Four years ago, as a college student in Washington DC, I watched Donald Trump take his oath of office and address the nation for the first time as president. The speech he delivered was, on its face, similar to President Joe Biden’s last week; both men conjured broad themes of unity and togetherness. And yet, the context of Trump’s rise left me with plenty to fear.
When Trump said, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” I heard the language of white grievance, not a signal to the truly disenfranchised. When he claimed, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” I nearly chuckled, remembering the many moments throughout his campaign when patriotism and prejudice were treated as synonymous. And when he pledged, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” I knew to be fearful, for his was not a new vision for America at all, but rather a centuries-old one in which the label “American” itself was only open to a select few.
In the emotional tidal wave that Trump’s inauguration inspired, a 1956 speech from Dr Martin Luther King Jr resonated with me. And last week, having both commemorated the civil rights leader’s birthday and welcomed a new administration, I revisited his address for guidance.
King expressed a need for “leaders who … on the one hand, embrace wise restraint and calm reasonableness and, on the other hand, reveal a courageous determination to press on until the victory for justice is won. We need leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice; leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. To paraphrase the great words of Holland: God give us leaders!”