There is not much that makes vomit rush up to the back of my throat faster than this: Steve Bannon quoting Dr. Martin Luther King. I’m nauseous just thinking about it now. On Wednesday, Bannon said in an interview on the BBC, “If you look at the polices of Donald Trump, anybody—Martin Luther King—would be proud of him, what he’s done for the black and Hispanic community for jobs.”
Yes, the Prince of Darkness said the King of Peace would be proud of The Donald. We are through the looking glass, y’all. This is absurdist gaslighting meant to twist reality into making Trump palatable to black voters. He’s using the ghost of King to somehow approve of GOP policies. The right loves to use King, to say “King would agree with us.” It’s a way of advertising to blacks and absolving themselves of racism. And it’s a tactic that truly makes me sick.
In no imaginable way would King be proud of Trump, a man whose campaign and presidency have been marked by rhetoric and policies that have led more than half of Americans to think he is racist. Trump has played to white entitlement and victimhood, he has comforted white supremacists, he has demeaned, disrespected, and dehumanized black and brown people, and he has ignored blacks in need. He is the opposite of everything King stood for. To me, when they use his name and ascribe an affinity for their policies to him, it feels like a political version of Weekend at Bernie’s, where the right holds up the dead, limp body of King, waving his soft arms around to make it look as if he supports their ideas.
But, typical of how the right uses King, Bannon’s declaration of support from King requires a hyper-reductionist vision of him. It leaves King as nothing more than a cheerleader for jobs. Surely King would notice that the black unemployment rate is at or near the lowest rate in recorded history, just under 7 percent, but it’s more than double the white unemployment rate, just over 3 percent. This is evidence of the racism King sought to battle—it stems from inequality and exacerbates it. But hey, once someone is dead you can have them say whatever you want them to.
Glenn Beck has played with King’s corpse several times. Once, in Alabama, he talked about King seeing “a vision built on God’s truth, with Unity and love as key principles, and the concept of boycott and Non violent [sic] were his tactics, driven by principles, and based on truth.”
I don’t know what that means. To bring up King in that way seems to me to be all about wrapping yourself in his legacy like a warm blanket. Beck knows we all have strong, positive feelings about King, so he mentions King as a way of activating those feelings and giving listeners a release of dopamine. But he’s not actually saying anything.
Look, I’m not saying only liberals get to quote King, but if your politics totally misalign with his, if you’re not about expanding rights for black and brown people, or economic justice for poor people, or a fundamental transformation of this country that helps create equality, then why are you mentioning King? He’s not just another great orator—he’s a symbol of moral power, a revolutionary freedom fighter, and a man who’s birthday we celebrate as a holiday. He’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mentioning him as a supporter of your ideas means borrowing some of his moral authority. Beck says, “Blacks don’t own Martin Luther King.” It’s an awkward phrasing—he means blacks alone don’t get to define and talk about King; which is true, but I feel like Beck wants the right to define King however he likes. If your politics stand in opposition to King’s, then telling us that he’s your tacit endorser is frankly offensive.
I cringe hardest when I hear the right use King as a symbol of color-blindness. They think that King’s comment about wanting to be judged by “the content of your character and not the color of your skin” is somehow a validation of the right’s colorblind approach to race. They use King, sometimes, to say we shouldn’t notice race because that’s not what King wanted. This is not at all what King wanted: He emphatically wanted equality and justice. But some on the right will weaponize King and use him to shame the left for noticing race—and thus not being colorblind.
King is not an empty vessel into which you can pour any notion you want. He was an extraordinary writer and speaker who made his opinions clear. We know who he was. Just because he means something to us all doesn’t mean you can make him mean anything you want. King is sacred not just to black people but to America as a whole and misappropriating his legacy is low. Especially when done by someone like Bannon. Earlier this year in France he told an audience to “wear” accusations of racism “as a badge of honor.” To Bannon, people should be proud to be racist. He’s telling them this because racism is a tool he knows how to use. And within the machinery of how Bannon markets political drama meant to stoke white fear, King is nothing but a prop.