eyes on the U.S.

Washington, Rome, Kampala: The Sacred Counting Of Democracy

At 6 p.m. local time Wednesday in Rome, while much of the world was transfixed on Washington, D.C., Italian reporters were huddled in a vast room of the nation's Parliament to witness another political crisis unfolding.

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that his minor party would pull out of the government, plunging Italian politics into deep uncertainty that may only be resolved with a new snap election. Pundits accused Renzi of acting for his cynical personal interest, trying to force out Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to make space for his own comeback to the center of the political stage. Others noted that the announcement baffled Italians, who had just heard the news that their country had recorded 507 new COVID-19 deaths that day, pushing the toll past 80,000. Some argued that the far-right would win if the country heads to the polls.

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What Trump's Twitter Ban Means For The Rest Of The World

By closing Donald Trump's social media accounts, the Big Tech platforms have recognized for the first time their fundamental responsibility for the content they broadcast. But for this and other reasons that now also means the regulators must step up.


PARIS — Do we have the right to silence a man for taking extreme positions, particularly if we are a private company? And what if the individual in question is the democratically elected head of state? These philosophical questions have suddenly become urgent with Twitter's decision to ban the account of the American president, Donald Trump, after the whole world watched in dismay as his supporters invaded the Capitol.

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On 'The Trump Question' - The Burden For Biden's Presidency

The assault on the Capitol wasn't an attempted coup, per se. But the ramifications of how to hold Trump responsible are fundamental for the future of the American democracy.

WASHINGTON — When a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and stopped Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the nation's next president, it was scary – and fatal for at least five people.

But it did not pose a serious threat to the nation's democracy.

An attempt at an illegal power grab somehow keeping Donald Trump in the Oval Office was never likely to happen, let alone succeed. Trump always lacked the authority, and the mass support, required to steal an election he overwhelmingly lost. He didn't control state election officials or have enough influence over the rest of the process to achieve that goal.

Nevertheless, over his term as president, he repeatedly violated democratic norms, like brazenly promoting his own business interests, interfering in the Justice Department, rejecting congressional oversight, insulting judges, harassing the media and failing to concede his election loss.

However, as scholars who study democracy historically and comparatively, we predict that the biggest threats to democracy Trump poses won't emerge until after he exits the White House – when Biden will have to face the Trump presidency's most serious challenges.

Trump never really threatened a coup, which is a swift and irregular transfer of power from one executive to another, where force or the threat of force installs a new leader with the support of the military. Coups are the typical manner in which one dictator succeeds another.

A coup displacing a legitimately elected government is quite rare; prominent examples from the past 100 years across the world include Spain in 1923, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973, Pakistan in 1999 and Thailand in 2006.

A military-backed takeover was not going to happen in the U.S. Its armed forces are extremely unlikely to intervene in domestic politics for regime change, especially not in favor of a president who is historically unpopular among its ranks.

Even if Trump's most ardent supporters believe he won, there aren't enough of them to credibly threaten a civil war. Despite their ability to breach a thinly defended Capitol, a sustained insurrection would be easily quashed by law enforcement.

Trump couldn't even stage an "auto-coup," which happens when an elected executive declares a state of emergency and suspends the legislature and judiciary, or restricts civil liberties, to seize more power. There have also been very few of those perpetrated against democratically elected governments over the last 100 years. The most prominent examples are Hitler's Germany in 1933, Bordaberry in Uruguay (1972), Fujimori in Peru (1992), Erdoğan in Turkey (2015), Maduro in Venezuela (2017), Morales in Bolivia (2019) and Orbán in Hungary (2020).

A U.S. president can't dismiss the legislative or judicial branches, and elections are not under his control: The Constitution declares that they are run by the states. And the declaration of election results is also well outside the power of the president (or vice president). It doesn't matter whether the losing side formally concedes; the new president's term begins at noon on Jan. 20.

