Our president falsely claimed today that his predecessor Barack Obama “and other presidents” failed to call the families of U.S. soldiers killed in action. Trump has apparently not yet called family members of the Green Berets killed in Niger. Perhaps that is why he deflected and lied. By the way, I don’t believe he has a record of military service that I could thank him for, does he? So maybe he ought to lay low when it comes to who might or might not have shown disrespect for the military. It takes some kind of nerve for him to claim that football players are disrespecting the flag when they protest against patterns of police violence against blacks by kneeling peacefully–and then make jokes about the flag and about prayer (according to reports about the so-called Values Voters Summit this past weekend, and a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer about Pence). I’m not quite sure what it means when Jerry Jones takes a knee, or what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message is, or what exactly the motives of Colin Kaepernick or other football players really are, but I do know that Trump is up to no good and is mainly rubbing salt on wounds to get people spun up and distracted from the damage he is doing to our whole health care system, not just the folks on Obamacare (which I believe is not dead, nor is it just “resting,” nor is it “pining for the fjords,” but I digress).
Trump has an acute feel for wounds and sore points in American memory. He says that he wants nothing so much as American unity, but the catch is that the unity must involve subservience to and glorification of Trump. He summons Americans to remember the past in a way that he says will make America great again, but he says little about “freedom” or “liberty,” and that’s no accident. He has a sharp feeling for what divides us, and an acute sense for when and how to stir up feelings of grievance and victimhood. But he has little feel for how to bind up wounds, how to encourage pluralism and a healthy diversity of opinion, and how to promote real social and political and economic reconciliation.
Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), World War II POW, philosopher in France and at the University of Chicago, wrote in Memory, History, Forgetting how memories can be manipulated, blocked, and abused, as well as how commemoration is used by political elites to impose a particular version of collective memory so as to consolidate their power. Trump’s version of “memory abusively summoned” (p. 57 in Ricoeur, MHF) is not new (and certainly not new for him!), but it is too insidious and pernicious to let pass. Trump has low approval ratings and very low trust ratings right now, but even so it seems to take much effort of will for many in the media to report what is right in front of them: Trump is lying about Obama when he accuses Obama of disrespectful amnesia about dead soldiers. Trump is summoning a First Amendment-free zone of anti-consitutional patriotism when he attacks football players and others who question police shootings. Trump is summoning a false unity based on his authoritarian claim that “I alone,” (Trump the “charismatic chief sent from above,” in Max Weber’s terms) can solve America’s problems. We as a country have a chance to put Trump in the rear-view mirror, so long as we don’t let him suppress our memories of what really made America as good and great as it is. Every day with Trump is a day that will live in infamy, the infamy of memory manipulated and abused in service of one man’s narrowly bounded desires, not our country’s needs.
From Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, Chicago, 2004: “the abuses of natural memory….will be divided into three levels: on the pathological, therapeutic level, the disturbances of blocked memory will emerge; on the properly practical level, those of manipulated memory; and on the ethico-political level, those of a memory abusively summoned, where commemoration rhymes with rememoration. These multiple forms of abuse expose the fundamental vulnerability of memory (57)….What we celebrate under the title of founding events are, essentially, acts of violence legitimated after the fact by a precarious state of right. What was glory for some was humiliation for others….In this way, symbolic wounds calling for healing are stored in the archives of the collective memory (79)….It is…the selective function of the narrative that opens to manipulation the opportunity and the means of a clever strategy, consisting from the outset in a strategy of forgetting as much as in a strategy of remembering….where ideology operates as a discourse justifying power [and] domination…the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized….Even the tyrant needs a rhetorician, a sophist, to broadcast his enterprise of seduction and intimidation in the form of words….stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, feed the discourse of flattery or of fear….imposed memory is armed with a history that is itself ‘authorized,’ the official history, the history publicly learned and celebrated….The circumscription of the narrative is thus placed in the service of the circumscription of the identity defining the community….To this forced memorization are added the customary commemorations. A formidable pact is concluded in this way between remembrance, memorization, and commemoration (85)….It is useful, as it was in the time of the Greeks and the Romans, to reaffirm national unity by a liturgy of language, extended by the ceremonies of hymns and public celebrations. But is it not a defect in this imaginary unity that it erases from the official memory the examples of crimes likely to protect the future from the errors of the past and, by depriving public opinion of the benefits of dissensus, of condemning competing memories to an unhealthy underground existence? (455).”