Opinion

Trump vs. Lewis: A Question of Character

The difference between being a character — and having it

Georgia Rep. John Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 14, 2015. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When we think of Rep. John Lewis on a bus, it is as a teenage “Freedom Rider,” putting his own life at risk in order to form a more perfect union. When we think of Donald Trump on a bus, it is as a boorish billionaire, musing about sexually assaulting women.

When we think of Lewis and racial politics, it is in the context of waking America’s conscience to the civil, voting and housing rights denied to citizens because of the color of their skin. When we think of Trump and racial politics, it is in the context of denying housing to citizens based on the color of their skin, fomenting white nationalism and seeking ways to discriminate against Muslims without running afoul of the First Amendment.

When we think of Lewis as a firebrand, it is as the speaker at the 1963 March on Washington who promised that “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy” by “the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers.” When we think of fiery rhetoric from Trump, it is about punching protesters and walking down Fifth Avenue shooting people.

So, it’s not surprising that Trump drew powerful rebukes when he attacked Lewis over the weekend for questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. Trump could have chosen to argue that Lewis, who has pleaded with his fellow citizens to live up to America’s democratic values, was simply wrong to use his platform as a public official to sow doubts about the next president. Whether you agree with it or not, there’s a case to be made there. Instead, Trump spilled forth with bilious venom in a futile attempt to poison Lewis’ standing and denigrate his constituents.

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”

My wife and I got married in Lewis’ 5th District at the Georgian Terrace Hotel, right across the street from the beautiful and historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The neighborhood, along one of Atlanta’s seemingly countless streets named Peachtree, was in great shape. Moving around the district, it takes in the tony community of Buckhead and Emory University’s college-town environs.

Like any major city, Atlanta — and portions of Lewis’ district — have areas that are in better shape than others. But, taken as a whole, Lewis’ constituents aren’t the folks Trump made them out to be in what was appropriately taken as a racially charged stereotype of a black congressman’s district.

The district is well-educated, with 40 percent of its eligible residents having attained a bachelor’s degree or an even higher level of schooling, compared with about one-third across the nation. That’s in part because it is home to Morehouse and Spelman, the twin jewels of America’s historically black colleges and universities. The median income of just above $48,000 a year is a tick below the state average but about the same as the state of Florida, which Trump won in November. A look at crime statistics by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests the city and the 5th District are hardly at the top of the list of crime-ridden metropolitan areas.

What Trump’s attack on Lewis and the 5th District so clearly illustrates is the president-elect’s willingness to take an ounce of truth — that harm can come from a prominent figure like Lewis undermining the legitimacy of the president — and turn it into a preposterous narrative. I mean, if anyone wants to talk about a truly dangerous attempt to undermine our democracy, one need look no further than Trump’s campaign to convince Americans that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

It’s sad — SAD! — that Trump would choose to attack the most noble and kind of our 435 representatives. No one who has interacted with him in the halls of the Capitol would call him anything but a gentleman. For years, he has opened his arms to white Republicans who make the trek to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” when he was badly beaten by police during a 1965 voting-rights march.

Trump, as Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen American soldier pointed out at the Democratic National Convention, has “sacrificed nothing” in his life. Lewis has sacrificed his body for American ideals.

Trump lies about anyone he perceives as a critic and denigrates rivals with sobriquets like “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco” and “Low-energy” Jeb.

Lewis usually refers to other men as “brother,” whether he knows them well or not, whether they are black or white, or whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

Trump made a mistake in going after Lewis personally rather than arguing the Georgia congressman’s words were misguided. The war of words between these two men has perfectly illustrated the difference between having character and being a character.

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