Taking him away? — Photo: Samantha Sophia

The attack on the Capitol may have threatened the lives of federal legislators and Capitol police officers, but the most it achieved was to interrupt, briefly, a ministerial procedure. Within hours, both the House and Senate were back in session in the Capitol, carrying on their certification of the electoral votes cast in 2020.

By objecting to the outcome of the election, Trump highlighted aspects of the process that many Americans were previously unaware of, ironically ensuring the public is better informed about the mechanics and details of American elections. In that way, he may have, paradoxically, made American democracy stronger.

And it was fairly strong already. There was no evidence of any sort of widespread fraud or other irregularities. Major media organizations continue to explain and document the facts regarding the election, contradicting the president's disinformation campaign. In 2020, voter turnout was higher than it has been for a century. Despite the pandemic, Trump's rhetoric and threats of foreign tampering, the 2020 elections were the most secure in living memory.

Perhaps one anxiety eclipsed all others: a lawless president who never faces justice.

But beyond elections, Trump has threatened America's other bedrock political institutions. While there are many seemingly disparate examples of his disregard for the Constitution, what unites them is impunity and contempt for the rule of law. He has committed numerous impeachable acts – including potentially the incitement-to-riot on Jan. 6. He is facing a criminal investigation in New York state, and may be looking at federal inquiries both about possible misdeeds he committed in office and from before he became president.

The framers of the Constitution feared many things they designed the U.S. government to defend against, but perhaps one anxiety eclipsed all others: a lawless president who never faces justice, and was never held accountable during or even after leaving office. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, "if the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution."

There's very little time left to hold Trump to account during his term. After the events of Jan. 6, he now faces public backlash from longtime congressional allies and resignations from his Cabinet. He has also been locked out of Facebook and Twitter.

But the question of real, lasting – and legal – accountability will fall to Biden, and his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland. They will decide whether to continue existing investigations and potentially start new ones. State attorneys general and local prosecutors will have similar powers for the laws they enforce.

Newly elected leaders can often face strong incentives – and encouragement – to prosecute their predecessors, as Biden does now. But that approach, often called restorative justice, can also destabilize democracy's prospects if lame-duck executives anticipate this and decide to hunker down and fight instead of conceding defeat. Consider Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, toppled by Western military intervention and killed by his people in 2011. He refused to flee or seek asylum for fear that both foreign governments and his own successors would prosecute him for human rights violations.

Perhaps counterintuitively, it is when outgoing presidents in transitioning democracies enshrine protections against their prosecution directly before leaving office that the democratic system is more likely to endure. This was the case in Chile with dictator Augusto Pinochet, who left power in 1989 under the aegis of a constitution he foisted on the country on his way out.

By contrast, after-the-fact pardoning of crimes – as Gerald Ford did of Richard Nixon – runs the risk of creating a larger threat to democracy: the idea that rogue leaders and their henchmen are above the law. If Trump finds a way to pardon himself, he may reduce his legal vulnerability, but he can't erase it entirely.

If prosecutors or Congress let Trump off the hook, they may be the ones breaking new and dangerous ground, truly shattering the rule of law that underpins American democracy.

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The Months That Will Turn Joe Into President Biden

For all his experience in government, Biden is entering unfamiliar territory. Trump, barking at the president-elect's heels and challenging his legitimacy, will try to make the transition harder still.

Joe Biden won the election, but whether he wins the transition is another question. The peaceful transfer of power always tests an incoming president, but this time promises to be particularly perilous.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating, taking lives and jobs as it spreads. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has only reluctantly agreed to the transition and knows how to dominate the national conversation. He seems determined to deny his successor's legitimacy and appears to be planning a 2024 campaign rally on Inauguration Day.

In the transition time remaining, I believe Biden needs to establish two kinds of legitimacy. He should show the nation that he possesses the competence to plan an administration, in order to create substantive legitimacy. And he should perform important ceremonial rituals, in order to establish symbolic legitimacy.

As a scholar of the presidency, I've written about John Kennedy's transition, which culminated in his superb inaugural address. Biden seems unlikely to match that rhetorical achievement, but he is off to a solid start.

