The following piece was written by Rev. Amber Lowe Woodfork
On February 12, 2019, one of America’s greatest writers and thinkers published what would be her parting gift for a world as desperate to hear her voice in 2019 as it was when she published her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations showcases Toni Morrison’s commitment to intellectualism and the power of words as a defiant weapon against the empire. Although there are countless novels penned by Morrison that we can pull from our shelves from time to time, Morrison’s latest work leaves a word for those of us who all we have is our words.
In the introduction titled “Peril,” Morrison challenges us with the importance of words in the face of a President whose language and actions have exhibited all the qualities of a fascist dictator. She never called Donald Trump’s name in the introduction’s analysis of authoritarian regimes. However, it is not difficult to conclude that he is her subject and inspired this introduction. And although those who wear the face of t may seem like powerful, unstoppable forces to those they lord over, Morrison defines the peril of authoritarianism as she writes:
“Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, calling into question, take another, more in-depth look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to. That is their peril.”
The peril of authoritarianism is that when the voices of those who push their pens for a living become unmonitored, the truth becomes trouble. Truth becomes defiant. Truth becomes dangerous. Truth, when it is on the loose, has the power to bring down rulers from their thrones, fill those who hunger with good things, and send the rich away empty. When we allow the empire to choke off our writing, Morrison warns that our peril is a bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence. Not only do we as writers suffer, but the world suffers. Words, whether they are written in a slave narrative, preached from the pulpit, painted in a novel, or expressed in a blog, have always led the resistance against forms of supremacy.
When we fail to employ our words, we validate the existence of supremacy. Words have always given people the language they need to articulate the problems that plague their existence. Words have always given people, particularly the oppressed whose being has been subject to their oppressor’s definition, the language they need to define themselves for themselves. And words and the right language give us the power to slice through ambiguities and call the demon that terrorizes us by its name.
The Source of Self Regard features an essay titled “The Foreigner’s Home.” Toni Morrison writes, “…the genius of fascism is that any political structure can host the virus and virtually any developed country can be a suitable home.” Fascism, which finds life in racist ideologies, has re-emerged and once again found fertile ground in America. While many credit Donald J. Trump for the re-emergence of this violent ideology, it is not fair to lay the blame solely at his feet. Fascism has always lurked in the quiet corners of America. All it needed was a face — a host. Someone to attach itself to and legitimize its existence and those who tie their life to the existence of it may also feel legitimized, heard, and seen.
Donald Trump is a white supremacist. But it seems as though labeling Donald Trump a white supremacist has no power in a country founded on the ideology of white supremacy. White supremacy has been legitimized into the fabric of the American spirit. It grants unchecked power to the already powerfully white and the illusion of power to those—poor white, black, Hispanic, and other white-adjacent counterparts—who desire proximity to and the cloak of whiteness. Something else must be said. Another question must be probed about the theological nature of an America that birthed him, nurtured him, privileged him, and allowed him—a white nationalist—to ascend to a democratic nation’s highest office.
When we study carefully nationalism, particularly white nationalism, and its most infamous leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, we find that these movements do two things: validate whiteness as supreme and prop up its leader as a messiah sent to save his people from economic depression and attacks on whiteness. Trump’s language that has continued beyond his presidential campaign places heavy emphasis on “I.” There is no “we” as in “Yes, we can” in Trump’s language. There is no “We will.” There is only “I can” and “I will.” Trump’s messianic promises to put the government on his shoulders and deliver America from the hands of Mexicans and other undesirables have inspired a type of cult worship. He has threatened to censor the media and free press. He has attempted to choke off free thought and discredit any criticism of his administration. He has threatened to jail and deport elected officials who challenge him. America has become too black, too brown. It is tainted, stained at every level. And Donald Trump has done what textbook fascists do—promised to restore the land to former greatness when whiteness was supreme.
We must engage in the task of calling Donald Trump what he is while also understanding why he is. He is not only because white supremacy was the starting point for America’s existence, but he is because we have given him the power to be God. And it seems as though we’ve given him the power to be God because we want a god, a king. Not a democratic President. But why? Why does a “Christian” America, a democratic America want a deity? According to various theological and philosophical sources, humanity has always struggled with its mortality, finiteness, and the desire for sovereignty.
Plato’s Republic provides an example of this struggle against finiteness and sovereignty. Glaucon, the brother of Socrates, recites the tale of the ring of the ancestor of Gyges of Lydia. The ancestor found this magical ring on a corpse during a violent thunderstorm and earthquake. Upon seeing the ring, placing it on his finger, and turning it inward to face himself, the ancestor of Gyges found that he had become invisible. During a monthly meeting that reported to the king on the state of the flocks, the man realized that he became invisible to those sitting near him. He then used the cloak of invisibility to seduce the king’s wife, attack the king with her help, kill him, and take over the kingdom.
