On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In response, a week later President Lyndon B. Johnson scrambled to sign into law the Fair Housing Act, a final major civil-rights bill that had languished for years under the strain of white backlash to the civil-rights movement.
Five years later a New York developer and his son—then only a few years out of college—became two of the first targets of a massive Department of Justice probe for an alleged violation of that landmark act. After a protracted, bitter lawsuit, facing a mountain of allegations that the two had engaged in segregating units and denying applications of black and Puerto Rican applicants, in 1975 Trump Management settled with the federal government and accepted the terms of a consent decree prohibiting discrimination. So entered Donald Trump onto the American stage.
The country has changed since those turbulent days. Many of the major policies created to end the era of de jure white supremacy and address King’s campaigns against segregation and for voting rights have become entrenched in law, bureaucracy, and the courts. Overt racism and bigotry have acquired the stink of faux pas, integrated spaces persist in some places, and there’s even been a black president. But in this Pax Americana, the seed of resistance to those ideas and policies that King championed also germinated across generations. Now that the man who made his name flouting the spirit of King is president, the tree has borne its most ripe fruit.
The term “white backlash” is often used in modern contexts to apply specifically to the racial animus to the presidency of Obama that became a powerful political movement. As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, this backlash against “an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption,” can be called to account for the election of Trump to the presidency. And, for the money, that backlash has remarkable explanatory power for the suite of white nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment that has accompanied the chords of Trumpism, and for the power he wields fighting culture wars in any theater.
As Trump’s own career indicates, the roots of this pushback reach much further than the topsoil of the Obama era. Indeed, King helped popularize the phrase and idea of “white backlash” during the civil-rights era, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, and after which Democrats, including President Johnson, feared a strong mobilization of white voters against the reform. “A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence,” King wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1964. “The ensuing white backlash intimidates government officials who are already too timorous, and, when the crisis demands vigorous measures, a paralysis ensues.”
Through the later years of his life, King was acutely aware of and intensely concerned with white backlash, which he perceived as a rebounding force that could over time reduce the gains of integration and equal protection to mere tokens. He also suffered from that rebounding force in his own lifetime, with declining approval ratings and increasingly militant white-supremacist opponents. And then he was killed.
If only that were the end of it. The mobilization against King continued after his death, even as he was widely accepted as a modern Founding Father. The age of canonization was a dizzying study in hypocrisy. Over a hundred schools were named for King, and many of them are heavily segregated today. More than 900 streets in the United States were named for King, and today those streets often travel through the most depleted and dilapidated places in America. President Ronald Reagan bowed to public pressure and gave the country a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and then injected billions into the War on Drugs, also creating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that has had an enormous impact on racial disparities in the justice system.
In King’s wake, the effort to dismantle many of the policies he’d fought for became a binding tie for strains of American conservatism. Massive resistance against school integration had permanently corrupted the Brown v. Board desegregation decision even before his death, and the clever legal machinations required to side-step integration—including certain forms of school choice and busing restrictions—became central to southern conservative politics. The new American voting-rights regime heralded in August 1965 with the Voting Rights Act was immediately challenged by a guerrilla insurgency of disenfranchisement and anti-voter fraud laws that played out in courts over the following decade. Conservative politicians and lawyers rallied against executive orders on affirmative action and campus policies supplementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and have been rallying against it since. And the system of mass incarceration and police brutality that characterizes the modern “hyperghetto” was built on King’s bones, with Republican and Democrat politicians joining hands to create a penal, militarized response to the desperate riots across the country that marked his death.
It seems almost like teleology, that a figure built by this same white backlash would serve as its culmination. While the sheer impossibility of Trump’s blustering, vulgar, reality-show palace intrigue reaching the White House still dominates headlines a year after his inauguration, the ways in which Trump was an inevitable avatar of the moment often escape us. He made his fortune in the industry that created the hyperghetto. He chafed against fair-housing laws. He became a cartoonishly wealthy mogul as income inequality soared. He called for the deaths of five black and Latino teenagers—who were later exonerated of the rape charge in question—in the height of mass incarceration in America. And against his nemesis Barack Obama, Trump nurtured the birtherism festering in pockets of the country that eventually gave him the keys to the White House.
