify. It may not be so difficult. Our common values are found in the law of the land, beginning with the Constitution.
Merely winning an election does not give presidents or governors the right to rule. Upon taking office, they enter into a world of laws that are intended to limit the powers given to government by the only recognized sovereign – the people.
Gov. LePage has no lawful basis to claim that a citizens’ referendum vote is only advisory or that he can substitute his opinion for the judgment of the voters. If he believes they make incorrect decisions, his role is to lead in the debate not disparage the result.
President Trump has offered no basis for discriminating against Muslims, even if they are Americans, in his immigration policy. The burden of proof that his actions are lawful should fall on him not on the objects of his actions. Congress can change the law, not the president.
History is wider than what current leaders seem to think. One of the president’s top aides says the media is the Trump Administration’s “opposition party.” He’s right, because it is doing its job.
We often hear that political leaders accept “responsibility” or are “accountable” for their actions. Yet when they err, they do not resign. It is the job of the press to hold them accountable, informing voters, who will decide the political price for holding them responsible for their failings.
Politicians have little trouble promoting themselves, and the media readily covers their promises and claims. Candidate Trump benefited from unusually extensive media coverage during the campaign, so much so that the other Republican hopefuls suffered.
But an independent press has a broader role to play in a free society. It should offer information, facts, and full reports on what government is doing.
Trump and LePage both dodge and denigrate the press and make obviously untrue statements. That may their right, but it is up to the media to work for the voters, not the politicians. Even if some charge the media does not tell the truth, it must keep on trying to do just that.
A voter once called out to President Truman, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” He answered, “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” That’s also the media’s job.
To its credit, the media seems to have reawakened to an understanding that telling the truth depends on more than reporting both sides of an argument. The press needs independently to publish facts, even if they refute the conventional wisdom or political rhetoric.
And elected leaders should learn some history.