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Trump’s ‘Gold Star’ Incivility and the War Against America’s Liberty

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In his rhetorical assault against the Muslim ‘Gold Star’ parents who were showcased at the Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump’s greatest offense was the statement that Khizr Khan had “no right” to criticize him.   In the first place, it is right for any American citizen to criticize candidates for public office, if they think it warranted.  Voicing such criticism is part of their duty to contribute to the deliberations by which the people of the United States responsibly exercise the sovereign power of election.  When they vote, each qualified voter’s ballot represents their share in that power, and in the duty, to God and their country, rightly to make use of it.

This is the logic that undergirds the God-endowed unalienable right of liberty.  It is clearly articulated in the American Declaration of Independence, by which, as human beings, Americans justly claim the to possess and exercise their sovereignty as a people.  Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was an aspect of that exercise.  So by challenging Khizr Khan’s right to criticize him, Donald Trump actually displayed his own lack of understanding of the American creed, or else his contempt for it.

Khizr Khan is a naturalized citizen of the United States. To become a citizen, he had to prove himself in accord with the relevant provisions of American law.   But his right to criticize Donald Trump also involved the respect that is due to the warriors who may give their lives in obedience to the call to battle in service to our nation.  It is prudence of the highest order for us to honor their obedience by demonstrating that, should they fall, their families will forever be consoled by our compassionate respect for their grievous loss.

Donald Trump’s offense was therefore not just against the Khans as Individuals.  It was also against our common good as a people, which good self-evidently requires our common and mutual willingness to risk our lives, and grieve our hearts, so that our nation may endure.  In lashing out against the Khans, Donald Trump asserted that the issue had to do with our fight against the Islamic Jihadi terrorists.  But what sense does it make to question the right of a Muslim citizen to speak in pursuance of his duty as a citizen, when before our eyes the facts proclaim the sacrifice of blood that reason acknowledges to be a faithful token of loyalty to our cause?  And Humayun Kahn made that sacrifice in the very war being waged against those who seek to murder us in the name of Islam.

In questioning Khizr Khan’s right to speak, Donald Trump defied the simple sense of justice that acknowledges our debt to those who give evidence of the sacrificial will we are all supposed to contribute to preserve and defend our way of life.  Added to the rebuttable presumption of innocence all individuals are entitled to enjoy as a simple premise of our rule of law, the actual sacrifice of one’s life in defense of the nation creates a presumption of respectability.  And it not just the lip-service respect we give to public officials because of the power we join in delegating to them. It’s the heartfelt honor justly given to those whose due is more than all can pay.

For citizens of the United States, that simple sense of justice is a vital aspect of the spirit of good will that binds us together as a nation.  As a Black American, I have good reason to appreciate that spirit as something more than an abstraction.  By human laws, a regime of unjust racial discrimination still marred the Union after the Civil War, despite the terrible holocaust by which it was purged of the incongruous sin of human slavery. It was no coincidence that the first move to end that regime came in the form of President Truman’s order to end official race-based discrimination in our Armed Forces.

I grew up as an Army brat.  Truman’s order made a difference in my life on the various army bases where I grew up.  Even in the Deep South in the 1950s, that life was free of the humiliating signposts of discrimination that elsewhere legally licensed others, who were so disposed, to treat people like me with contempt or condescension.  Instead, in the environment created by the Commander-in-chief’s mandated goal, people moved by a sense of natural justice were given warrant to rebuke those who disregarded it.  The good and decent people who had seen black soldiers risk and give their lives; who had mourned them as worthy comrades-in-arms, and sometimes as friends, were allowed and called upon to put that sense of justice on display.

Truman’s order meant that Blacks and whites had to work and march together in warlike demonstrations of power. This would soon have its counterpart in Civil Rights demonstrations that helped to mobilize the moral and spiritual power by which the laws of our nation were ultimately made to conform to the sense of natural justice that already swayed the hearts of many of the good people of the United States.

This is not just an observation about the logic that informed the decision by which the American people eventually ended the regime of law enforced racial discrimination.  It is an observation about the logic that informs the moral heart that is the core of shared identity as a people.  No matter what group an individual belongs to as an incidental matter of fact, we Americans are supposed to give each and every individual the benefit of the doubt.  We are supposed to judge them by the commitment to do right that becomes evident (or not) in their actions as individuals; not prejudge them by the prejudiced significance others attach to the group labels we all wear.

Based on their actions as individuals, did the ‘Gold Star’ parents whose right Trump disparaged deserve his contempt?  If Donald Trump thinks so, he has every right to make the case that proves it.  But just as we require lawyers in a Court room to prove their case before an individual can be punished for misconduct, so in our political life we require that individuals be accorded the presumption of respect even as we argue against them.  This is the solid, rational basis for the political civility Donald Trump has time and again arrogantly refused to practice.

Such arrogance ought to be discouraged in America’s inhabitants at every stage and station of life.  But it’s simply inexcusable in those who seek or occupy positions that are supposed to represent our common sense of justice, our common rights and the common power we constitute in order to secure them. This is especially true in time of war, when the need to unleash vitriolic destruction against those who mean to destroy us, constantly tempts us to countenance the lie that civility is evidence of weakness. Tragically, in our times, elitist forces seeking to overthrow our constitutional self-government are actually working to exacerbate this temptation.  They want us to be helplessly susceptible to the pricks and goad of irascible passions, which they can manipulate for their own ends.

I believe that Donald Trump is, quite self-consciously, a manifestation of elitist purpose. So he uses the war we rightly wage against Islamic Jihadist terrorism to strip us of the inner strength and civil discipline we should maintain as a free people, even in the midst of war.  It is necessary and right to rebuke and reject his purposeful carelessness in this regard.  Doing so is an essential part of the incessant, perennial struggle a free people has to wage against elitist forces that seek to suborn their character in order to overthrow their constitutional self-government.  To defeat them now, we must reject Trump, Clinton and the whole elitist partisan sham both their candidacies exist to perpetuate.

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