Charles Dickens’ novel title, A Tale of Two Cities, is one of the most borrowed phrases of all time. Yet, on June 20, 2020, I kept coming back to it. On that date the Poor People’s Campaign substituted a virtual three-hour affair for the in-person event they had originally planned. It was followed several hours later by a gathering in Tulsa, as our President resumed the activity he most relishes: A campaign pep rally in honor of himself and for his base.
One assembly featured a multitude of speakers: Black, brown and white; immigrant and Native American; hearing and hearing impaired; old and young; male and female; gay, trans and straight; famous and homeless. The other centered on one individual, whose favorite word is “I.” The crowd scenes in one were videotaped earlier, often in churches, featuring mostly homemade signs. The live crowd scenes in the other were choreographed, featuring color-themed, professionally printed signs. Their messages also differed. One group campaigned on behalf of the needy; the other, on behalf of a self-interested billionaire.
Perhaps, you may say, the differences flowed from their variation in purpose. True, one group was talking about policies and their consequences, while the other was talking about an election and a specific candidate. Both, however, were addressing politics. Unlike many Americans, I do not dislike politics. It is what enlightened nations invented to prevent civil wars, in much the same way as diplomacy or international politics attempts to avoid other kinds of wars. When engaged fairly, with the well-being of the whole considered above the well-being of a selected sub-section of that whole, politics works, albeit sometimes too slowly for immediate justice.
So, although perhaps not comparable in specific purpose, the two rallies correspond in general aims. They were both designed to educate, to persuade, and to call for action. They both did so with explicit messaging, like speeches and the examples within those speeches, and with implicit messaging, like the decision to be virtual or take place in real time at a real place. It seems fair, then, to consider some of the differences in those messages.
Foremost, and perhaps most obvious, is their different conclusions about the value of life. We are, after all, in the midst of a pandemic. Oklahoma, the site of one rally, is experiencing a peak in identified cases of COVID-19. At least six of the Trump campaign staff workers tasked with convention set-up were identified as infected on the morning of the event. Our President decided to make his space a masks-optional one, to eliminate any social distancing other than that dictated by the underwhelming size of his crowd, and to model behaviors contrary to the best advice of his Administration’s health experts. Human life, unless it is his own, is of less significance than razzle-dazzle self-promotion. It pales in comparison to the importance of that inanimate Leviathan, The Economy.
The other rally resorted to Internet connections specifically in response to warnings about the dangers of mass gatherings. In earlier taped segments, after the pandemic struck, participants wore masks. In the live feed that featured the two co-founders of the Poor People’s campaign, it was possible to see the Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Theoharis masked, sitting six feet away, as the Reverend Dr. William Barber spoke. Even the vast majority of in-person protesters of the Trump Tulsa rally wore masks, while their counterparts rarely did. We have successfully politicized, in the worst ways, public health and science.
There was nary a mention of Juneteenth or George Floyd during the Trump rally, nor of Rayshard Brooks, nor Ahmaud Arbery, nor Breonna Taylor. Rather our President referred to protesters as “thugs.” He said they were “looters.” He admired Confederate statues. Before the rally, Trump claimed credit for making Juneteenth famous, probably much to the surprise of the all but three of our states that legally recognize it as either a state or ceremonial holiday. The COVID-19 virus once again became the “Chinese virus” or the “Kung Flu,” although, if asked, the President will make very clear that he is not a racist, even when confronted with evidence that his words have violent, racist consequences.
Conversely, the other rally directly addressed the social, psychological, economic and physical consequences of systemic racism in our country. It educated its viewers on the consequences of policies designed to segregate and control the bodies of minorities. The wealth gap, the education gap, and the health gap can all be attributed to political and economic decisions made by white people, all too often funded by our nation’s wealthiest citizens. The stories’ narrators had suffered those consequences personally; they were, in the words of the campaign’s founders, prophets sounding alarms.
In one rally, a man spent five minutes minutely explaining that his health was robust and he did not walk strangely down a ramp. The Washington Post, which has taken to counting Trump lies, said he spent one out of every eight minutes in his nearly two-hour harangue grousing about the coverage of his West Point speech. Periodically, he paused to tell his audience what a beautiful job he and his administration had done on just about everything. At the other rally, multiple speakers addressed the immorality of the richest country in the world having dismal, disparate health outcomes in the midst of a crisis. They pointed to the very real, pernicious effects of income inequality, of homelessness, and of environmental degradation.
