Someone tried to explain to me the other day that World War II was more tangible to people than World War I, which ended 100 years ago at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. But for me, WWI has greater significance, if for no other reason than that it was sold to the American people as a war to make the world “safe for democracy.”
Black people, especially, took that seriously just five decades after the Civil War led to a formal abolition of slavery. A lot of country boys straight off the farm went to war, including members of my family. They did not have the vocabulary to articulate, as the scholar W. E. B. Dubois did, the maddening irony of fighting for democracy abroad when they had hardly tasted it at home.
After an indictment of American society in an editorial in The Crisis magazine, DuBois said:
“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land. We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”
We and others whose heritage includes survival of dictatorships, holocausts, genocides, ethnic cleansings and internments are especially sensitive to stirrings that imperil democracy. President Donald Trump has us alarmed.
He thinks he can alter the Constitution by issuing an executive order. He is listening to folks like his acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker who say the judiciary is kind of a Pluto in the scheme of things: not a full partner in the governmental galaxy of branches. And when it comes to a pillar of democracy — a free press — the president has mostly disdain.
His hostility toward news media — which he sees as not a watchdog on behalf of the public but rather as “the enemies of the people” — should concern all Americans.
In a pique last week, he barred CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House and threatened to rescind the press credentials of others whose questions perturb him: reporters like April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks who is also a contributor to CNN. The president went out of his way Friday to brand her a “loser” who “doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing” because she asks questions he does not like.
Two days earlier in a marathon news conference about the midterm elections, Ms. Ryan had tried to ask the president about complaints of voter suppression in Georgia and Florida. “Sit down. Sit down. I didn’t call on you,” he barked as if to a child, not a 51-year-old journalist who began covering the White House when Bill Clinton was president.
Later, when Yamiche Alcindor of PBS asked if the president’s description of himself as a “nationalist” had emboldened self-styled white nationalists and just plain garden variety racists, the president cut her off and labeled her question racist.
And on Friday when CNN’s Abby Phillips asked the president whether he hoped his acting attorney general would “rein in” the Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, he dismissed her question as “stupid.”
What the president is doing goes beyond hurling insults. He wants to control the message by stripping away any credibility news media have until the public is left with only the state-supported propaganda of the Trump media machine. A frightening example of that was an obviously-doctored video released by the White House that purported to show Mr. Acosta striking a White House intern who attempted to yank a microphone from his hands during the Wednesday news conference.
Do we really want this? The soldiers who tried to make the world safe for democracy knew that the American version was not perfect. But when the Armistice was announced 100 years ago, they returned to civilian life, committed to the strides toward freedom that pushed us closer to a more open and equal society.
Trumpism cannot take us backward.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.