The US government shutdown over border wall funding was initially characterized as a sort of Winston Church Hill moment by US President Donald Trump and his supporters. They tried to frame Illegal immigrants as ruthless, oppressive invaders and the open border as one of the greatest threats to US security in American history. Trump was cast as a heroic leader and savior who was willing to take action when no one else would. The attempt, of course, largely failed, because the threat posed by an open border is hardly imminent, new, or anywhere near as dangerous as suggested by Trump allies. The American People do not seem to believe Trump’s border wall, which would likely do little to stem the flow of illegal entries into the US, is worth the cost of a government shutdown. Trump’s allies have now attempted to remold Trump’s unwillingness to succumb to political pressure as the struggle of a civil rights leader by comparing his resistance to that of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The development raises important questions about what makes great leaders like MLK so great. It is something that needs to be better understood by the American People and the many Peoples of the world.
By the virtue of its very function, a wall divides people. Walls can provide important services like security, but the function of a wall is to separate things. In the case of Trump’s wall, it is supposed to keep Hispanic immigrants separate from US citizens and out of their territory. Beyond the literal purpose of Trump’s wall, the Trump political strategy has been to create a permanent divide between US citizens and the other Peoples of the Americas by vilifying illegal immigrants as thieves, rapists, and murderers who represent nothing more than a threat to the United States. He then demanded others, including the Mexican government, support and fund his very specific public policy solution without any debate or reflection on the effectiveness of his prescription. This, obviously, resulted in push back. When his demands went unmet, he simply refused to fund the US government at the expense of government workers and US citizens. He created a divisive “my way or the highway” scenario. While Trump would like his actions to be seen in the same light as protesters seeking government protection from social and economic disenfranchisement, his protest in favor of national security is widely viewed as a superficial, divisive attempt to simply cater to xenophobic supporters and special interest groups.
What sets the efforts by Donald Trump apart from Martin Luther King Jr. Is that King was not divisive. It is a key difference that divides most political leaders, including Civil Rights leaders, from the minority of individuals who are respected to the degree King is. King fought for the rights of black Americans and other minorities. He also fought for women and poor Americans. He fought for equal opportunity and access for the disenfranchised. He asked government to protect the freedoms of those discriminated against. He asked all members of society to overcome their prejudices to treat each other as brothers and sisters. What he did not do was try to deny anyone freedom or opportunity nor did he create enemies out of those who opposed him. While the bigoted feared the social changes he pursued and others feared his growing influence, including the national security officials, his greatest strength came from his ability to unite people in support of his message. The power wielded by Martin Luther King Jr. was a genuine love of his fellow man and his willingness to fight for the wellbeing of everyone.
Beyond Donald Trump, the United States, as well as the rest of the world, lacks the kind of leadership King supplied. In today’s political arena, the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are seen as both underhanded servants of special interests as well as impotent leaders. Strong leaders like Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are also seen in a negative light despite their effectiveness. For the most part, they are not well liked. There are many who interpret their negative images as a result of gender bias, but it has more to do with what they and other modern leaders are lacking. Where King fought for those who were disenfranchised and he would fight for anyone who needed his support, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic standing, or creed, few, if any, contemporary leaders are trusted enough to protect and serve the interests of all. Where King was seen as someone who genuinely cared about people and genuinely worked to help people, few, if any, contemporary leaders can be described as genuine. Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are certainly not seen as genuine while their apparent allegiance is to wealthy, progressive special interests. Men like Trump only serve like-minded supporters and those he needs.
By serving specific groups of supporters and by using political strategies rooted in the vilification of others to drum up support for their initiatives, modern leaders have empowered themselves through division. When they try to reach out to those they have alienated in their quest to expand and solidify support among their base, they reveal themselves to be disingenuous and untrustworthy. It is easier for political leaders to gain the support of a select group by playing to their fears and prejudices, but it is also limiting. In dividing people, it is terribly difficult to gather the support of a broad base. Those rare few who are able to gain the support of a wide range of individuals based on unifying aspirations are the most powerful leaders, because they transcend divisions. To some extend, the Trumps and Pelosis of the world believe their actions serve the good of all, but their messages, approaches, and goals are rarely inclusive due to their lack of genuineness. True leaders build unity by recognizing and addressing the interests of all while serving those who need their leadership. It is why Martin Luther King Jr. is beloved, admired, and remembered by generations of Americans.
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