Glaucon argues that the power of invisibility yields an extreme end. When given the chance, can humanity resist the temptation to “…take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among the humans” without fear of penalty? The idea that humanity is naturally inclined to savagery and lawlessness if given the chance and power may seem like a pessimistic view of human nature. However, the various ways in which many have given Donald Trump the power to rule as if he is above the law reveals something about ourselves with which we must come to terms. That is, we like that Trump is a bully.
We have wrapped Donald Trump in the cloak of divine invisibility, which allows him to operate above the law. We admire the way he demands attention, praise, and adoration. We wish we could speak to and about our colleagues and employers the way Trump does without fear that our employment would be terminated. We want to sexually assault numerous women without legal punishment. We wish we had the wealth and ancestral pedigree to have unchecked power. We marvel at the constant attention he receives and wonder how he can do it. We wish that we could escape all forms of accountability, and Trump is hope that somehow, we can. And we have proven that we like it because we elected him and we have yet to impeach him. We are losing control of this country because we have made Trump our king and exalted him to our pending demise.
Other writers have addressed humanity’s desire for sovereignty. Early church theologian and philosopher St. Augustine struggles with this idea in The City of God. He attempts to identify the source of humanity’s desire for sovereignty as he distinguishes the characteristics and ambitions of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. St. Augustine posits that the love of self consumes the City of Man. The city’s leadership reflects the love of self. St. Augustine writes, “…the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling.” Utilitarianism does not guide these rulers. Instead, the love of ruling and being more excellent than others guide their ethics. St. Augustine further posits that citizens of the City of Man worship themselves as deities. St. Augustine writes, “The one lifts up his head in his own glory…” They profess themselves to be wise as they glorify “…in their own wisdom and being possessed by pride…” as they “…were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” Humanity’s possession with pride, St. Augustine argues, is the source of humanity’s desire to be sovereign.
Although humanity desires sovereignty, I do not believe that we can transcend our finiteness. However, when we are met with someone who displays what we believe to be God-like qualities, we are drawn to them and are struck by the awe of their power. Reinhold Niebuhr reinforces this idea as he critiques the “political man” in The Nature and Destiny of Man and Nation Building. In this critique, the renowned American ethicist and theologian suggests that since humanity’s collective desire to be God is unattainable, we impose that desire onto an individual. Humanity’s collective thirst and appetite for a deity are evident in the myth surrounding Hitler’s being. Many believed that Hitler was immune to both pain and death. Hitler’s survival of an assassination attempt amplified this myth. The bomb that was set off in his office and disintegrated his desk left shards of wood in his leg, yet Hitler seemed to be physically unphased by the incident.
However, as the new documentary Nazis on Drugs reveals, Hitler had been secretly taking opioids, cocaine, and other drugs and surviving the incident further bolstered cult worship. This is what we have done with Donald Trump. He seems to be uninhibited by human limitations that subject him to the rule of law. He maintains his position of power both despite and due to that fact that he has encouraged mass shootings and attacks on places of worship and castigated Mexican immigrants, African Americans, and people from other black and brown counties for the nation’s ills. And he has spiritually possessed this nation in the same way Hitler was able to possess Germany.
After surveying the rise and fall of societies that were coerced into the deification of its rulers, America must ask itself what it means to worship a President and if it is equipped to deal with the consequences of playing this dangerous game. Such a game is dangerous because many believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient. We cannot question God’s reign if God is omnipotent and omniscient. Many ascribe to such a limited, agency-stripping theology. Whatever the deity does, no matter how violent, is justified. And if I am a follower, then I must walk in the tradition of, for example, biblical prophets, priests, judges, and kings and consecrate myself to the service of God. That is, I must become the hands, feet, and mouthpiece of God to carry out God’s mission against those—the other—who threaten American purity. Italy and Germany fell to fascism when they ascribed to this theology and failed to critique their deified dictators. America will suffer the same fate if the “stand behind Trump or leave” narrative continues to be pushed.
However, I do not ascribe to the theology that God cannot be questioned, and I encourage others, especially writers, to avoid this type of theology as well. If not, then we choke off our own voices of defiance before empire has the chance. America is a white supremacist nation because many want it to be, and their God ordains it to exist as such. However, I am reminded of an often-quoted Scripture, Joshua 24:15a in which Joshua is purported to have said, “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” While I will not get into a biblical exegesis of this text, it is a Scripture befitting for the moment America is currently experiencing. The soul of this country is at stake. We must choose this day who and what we will serve faces us. I stated earlier that labeling Donald Trump a white supremacist seems to have no power in a country founded on the ideology of white supremacy. However, we must keep identifying him as such. We must continue to call this demon who and what he is and stand firm against cries for us to leave this nation because we dare not to submit. The moment we cease to use our words is the moment we begin to worship Donald Trump. We must use our words with the conviction that they have the power to liberate, heal, and call this nation to a higher consciousness.