President Donald Trump speaks behind a podium.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to support Republican Senate candidates in Valdosta, Ga. on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

This one's different

The president-elect has sought to craft his substantive legitimacy through comparison and contrast. One of these presidents, Biden suggests, is not like the other.

This is not an unusual strategy. Democratic political consultant David Axelrod long ago coined the opposites theory of presidential elections, noting, "Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have." President-elect Biden appears to assume that he won at least in part because voters rejected Donald Trump, and so he has reinforced the difference between the two during the early transition.

When the election hung in the balance, the former vice president waited for the results with the rest of us. Unlike Trump, Biden refused to declare victory, noting only that "We feel good about where we are." His humility contrasted to Trump's behavior throughout his term.

When the result became clear, Biden not only promoted national unity in his Nov. 7 speech, he also shared the stage with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. That was a perk denied Biden on election night in 2008 and an indication that he planned to govern not as a rogue individual but as part of a team.

His first staff and cabinet choices have reinforced the teamwork theme. "Competence is making a comeback," the Associated Press declared in its analysis of Biden's national security selections. The president-elect quietly made his decisions, with no public auditions or press leaks. He introduced them as a team in a sober setting. Each gave remarks emphasizing their commitments to morality and honesty.

For example, his nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, movingly told the Holocaust survival story of his stepfather, announcing a moral mission for the United States in the world. Avril Haines, nominated for Director of National Intelligence, said she would speak truth to power, "knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise and that you value the perspective of the intelligence community, and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult."

Joe Biden is clearly determined to dissociate his administration from the previous one, which was characterized by neither moral commitment nor faith in truth. He is crafting his substantive legitimacy by demonstrating his belief in teamwork, morality, competence and experience. His administration, he claims with these choices, is ready to lead.

Biden and Harris appearing at an announcement event

Biden, left, and Harris, right, appear jointly at many events. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Symbolic legitimacy

Biden is among the most experienced candidates elected to the presidency. Yet assuming the office will be difficult, even for him. He has been a senator and vice president, but he has not been in charge.

To become the president requires ritual.

A president is both the legislative leader and the head of state, the equivalent of a British prime minister and the queen in one. The trappings of the office make the office. Americans need to see Biden invested with the presidency, much as a Prince of Wales becomes the king by assuming the robes and powers of his office in a ceremony.

The inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 is a ritual of transition that transforms "Joe" into a head of state, into Mr. President. The inaugural address gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his presidential capacity, to unite partisans as one people, and display himself as their leader.

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The Founders understood the human need for political ceremony at times of transition. George Washington learned of his first election to the presidency on April 14, 1789 and soon left his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia for the then-capital of New York City.

Washington's journey turned into a grand celebration of the new nation. In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, 13 young women, dressed in white, walked before him, strewing flowers from baskets as he rode underneath a magnificent floral arch. Washington was no longer a gentleman farmer nor even a general. He was about to become the president and these sorts of rituals marked the way.

Biden is unlikely to undertake such a journey from Wilmington to Washington, although Axios has reported that Biden could ditch the recent inaugural tradition, "the typical flourish of arriving in Washington on an Air Force plane, pulling in instead on the same Amtrak train he rode to and from Delaware for 30 years as a senator."

A lithograph showing George Washington being greeted by

A lithograph of Washington's reception by ladies, on passing the bridge at Trenton, N.J., April 1789, on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States. Nathaniel Currier/Smithsonian American Art Museum

If Biden is to establish his symbolic legitimacy as a rightful president of the United States, he will need a ceremony displaying that legitimacy, one that looks and sounds like those of his predecessors. This will be hard in a pandemic, as the campaign showed. He was unable to campaign as a candidate normally would or give his election night speech in front of a roaring crowd, as, for example, Barack Obama did in Chicago's Grant Park in 2008.

Now, it seems unlikely that he will be able to take the oath in a large ceremony or enjoy many of the traditional trappings of a presidential inauguration. Biden has said his inauguration could "resemble the Democratic National Convention."

