You don’t need me to remind you of the bitter irony.
Today we mark the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of the week we say goodbye to the first African American president and watch him be replaced with the most avowedly bigoted candidate since George Wallace ran for the presidency in 1968, the very year King was assassinated.
So on this Martin Luther King Day we might look to King not so much for inspiration but for solace, and to be reminded of King’s confident assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s a prediction and a promise and we can all take some hope from it.
But as much as King looked to the future in that statement, he drew his faith in the future by looking at the past. That statement encapsulates a central narrative about American history – the narrative of progress. It expresses the abiding belief Americans have always had that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be an improvement on today.
It is a belief that goes back to our founding and is inherent in a political experiment designed, someday, to achieve “a more perfect union.” Pause over that phrase for a moment. Perfection not as an end unto itself, but as a process; a nation that can always be made more perfect. Talk about the audacity of hope! And it’s important to remember that the story of forward-marching progress appealed to 3 million more American voters in November than the gloomy invocations of decline.
Trump, by contrast, offered a relentlessly negative view of America. But his narrative is another version of the American past and one with even deeper historical roots. His intoning to “make America great again” is a classical “declension” narrative – a story of American decline – and this narrative traces all the way back to the 17th century Puritans: We were once favored by God, now we have sinned and are loathsome in his eyes. Repent! otherwise be damned!
The Puritans relied on this formula so often that those sermons became their own genre: the jeremiad. Variations of it fueled the religious revival known as the Great Awakening in the mid-18th century and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th. Trump may have scrubbed the jeremiad of its religious overtones – and of any sense of Christian humility and social obligation – but he has tapped into the same sky-is-falling emotions.
The point is not that these two narratives contradict one another. Rather they exist side-by-side and in tension with each other. We still aren’t perfect, after all, and so for some Americans, having failed to achieve perfection, we must be in decline. Even more, the story of declension helps some people make sense of a world changing faster than they can keep up with or in ways they find threatening. In other words, declension is a story that helps soften the otherwise vertiginous progress we are simultaneously celebrating.
But in the main Americans have always preferred the story of progress, because by any meaningful indicator life has indeed gotten better and better, however much a corrosive nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” appeals to certain people at certain moments. And African Americans in particular have a vested interest in the promise of progress. King was born in 1929 at the end of a decade in which roughly 300 people were lynched. For African Americans (and one might add gays, women and lots of other Americans) there never really was a good ol’ days.
The litany of social, scientific and technological progress is almost endless, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Trump voter who thinks making America great again means going back to a time without cell phones, antibiotics, or indoor plumbing. But take one (semi) specific reference Trump has made to previous greatness that must be restored: coal.
When the coal industry was at its peak, early in the 20th century – actually it has been in decline since the 1930s – children worked in mines, and between 1870-1970 31,000 miners died in coal mine disasters in Pennsylvania alone. That’s an average of one miner killed on the job every day for 100 years. No one – except perhaps Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey – wants to put kids back in coal mines.
King predicted the American future with his metaphor about the universe because he looked at the American past and then at the present and measured the distance between the two. Americans are periodically prone to spasms of nostalgia, but that too will be overcome. And on this Martin Luther King Day it’s worth remembering the next thing King said in that sermon at Temple Israel on February 26, 1965. Quoting the English philosopher Thomas Carlyle, King reminded the congregation: “No lie can live forever.” Trumpistas, consider yourselves put on notice.
Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the author most recently of “Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.”