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As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, his impending presidency nonetheless refutes the now-fraught notion of American exceptionalism—an idea that our society is self-governed by informed citizens whose individual actions collectively work for the best interests of those who live in the nation. As this political theory goes, the United States stands alone among nations in world history as the “shining city upon a hill.”
Rarely is this argument challenged as the nationalistic hubris that it is. Americans—and many others around the world—accept it as fact, I suspect, because they want to believe its veracity. Until now. Donald Trump promises to plunge a wooden spike through the heart of anyone who fantasized that the political horrors that befuddle lesser nations could never happen here.
Indeed, as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb acutely observes, Trump’s ascension to the highest rung of American politics kills the notion that this nation is special. On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, he wrote:
In the broader context, Trumpism represents the demise of American exceptionalism, or at least the refutation of the most cogent arguments for it ever having existed in the first place. An exceptional nation would have better reflexes than this, would recognize the communicable nature of fear more quickly, would rally its immune defense more efficiently than the United States has in the past sixteen months.
So if the United States of America isn’t exceptional, in this impending age of Trump, what are we? I fear the worst. Think South Africa in 1948. Yes, that was the dawn of apartheid and the legalization of racial segregation in that country. I’m not predicting the future—after all, I never imagined Trump would get the Republican nomination, let alone win the election. But as Spain-born philosopher George Santayana reminds us about the repeating nature of history, the parallels between the South Africa of D.F. Malan, who became prime minister in 1948, and President-elect Trump’s United States are too eerie to ignore.
A short history lesson is in order to make this point clearer. Well before D.F. Malan became prime minister following the 1948 election, South African social customs and common laws imposed informal racial segregation on the black majority population. For years, this posed little concern to the white majority or its government—until the years following World War II, when black migrant workers moved into urban centers such as Johannesburg and competed for jobs with white workers. Rising resentment among white, Afrikaner nationalists rallied around a policy of apartheid—literally, “apartness”—to ensure white primacy in all matters affecting South Africans.
Apartheid was a systemic effort to legalize racial restrictions, including where people would live; whom they could love; what jobs they could hold; and whether they could be educated, receive health care, and, of course, vote for who would govern their country.
Once Malan took office, his National Party went about its dastardly work through domination of the government’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Employing a set of parliamentary acts and administrative decrees and backed by National Party supporters in the courts, Afrikaner government officials required people to be registered according to their racial identity; removed people by force from their homes to live in areas set apart by racial categories; imposed restrictions on media freedom to silence liberal opposition; and meddled in the intimate privacy of citizens by forbidding interracial marriages.
So much of today’s news surrounding the confirmation of President-elect Trump’s Cabinet takes me back to those days of South African apartheid. Indeed, as a young reporter, I traveled across apartheid South Africa to document the human atrocity wrought by a system of laws that lacked a shred of human decency. I left the country feeling great despair.
In those trying times, black South Africans resisted the indignities and abuses of their homeland’s minority government. Many sacrificed their lives and families to struggle in the courts and streets to secure and protect their human rights. In time, their noble resistance was noticed by a world audience, and nations around the globe joined to exclude South Africa from the community of civilized people. Still, apartheid held on for nearly a half-century. I left South Africa in late 1985 and feared the worst for what was to come.
But what I didn’t foresee was the power of resistance to political oppression. Apartheid ended in 1994 with the establishment of a new constitution, which enfranchised all who lived in the country and led to elections in 1995 that elevated former political prisoner Nelson Mandela as president of a new South Africa.
As Trump and his minions come to Washington, I am concerned about what lies ahead for our nation. But as I know from history and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And the best course of action in the face of setbacks imposed by power-crazed despots is to stand in unwavering opposition to them at all costs and every turn.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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