Of course June 19 should be a federal holiday. It’s not just the right thing to do: it’s also the smart thing to do. If Donald Trump doesn’t establish honoring the freeing of America’s black slaves in the national calendar today, then we’ll know that he’s asleep at the switch: too busy tweeting ‘LAW & ORDER’ in full caps, or nodding out in bed to Tucker, or incapable of leaving a mark on American life and politics any deeper than a divot left by his five-iron.
Emancipation Day, which is what it should be called, would be a symbol, but also a statement of fact. It would acknowledge slavery, but also freedom. The abomination of slavery can no more be deleted from the American past by not recognizing it in the civic calendar than the Confederacy can be undone by trashing statues to its generals in civic spaces.
No less importantly, the holiday would also fix the other, better half of the historical lesson in civic time. ‘Americans always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else,’ said Winston Churchill, who was as American as Barack Obama is black. Really, Emancipation Day should honor the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863. But that’s already a holiday, and the contemplation of the worst aspects of human behavior is not aided by a hangover.
Will it help? Yes, because the acknowledgement of a crime is the historical equivalent of restorative justice, a reconciliation between the living over the story of a common inheritance. For the same reason, the holiday will backfire on American society. History is an open-ended negotiation. In a negotiation, any concession opens the path to further demands. The demands of the small but destructive factions of left-wing activists will intensify.
They will comb through the letters of major-general Gordon Granger, the Union officer who announced at Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over and the slaves were free, and accuse him of ‘white supremacy’. These groups have already obtained well-funded sinecures that are immune to democratic opinion, black or white. They will continue to denounce ‘Amerikkka’, and continue to leverage white guilt and embarrassment in pursuit of the big prize, reparations.
But that shouldn’t matter. The real prize is reducing racial tensions by reducing the damage that the past can still do. Without that, there can be no common present or future. This is why it is so surprising, and yet so unsurprising, that the best a nominally Republican president can say of Abraham Lincoln is, as Trump said to Harris Faulkner of Fox last week, ‘He did good, although it’s always questionable.’
It’s also surprising, yet not surprising, that the ‘Party of Lincoln’ keep failing to seize the opportunity. The corollary of Lyndon B. Johnson losing the South for a generation was the Republicans winning it. They’ve kept winning it, and that has accelerated their transformation into the party of whites, which is what the Democrats were before the Sixties.
Emancipation Day could be a superb propaganda opportunity for Republicans: a gift to the nation that will keep giving to the party. Every year, Americans will take a day off and be reminded that Lincoln was a Republican, that the Republicans expunged slavery from the US, that the Democratic party was the child of the Confederacy and the sibling of the Klan, and that Trump was the Republican president who had the guts to do what Obama couldn’t do: acknowledge the dignity of black Americans.
Instead, Juneteenth comes and goes. And each time it does, it’s obvious that the Republicans have a race problem. But this year of all years, they should have less of a problem.
November’s election pits Joe Biden — the friend of segregationists, the eulogist of Strom Thurmond, the man who boasts of threatening Corn Pop with a length of chain — against Donald Trump, who did better among black voters in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012, albeit on a lower turnout.
Is Trump too fixated on appearing strong — on not being seen to bend to the will of the mob — to see the opportunity here? Is he racist, or just jaded?
This election will be won or lost on the center ground. Hence the pollsters sudden and patronizing interest in ‘suburban security moms’. But black moms also live in suburbs. Black people also need security, wherever they live. The black middle class is growing and growing, and low-income black workers face heavy competition from Hispanic workers. There are votes to be won, yet many conservatives deride Jared Kushner for pushing an electoral strategy that could chip away at the Democrats’ reliance on the black vote.
The current crisis in race relations, and the urgent need for economic growth, give Trump and the Republicans an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the electoral map. Watch them blow it.