Five observations from this week’s tumultuous observance of 400th anniversary of the birth of representative democracy in North America:
1. President Trump said the right things in his speech. It’s hard to talk about the 400th anniversary of the first elected legislature without talking about the 400th anniversary of something that happened a month later — the arrival of the first enslaved Africans. To his credit, Trump made a point of addressing that. “Today, in honor, we remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage,” he said. “In the face of grave oppression and grave injustice, African-Americans have built, strengthened, inspired, uplifted, protected, defended and sustained our nation from its very earliest days.”
This is a glimpse of the president we could have. The problem, of course, is that Trump’s noble words on this occasion ring hollow, because just hours earlier he continued his Twitter attacks on an African-American congressman from Baltimore, implying, without evidence, that Elijah Cummings is corrupt. On Twitter, we get the real Trump, who delights in dividing the country to his presumed political advantage. At Jamestown, we saw Trump mouthing the words of his capable speechwriters. Which Trump are we to believe? Unfortunately, that question answers itself. The point-counterpoint of Trump’s tweets versus his Jamestown speech shows just how much he has wasted the opportunity before him. He was in Jamestown to honor our history; someday, that same history will judge quite harshly Trump and all those who embraced his polarizing rhetoric.
2. Gov. Ralph Northam said the right things in his speech. Everything Northam says regarding race — strike that, everything Northam says, period — now gets seen through the prism of his blackface scandal. Just as the high-minded words of Trump’s speech sound unconvincing in light of his words on Twitter, Northam’s words will strike some as unconvincing given his past actions. Of course, there’s quite a difference between something with which Northam is associated 35 years ago and something Trump did three hours ago. Nonetheless, Northam did say the right things at Jamestown. In some ways, it might have been one of the most important speeches a Virginia governor has ever given. We’d still rank Linwood Holton’s inaugural address in 1970 as the most important. That’s the speech where he declared “the era of defiance is behind us.”
But back to the present day: We are just now coming to grips with the notion that the history we’ve been taught is, at best, incomplete and, in some cases, has been untruthful. In commemorating anything historical, it’s easy to celebrate the parts worth celebrating and overlook the inconvenient parts. Northam, though, did not do that. The concept of elected governments in the English colonies “spread out from this very ground here at Jamestown,” he said. “But that’s not the only thing that spread from this place.”
That’s not the most uplifting view of Virginia history but it is the most correct one.
“The story of Virginia is rooted in the simultaneous pursuit of both liberty and enslavement,” Northam said. More to the point, “today, as we hold these commemorations of the first representative assembly in the free world, we have to remember who it included, and who it did not. That’s the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy.” Previous governors have made these same points, but Northam has done Virginians a service by using this historic forum to make them anew. “A true commemoration of the founding of our democracy requires us to examine how we have lived up to our ideals, or failed to do so,” Northam said. “And it requires we do this work not just today but every day, and not just with big speeches or commemorative events, but with action.” He didn’t spell out what that action should be — different people will have different ideas of that anyway — but Northam did hit all the right notes here. We need not diminish the achievements of our past to acknowledge our sins — we ought to be able to understand them together.
3. Del. Ibraheem Samirah was wrong to disrupt Trump’s speech. The Democrat from Fairfax County stood up during Trump’s speech, holding a sign that said “Deport Hate” and declaring “Mr. President you can’t send us back, Virginia is our home.” Police then led Samirah away. Afterwards he tweeted: “I just disrupted the @realDonaldTrump speech in Jamestown because nobody’s racism and bigotry should be excused for the sake of being polite. The man is unfit for office and unfit to partake in a celebration of democracy, representation, and our nation’s history of immigrants.” Samirah thinks he’s called attention to Trump’s behavior, but he’s mostly called attention to his own. Disrupting the speech achieves nothing — it only further polarizes our civic life. We’d disagree with him on this point: There’s a lot to be said for being polite. Be the change you want to see in the world: Disrupting somebody’s speech isn’t the change we want to see. Samirah is also not a figure without controversy. He’s been accused of anti-Semitism for posting several years ago that sending American aid to Israel is worse than funding the Ku Klux Klan. He’s since apologized for those posts, but Republicans were quick to bring them back up — another reason why Samirah’s outburst at Jamestown was not helpful to his party. He wound up making Trump look like the one who was restrained, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
4. Republicans are wrong about Samirah’s motives. “Delegate Samirah’s outburst was nothing more than childish frustration over Hillary Clinton’s loss,” said state Republican Chairman Jack Wilson. This, of course, is wrong. He wouldn’t be doing this if we had a normal Republican president. Instead, we have one who tells certain legislators to “go back” where they came from, a sentiment that undermines fundamental American values. Republicans naturally don’t want to talk about Trump’s corrosive rhetoric, but they should.
5. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was right to attend. While some Democrats boycotted the ceremonies, Fairfax did not. Instead, he said honoring “our proud achievements as a representative democracy and the achievements of the enslaved African-Americans and their descendants . . . is more important than the frenzied and fickle politics of the moment.” In other words, 400 years of history is bigger than four years of Trump.