And, as is the norm for almost any time the President opens his mouth to speak, he spent time denigrating opponents. There were the usual criticisms of his favorite “enemy of the people,” the media. He condemned “the radical left,” using minority representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as foils. “These people are stone cold crazy,” declared the man who had previously advised bleach as an antidote for a novel coronavirus. “Sleepy Joe” Biden would give more rights to aliens than Americans.
The former Vice-President and his ilk, our President claimed, will “expel anyone who disagrees with them.” Trump seemed to forget that, earlier that day, he had fired a man pursuing an investigation against his friends in New York. Then there were all those people who disagreed with him, like John Bolton, John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, H.R. McMaster, Andrew McCabe, and Sally Yates, whom he fired. Trump has never been a fan of consistency, when an alternative suited his purposes. After demonstrating he could lift a glass of water with one hand, Trump flung it to the ground and stated “There’s something wrong with Biden, that I can tell you.” (Indeed, only substitute “me” for “Biden.”)
At the Poor People’s Campaign Rally, there was respect, kindness, and grace. At Trump’s gathering, there was bullying, anger, and blame-shifting. The Poor People’s Campaign offered solutions to the problems it identified and explored. At the Trump campaign, there was scant attention to specific resolution of any problems. To help our pandemic numbers, perhaps we should cease testing. To help our people feel better about themselves, perhaps we should censor the news. To stop protesters, perhaps we should have jail sentences for flag burners.
Before China sent us the virus, we had the biggest, most roaring along economy in the world, all the result of Trump, who has been the best President ever for black people in this country. And we’ll have that economy again, if only we keep him as President, and this time it will be bigger and more beautiful than before. Yes, it will. It will. Wink, wink.
The Poor People’s campaign stressed inclusivity. Trump pandered to an exclusive base. The Poor People’s Campaign was rooted in notions of fair play and justice. Trump’s political campaign is little more than a variation of the theme: “I got mine, you’re on your own.” There is an undeniable moral foundation to the Poor People’s Campaign; representatives from religions across the belief spectrum testified. A few weeks before the Tulsa event, Donald Trump held a Bible upside down outside a church whose streets had been forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters for his photo op.
Quoted not quite as often as the title is the first paragraph from A Tale of Two Cites:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter for despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some of that seems true today, too. There are two narratives abroad in the land. One side argues that we are the greatest nation in the world and there is nothing at all wrong with us. The extreme pole of the other side suggests that there has never been anything so dismal and everything must change. I suspect the truth is more modest.
Yet what remains indisputable is that there are palpable problems, consequences of poor or prejudiced policies that, accrued over time, hurt real people. Also indisputable is that we have the power to alter those consequences, to make them less hurtful.
I do not equate the two rallies for our current penchant for exaggeration. They are not equidistant from reality. Trump’s place on that spectrum is purposefully much further from a universe governed by facts; it provides us no road to a better world. His mantra of “Make America Great Again” presupposes that there was a point in time when it was great for all its citizens. That claim is patently false. The Poor People’s Campaign calls for “a moral revival,” yet I’m not sure there is a moral past to revive. There are moral messages, but no sustained point in time. However, that campaign is a far truer truth-teller of what life is like in this country. More importantly, it yields to hope.
The Poor People’s rally featured several of my favorite selections from Judaic-Christian scripture, including a really good musical rendition of Micah 6:8. It also provided me, in the words of the grandmother of one of the speakers, what should be the world’s motto: “Love is not a ‘say’ word. Love is a ‘do’ word.” One rally was a clarion call to doing; the other a call to denigrating. Welcome to today’s United States, not quite united at all.
Check our www.poorpeoplescampaign.org. It’s full of both resources that educate and hopefulness.
An aside: I’ve had the privilege of hearing Reverend Barber a couple of times in person and multiple times virtually. He can be riveting; he is always inspiring.
Another aside: if you follow these overly long rants, you’ll know I have a volunteer peach tree outside my house. For the first time ever, I will beat some of the local critters, one of whom ate almost all the tops of my front yard flowers two days ago, to a few peaches. I am taking that as a hopeful sign that change is coming.