“You have sacrificed nothing, and no one,” bellowed Khizr Khan in a packed house in Philadelphia on an August evening at the Democratic National Convention. The target of those words, Donald Trump, would go on to be elected the 45th president of these United States—while learning nothing of decency, class, and manners along the way.
In a country that is prideful of its inherent diversity, Mr. Khan’s speech should have been the moment that the schoolyard bully in an ill-fitting suit campaigning for the White House was defeated by level-headed reasoning and an ethos of unity, not division. Sadly, it was not.
This weekend, Trump decided to pick a fight with a genuine American hero who has made the exact type of sacrifices that Mr. Khan spoke about at the DNC. Congressman John Lewis is the kind of man whose actions should be celebrated within the paragraphs of American textbooks, and not in 140-character tirades from an elected official who can’t seem to take even the slightest criticism.
The entire flap between disgusting PEOTUS and distinguished congressman feels like a real flashpoint in an era that seems filled with uncertainty and confusion. In times like these, our leaders should be uniters, not dividers.
The biggest misnomer of Trump’s tweets is this notion of Lewis being all talk and no action. In fact, that very statement typifies Trump much more than Lewis. As a teenager in the early 1960’s, Lewis joined the Civil Rights movement and was on the front lines with the Rev. Martin Luther King marching for voting and civil rights. Lewis was also there participating in sit-ins, demonstrations, and protests to uphold the Constitution’s statement that all men are, in fact, created equal.
In the interest of comparison, what was Donald Trump doing at the very same time? He was dodging the Vietnam War and working within his father’s real estate empire in New York. The latter practice came with some baseline racism in terms of tenant selection, but Mr. Trump doesn’t want you to remember that—hey, look, Ben Carson is his HUD appointee.
As Congressman Lewis has aged, his track record for activism has remained a key part of his congressional toolkit. When gun control issues kept failing, Lewis mobilized and got a peaceful resistance together in the Congressional chamber. The gun control sit-in last year, while it didn’t end in legislation being passed, did prove something that should never be forgotten—the power of one voice can stand up to a worldview that appeals to the lesser angels of our nature.
In contrast, Trump hasn’t truly taken a principled stance on anything since he’s been moonlighting as a politician. The man twists in the wind more than any political weathervane I have ever seen.
You learn a lot about someone by what they stand for, and all I can think of in terms of what Trump stands for is popularity, deals, and putting his goddamn gold-plated name on every piece of property he owns. Those interests are a triumvirate worth sticking to for someone who’ll enter office with a 37 percent approval rating and big questions about any and all ties to eternal American frenemy, Russia.
John Lewis started his week doing what he has done for decades—standing up to the bullies who have stood in the way of equality in this country. This time he did so by testifying against Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, a man whose own civil rights history reads like nearly the exact converse to the life that Lewis has led.
Sessions’ candidacy comes with built-in suspicions of racism thanks to a 1986 failed nomination for a US Attorney position. Lewis’s testimony hit to the heart of discrimination and painted Sessions as the exact wrong choice to lead the Department of Justice.
Then, in an interview with Chuck Todd, Lewis claimed that Trump is an illegitimate president, causing the Tweeter-in-Chief to wait until Saturday morning before firing off a couple missives against a civil rights icon. Maybe Lewis’s words were not well-selected, but his stance on standing up to a bullying force is unfailing.
Several other democrats in congress will join Lewis in boycotting the inaguration as well. Amid the news of Lewis’s absence, an unlikely voice of reason stood up for someone on the other side of the aisle. That man was Nebraska Republican senator Ben Sasse, a moderate member of the GOP, who reveres Lewis and calls him a hero. Sasse tweeted to Lewis asking him to reconsider his absence.
After Trump tweeted about Lewis on Saturday morning, Sasse tweeted about Lewis again with an ardent defense of a democrat not seen from a republican in a long time: “John Lewis and his “talk” have changed the world,” he posted, along with a picture of Lewis at Selma.
Personally, I’m heartened by Sasse’s defense of Lewis, but I’m also a little sad that our emotional reflex reaction to this move is astonishment. It wasn’t all that long ago that bipartisanship was standard operating procedure.
Hell, not getting into a debate at deafening volumes with your political opposites used to happen with regularity too. I know it’s probably a little naive to think it still happens now, but I think reverence for people across the aisle like Senator Sasse feels like a really good place to start.
Think of any schoolyard bully that you’ve ever dealt with. You don’t defeat that bully by cowering in fear—you do it with strength, by standing up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.
For John Lewis, Donald Trump is just another force in the way of progress. The Congressman from Georgia will do what he’s always done; stick to his ideals and keep pushing for what is right and just in this country.
Who knows what our incoming president will do after this blows over? I know this it won’t come anywhere close to matching the class and dignity that Congressman Lewis brings to each and every day.