The other night at a campaign rally in Minnesota, Donald Trump added a new chant for his fans, who already yell “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “CNN sucks!”, and even, lately, “Nobel!” He ordered them to start howling, “Space Force!”, and naturally they obliged. Trump proposes to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. military because “there’s no place like space.”
A “Space Force” is a notion which might occur to any bored ten-year-old doodling his way through a droning civics lecture, and that’s pretty much Trump’s emotional age. Whether or not he has the authority to actually create a new military branch is unclear, like so much else about his administration. (He also told the Minnesotans that he was “re-opening NASA,” which of course has never closed.) But I thought he used an interesting phrase to describe how this new outfit would be apart from but equivalent to the other five branches. He said it would be “separate but equal.”
I’m not going to give Trump “credit” for deliberately using a loaded term from the civil rights era to excite his base. I think it’s just something he heard on tv one day and it kept floating around in the burbling word-stew inside his brain. Just like the time Sarah Palin, another colossal dumbass, used the term “blood libel” without realizing (I’m betting) that she was rubbing next to some serious antisemitism. The words just sounded cool to her. But accidentally or not, Trump sent a message to his oldest (coincidentally his most virulent) fans, those good ole boys who can well remember when America was especially great — for white people like them.
The doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal” was established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which has come to be regarded as one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. For the first half of the twentieth century, segregation was the law of the land, and guess what: Plessy has never been explicitly overruled. It’s been hacked away at, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional when it came to schools and ignited the American civil rights movement. (Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat the following year.) But technically, Plessy is still on the books.
Again, Trump has probably never heard of Plessy v. Ferguson. But make no mistake, there are folks at his rallies who really miss the days of “separate but equal.” Man, that was when America was really great! And one of them who can remember is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the gentleman from Alabama. I believe the General knew exactly what he was doing on June 14 when he opened his Bible to defend the barbaric “zero tolerance” policy that cruelly tears kids away from their parents.
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions. “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” He was referring to Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (RSV). This passage has been especially popular in two American eras: it was frequently invoked during the Revolution by British loyalists, and again just prior to the Civil War by defenders of slavery — and Sessions knows it. Both groups were on the wrong side of history, as he is now.
Besides, if you want actual Biblical advice on immigration, how about Leviticus 19:33-34 (RSV)? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” You can cherry-pick the Bible to support almost anything, but that sounds pretty dadburn specific to me.
Trump may not understand everything he utters. Or he may believe his own childlike fantasies. (Remember when he tried to take credit for coining the term “prime the pump” during an interview with The Economist? The Economist!) His level of ignorance is prodigious: he’s nothing but a game show host, mate! But there are people around him who do know exactly what they’re saying. At the moment things seem to be going their way — but they’re building up a tsunami of karmic debt, and one day it’s going to come crashing down.