In his 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Malcolm X, Manning Marable shows a leader with a compelling vision, but with consistently shifting position statements. Subtitled A Life of Reinvention, Marable's account retells a the life of a radical leader who skillfully fit each argument to best suit his audience. The author lets each incident of media catnip speak for itself, but introduces his account by saying that while one may disagree with his subject's always intense and sometimes extreme rhetoric, one finds much to admire about Malcolm's sincerity.
Malcolm X shot from the hip on numerous instances and nearly made an art form of it. A life of constant revision, as his biographer has put it, had him modify his rhetoric considerably from speech to speech, platform to platform. The same has been true for Donald Trump on the stump and in his numerous social media postings. As has been extensively noted, Republican primary voters cast their ballots for a formerly staunch Democrat with many liberal positions. Incredibly, he is now somehow the presumptive standard bearer of the GOP.
An undisciplined campaigner at best, Trump has foolishly ignored even the basics of Campaign 101 from the outset, letting his outsized ego mostly dictate what he says and the decisions he makes. He has stepped on his own message on many occasions, allowing bluster and hot air to jeopardize his entire Presidential run. But this significant issue is certainly not uncommon to many who court attention. Neither Trump, nor Malcolm could pass up the opportunity to speak their mind when in front of the camera. Both enjoyed a life in the limelight, serving up salacious comments for an enraptured audience.
Malcolm X couldn't help himself from feeding incendiary statements to the press and, as a result, made many of his own unforced errors during his career as official mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam. The most damaging remark of his decade or so in the public eye had him refer to the November 1963 Kennedy assassination as "chickens coming home to roost," which led to his temporary silencing by Nation leadership. Nation of Islam theology was hostile enough, but Malcolm took what was termed by some the Hate that Hate Produced to a brand new level.
Trump is indebted to no one, and, if current trends hold, is only nominally indebted to the Republican Party. Aside from a few weak slaps on the wrist, his own party will not discipline a schoolyard bully. Few in his own party have been willing to silence him or to have him pay the consequence for the vitriol spewing daily from his mouth and onto his Twitter page. The Dump Trump movement that would have him forcibly removed from the ballot at the Republican convention a few weeks from now has never truly been a viable force. Many hope it will, but as of now the Republican Party seems frozen in place due to its own indecision.
The comparisons and similarities made here between two admittedly very different men might be worrisome to everyone who believes in the basic ideals of this country. And there are major differences, too. Malcolm X almost always strove to be impeccably disciplined in his personal dealings, sought to organize in large numbers, and by the end of his life, formed alliances with related groups who espoused Orthodox Islam and Pan-Africanism. He was willing to modify his stance to marry together his own loyalists and followers, even if that required the kind of about-face tactics that any politician worth his or her salt must perfect to stay in office. Malcolm might not have liked the game, but he knew he needed to play it.
One wonders what he would say today about our age of radical Islamic terrorism (irony), and what conclusions Malcolm X might draw from the wanton destruction.
Trump wants to return the United States to some golden age, but can't say for sure what that age really looks like. Perhaps it is a time where white men were in control of every aspect of governance, before globalization and at a time where we could afford to be more isolationist in nature. Now the world is too interconnected. The argument advanced is out of synchronization for an increasingly global world that everyone now inhabits.
The Donald’s message is too garbled and messy to easily reduce to position statements and political minutia, but what he lacks in specifics he makes up for in channeling the hostility and frustration of those who feel themselves powerless in a new age. Details matter little to the Trump campaign. His is a movement of the disenchanted, the angry, and the secretly fearful, those who view with great distress the changing demographics of this country, the 37% of Americans and growing who are not Caucasian. Some fear change, and some welcome it.
Uncomfortable comparisons can be fairly made, as well. Malcolm X's most unforgivable act was, while a Nation of Islam minister, to propose an alliance between George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazi Party and Malcolm's Muslim sect, the Nation of Islam. Both were separatist groups who believed that integration in American society was impossible. The American Nazi Party routinely referred to black Americans with racial slurs, as Marable points out, characterizing them as mentally and morally inferior to whites. This had been a common stance far too many white Americans had taken a century or more before.
Once [American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln] Rockwell learned of the Nation of Islam's anti-integrationist positions, he became fascinated by the concept of a white-supremacist-black nationalist-united front. He even praised the Nation of Islam to his followers, arguing that Elijah Muhammad had "gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people sneeringly called 'n*****s’ and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard-working, dignified, dedicated and admirable human beings in spite of their color."
This sounds a little too much like Trump for comfort. Under the dubious logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Malcolm's secret talks tarnish his legacy. There are plenty of other missteps to scrutinize, but none are quite so damning as these. What is plain is that these covert 1961 talks are hard to excuse or rationalize for any reason. What is also plain is that these two rival groups captured the attention of the press more than they did recruit members to their cause. Actual membership of both groups was reasonably small, despite fearful pronouncements from commentators. Media hype was as prominent then as it is today. Many people would rather believe in romantic glory rather than the patently offensive.
To much of the Left, Malcolm is seen as an energetic freedom fighter along the lines of Argentinian Ernesto "Che" Guevara, which is why some Leftists will no doubt bristle with this comparison. The former Malcolm Little channeled a different sort of populist anger, one that progressives and liberals still embrace. It led many to cast their ballots for Bernie Sanders in an unusually contentious Democratic primary. In its time, despite being characterized by Nation of Islam propaganda as devils, white people in search of true racial diversity had to concede some of the group's militantly espoused tenets. In particular, it did not fail to address the centuries of abuse the people of color endured upon arriving in the New World.
As we know, disenfranchisement of minorities did not stop at the conclusion of hostilities during the Civil War, nor the Civil Rights Movement. Today's activists and political leaders would have us consider whether black lives matter. This might well measure how far we have come in what will be, in a few days, 240 years of our great experiment in Democracy.
To some extent, every prominent figure, movement, or party evolves over time. The same is true for Supreme Court judges, religious leaders, and nearly everyone in positions of power. The same is true for faith groups, of which the Nation of Islam is only one of many. Remember E Plurbis Unum? Out of many, one. That is the United State’s official motto, but some would have us deny the intentions of our very founders.
We like to believe that religions are rigid and unchangeable, to best guard against the cheap and corrupting fashions of the present day, and to some extent they are. Sometimes we call that tradition, and it gives us considerable comfort to know and to recognize consistency. When it becomes oppressive, we want change.
Examine the Catholic Church, for example. Catholic dogma and doctrine has responded to changing times with a combination of reform and a desire to keep things much the same way they always have been. This is distressing to some, satisfying to others. The dictates of hierarchy and the leader of the church of Rome that we call the Pope weigh that balance with every pronouncement made. We are often beholden to our own myopia, since the human record is long and our lives are relatively short. Individuals and groups of individuals differ about tactics and directives and indeed, they always will.
But let’s remember the best parts of ourselves and not give in to the very worst.