Although the 2020 convention was successful, it didn't look like the traditional inaugural ceremonies. As a model, it would deprive the nation of many of its comforting rituals. It would substitute a small, televised ceremony at the Capitol and virtual activities from around the nation.

The president-elect and his advisers will have to find ways to make these new traditions authorize his presidency as well as the old ones. I do not envy them this task.The Conversation

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eyes on the U.S.

Biden Wins: 46 World Newspaper Front Pages Of Next President

It's Joe! After the world watched for four days as the United States counted its votes, Joe Biden has clinched victory over Donald Trump in one of the most consequential presidential elections in American history. Trump's four tumultuous years in the White House are now bound to end, even if the outgoing president has vowed to contest the result and is sure to make the transition to a new administration anything but smooth.

Still the verdict from the voters has been acknowledged by world leaders, who formally congratulated Biden. Further confirming the reality, newspapers around the world splashed the news across their front pages. Here's a sampling of 46 newspapers for the incoming 46th president, from India and Italy to Austria and Argentina, as well as Biden's native city of Scranton and home state of Delaware :


The Washington Post

The New York Times

Kansas City Star

New York Post

Delaware News Journal

The Sunday Times (Scranton, PA)

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Dominique Moisi

Trump And The Totalitarian Temptation

By prematurely declaring victory, while the counting of votes is still ongoing, Donald Trump is taking a leaf out of an autocrat’s playbook.


PARIS — The Permanent Coup. This was the title of a controversial 1964 essay by François Mitterrand in which he denounced then President Charles de Gaulle's exercise of power in France. What words would Mitterrand choose today to describe Donald Trump"s anti-democratic practices?

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U.S. Election 2020 - Views From Abroad
Alessio Perrone

Italy's Election, A Sign That Trump Could Pay For COVID-19

Italian populist party leader Matteo Salvini's disappointing results in regional elections is being blamed on his erratic handling of the health crisis in one of the worst-hit countries.

In what some are calling the most consequential U.S. presidential election ever, the coronavirus crisis will no doubt play a role in who voters choose. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the handling of the pandemic is the top issue for 20% of the American electorate, behind only the economy.

Donald Trump's decidedly haphazard, often anti-science response to the health crisis has included his admitting that he intentionally downplayed its severity, scoffed at the use of masks, and regularly compared COVID-19 to the common flu. And as the U.S. tops 200,000 deaths, many are wondering whether he will pay a price at the polls for his coronavirus response.

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Marcelo Cantelmi

Donald Trump, Accident Or Consequence Of History

The bombastic president seems to have little regard for precedence or decorum. But is he just an anomaly? And if not, what happens if he loses?


BUENOS AIRES — The United States and the world should ask themselves at some point whether Donald Trump, like the disastrous George W. Bush two terms before him, is an anomaly or a direct consequence of the nation's troubled history.

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Luis Rubio

Trump, 'Terrorist' Cartels And The True Roots Of Mexico's Violence

In loudly rejecting President's Trump threat to label Mexican drug gangs terrorists, Mexico's government is covering its failure, if not reluctance, to tackle systemic corruption and its offspring, crime.


MEXICO CITY — Gunfire didn't do the job, nor are the Mexican president's much-touted "hugs' working. Facing the plague of criminal violence in Mexico, nobody here seems to have a reasonable diagnosis of its nature, causes or possible solutions. And yet a single recent declaration from President Donald Trump, when he said that the drug cartels might be declared international terrorists, was enough to prompt our public officials to collectively indulge in some patriotic indignation.

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Felipe Frydman*

For Brazil And Argentina, How To Respond To New Trump Tariffs

President Trump's erratic strikes against the world's trading regime require a collective response, as unilateral state reprisals cannot check an 'arrogant' U.S. administration.


BUENOS AIRES — The decision by President Donald Trump to reimpose tariffs on Argentine and Brazilian steel and aluminum exports, as a response to the two countries' devalued currencies is a hard blow to both.