It’s only natural that as the embodiment of a half-century of backlash, Trump’s only real concrete policies have been negations of King. King considered the VRA one of the most consequential policies in a generation; the president parlayed bogus claims of widespread voter fraud by immigrants into a witch-hunt that further threatened the VRA, and only emboldened people like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who want to increase the burdens of registration and voting. King and civil-rights activists fought for Medicare and Medicaid, and pushed hard for universal health care; Trump has fought hard to roll back the Affordable Care Act and strip Medicaid to funding levels unseen even since its founding. King embarked on a challenging and ultimately disappointing campaign in Chicago to secure integrated housing; Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development seems barely interested in the subject. And while King proposed bolstering welfare with a jobs guarantee and a universal basic income, so far Trump’s “welfare reform” ideas involve things like work requirements that will likely only kick people who can’t find work or who can’t work off the welfare rolls and add to the ranks of extreme poverty.
Most strikingly, against the written wishes of Coretta Scott King, Trump appointed Jeff Sessions to lead the Department of Justice. In that role, Sessions has overseen the DOJ’s withdrawal from voter-ID cases, even while using the Voting Rights Act as justification for pushing for adding a citizenship question to the Census that advocates fear will chill the participation of immigrants and could be used to crack down on unauthorized immigrants. Sessions has also overseen the revitalization of the department’s war on drugs, and the resurgence of civil asset forfeiture, all while beginning a potential crackdown on vaguely defined “Black Identity Extremists” under the aegis of the FBI.
It would be inaccurate to paint Trump as the sole dismantler of King’s legacy. That, rather, is a through-line touching every presidency in recent history. King lost favor with Johnson for his increasingly vehement denunciations of the Vietnam War—yet Barack Obama worked diligently to create a 24/7 drone war in the Middle East. Clintonian welfare reform sloughed millions of poor people off cash-assistance programs, and the 1994 Crime Bill helped solidify a discriminatory regime of policing and incarceration. During George W. Bush’s tenure, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina highlighted how decades of backlash-influenced policy left black and brown communities in the Mississippi River watershed defenseless against catastrophe.
Still, Donald Trump is the likely apotheosis of the form. He has exhibited no doctrine but nullification, and hasn’t attempted to cloak his instincts with high-minded rhetoric. His policy appears to operate mostly on those instincts, and it’s no coincidence that they tend to always go against King.
That such a nullifier would eagerly celebrate King’s holiday might seem like a paradox. “Today we mourn his loss,” Trump told onlookers at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day dedication. “We celebrate his legacy. And we pledge to fight for his dream of equality, freedom, justice and peace.”
But speeches like that aren’t paradoxes. Rather they are, again, how one would expect the nullifier-in-chief to act. As massive resistance has become codified in partisan politics, it had to be scrubbed of its explicitly racist, and legally actionable, rhetoric. Indeed, the presumption of anti-racism became integral to that effort, and some version of King—often stripped clean of challenging aspects and made colorblind—became an icon to that movement as well.
Trump has not done particularly well at scrubbing the explicitly racist language from his own rhetoric—which has served his policies on immigration especially poorly in court. But he still maintains, loudly, that he’s “the least racist person.” That’s why he could quote the most often-quoted piece of Kingian rhetoric, “that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God,” without sensing a contradiction between that statement and his own policies.
Fifty years is a long time. We’ve gone to the moon, invented artificial hearts and cell phones, built artificial intelligences, and created the vast complex of the internet since King’s death. But in terms of human and policy history, 50 years is a blip—to wit, there are millions of people alive and well who first voted when the Voting Rights Act was passed. It’s probably safe to say that in that time the country has not quite reached the mountaintop of which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in April 1968 in Memphis. Not everyone wants to.
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