President Trump imposed tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum from any source in March last year. Argentina and Brazil were exempted after agreeing to limit these exports in a quota system. Now to end the exemption, the Trump administration cited national security reasons foreseen in Section 232B of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, adding farmers are also being harmed.

This would indicate the White House's concern over China redirecting its soy purchases in response to U.S. sanctions on its exportations. The excuse of manipulating exchange rates in lieu of a subsidy is not in line with any of the Uruguay Round accords and constitutes a unilateral decision in violation of international commitments.

The Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures says there must be a specific subsidy for an exporting firm or sector to justify applying compensatory tariffs. The problems of fluctuating exchange rates furthermore concern the International Monetary Fund, which is tasked with evaluating their effects on the balance of payments. It is not the first time the United States makes such allegations.

Trump has turned trade negotiations into a boxing match.

In August this year, the Treasury Department cited Section 3003 of the 1988 Trade Act in accusing China of manipulating its currency to compensate for punitive tariffs on its exports.

That contradicted the Department's own conclusions in its report of October 2018. President Trump has turned trade negotiations into a boxing match in keeping with his presidential style of the last three years. International norms are considered disposable, and both the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are always predisposed to find arguments to justify the president's unpredictable reactions.

Lack of predictability in trade negotiations is an impediment to investments, and ultimately slows global growth. The United States has also decided to block the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body, which has seven members and needs a minimum of three to function.

President Trump meets with Cabinet to discuss trade tariffs. –– Photo: Tia Dufour/White House/ZUMA

The United States has blocked the nomination of new members for disagreeing with the criteria used to resolve conflicts between parties. Countries have tried separately to face Trump's nonsensical reactions to avoid exacerbating the discord, but the lack of a consensual reaction appears merely to encourage such erratic measures, rather than to appease.

Our regional trade block Mercosur should question its trade policy with the United States at its next summit. It should take a collective complaint to the WTO to make the point that arrogance is not the way to solve trade conflicts.

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Trump's Diplomatic Recklessness Knows No Bounds

The U.S. president's abrupt decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria was short-lived. But backpedal as he might, the damage is already done.


PARIS — Since his arrival at the White House, Donald Trump has often acted recklessly, making one sudden U-turn and impromptu decision after the other. But the confusion he has sown when he announced that U.S. forces were pulling out from parts of northern Syria coveted by Turkey is something entirely new.

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Trump And The World

Mexico To China, Trump's Tariff Bullying Is Bound To Backfire

President Donald Trump's threat to raise tariffs against Mexico over immigration is political blackmail, and potentially makes nonsense of any trading deal with the U.S.


SANTIAGO — An enormous mistake and a piece of thuggery: that is what Donald Trump did in his most recent edict-by-tweet.

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eyes on the U.S.
Marc Fisher

After Mueller, What's Next For Trump — And America?

WASHINGTON — Next, more of the same, but with more entrenched division, a bitter crossfire of allegations and then, finally, a reckoning in the form of the 2020 presidential election.

The long-awaited conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is likely to harden congressional Republicans' wall of support for President Trump, strengthen Democratic demands to hold Trump to account — and result in little change in public opinion, according to historians and politicians who have studied past national scandals.

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Trump And The World
Alvaro Forero Tascón

For Trump and Rubio, 'Fixing' Venezuela Is A Recipe For Votes

The aggressive Republican stance on Venezuela reflects an attempt to seduce Latino voters in Florida.

BOGOTÁ — Why has an isolationist U.S. president like Donald Trump suddenly become interventionist in Venezuela? The explanation may be, as U.S. Congressman "Tip" O'Neill once said, that "all politics is local." Especially when it is in your backyard.

While campaigning, Trump was dismissive of the Florida Senator and rival candidate Marco Rubio, whom he called Little Marco. He suggested Rubio did no work because he had one of the worst records of attendance at Senate sessions. The contempt was mutual. Rubio referred to Trump's small hands, "and you know what they say about men with small hands."

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Trump And The World
Sherrilyn Ifill

Russia Is Exploiting American Racism


WASHINGTON — Two newly released reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 election have been nothing short of revelatory. Both studies — one produced by researchers at Oxford University, the other by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge — describe in granular detail how the Russian government tried to sow discord and confusion among American voters. And both conclude that Russia's campaign included a massive effort to deceive and co-opt African Americans. We now have unassailable confirmation that a foreign power sought to exploit racial tensions in the United States for its own gain.

Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the Russian government worked to sway the 2016 election, foreign election meddling has been one of our nation's top national security concerns. But our discussions about Russian interference rarely touch on the other major threat to our elections: The resurgence of state-sponsored voter suppression in the United States. In light of these disturbing new reports, it is clear we can no longer think of foreign election meddling as a phenomenon separate from attempts to disenfranchise Americans of color. Racial injustice remains a real vulnerability in our democracy, one that foreign powers are only too willing to attack.

Silicon Valley has yet to come to grips with the enormous influence it wields.

How should we respond? First, we have to make it easier, not harder, for Americans to vote. In the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County decision, which severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, we've seen a resurgence of voter-suppression efforts across the nation. Congress has the power to fix the Voting Rights Act, but so far it has declined to do so. The revelations of Russia's racial targeting should serve as a wake-up call that domestic voter suppression, in addition to being unconstitutional, effectively aids foreign attacks on our democracy. Indeed, we should take seriously the danger that domestic and foreign groups may coordinate to suppress turnout in future elections, a possibility we can begin to forestall, first and foremost, by protecting the franchise here at home. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., has already introduced a comprehensive new voting rights bill, and Congress should swiftly act upon it in the new year.

Second, these revelations only deepen the urgency of demanding more accountability from technology companies. The New Knowledge report criticizes social media companies such as Facebook for misleading Congress about the nature of Russian interference, noting that one even denied that specific groups were targeted. This is just more evidence that Silicon Valley has yet to come to grips with the enormous influence it wields in our democracy, and the ways that foreign powers can use that influence to manipulate Americans. Congress should require greater transparency and responsibility from these corporations before the 2020 elections.


FEB. 2018 Protest in front of the Trump Tower in New York — Photo: Rob Walsh

Finally, we have to accept that foreign powers seize upon these divisions because they are real — because racism remains America's Achilles' heel. Indeed, it is, and always has been, a national security vulnerability - a fundamental and easily exploitable reality of American life that belies the image and narrative of equality and justice we project and export around the world. It may be especially difficult in our era of "fake news' and "alternative facts," but we must recognize that our failure to acknowledge hard truths, especially when it comes to race, makes it easier for foreign powers to turn us against one another. Russia did not conjure out of thin air the black community's legitimate grievances about racist policing. Nor did it invent racist and hateful conspiracy theories. Rather, Russian trolls seized upon these real problems as ready-made sources of discord. Moving forward, we need to recognize that our failure to honestly address issues of civil rights and racial justice makes all of us more susceptible to foreign interference.

This is hardly the first time our adversaries have identified race and racism as America's great vulnerability. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently pointed to segregation and civil unrest as proof of American hypocrisy. This propaganda was sufficiently widespread, and contained enough truth, that leaders of both parties began arguing that segregation undermined the United States' position in the Cold War, helping ease the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Russian trolls seized upon these real problems as ready-made sources of discord.

Today, we need a similar understanding that our failure to ensure equal justice for all has grave implications for U.S. national security. The upcoming House oversight committee hearings on Russian interference and voter suppression will be critical opportunities to educate the public on the threats to our democracy, and they deserve our close attention.

But we must be careful not to reduce the struggle for racial equality into a bloodless question of national interest. Civil rights are essential to our national security, but national security cannot be the chief rationale for pursuing civil rights. After all, racial injustice is not just another chink in our armor. It is the great flaw in our character. Our adversaries know that race makes us our own worst enemy. It is past time we learn this hard truth ourselves.​

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