White racists have long used bombing as a tactic, but they also dropped explosives onto black people from the air. You may have learned this recently from a popular television show. I doubt sincerely that you learned it in a high school history class.
The kerosene bombing of “Negro Wall Street,” as Booker T. Washington initially labeled the prosperous Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, stands out even amid the maelstrom of violence in the opening scenes of Watchmen’s premiere episode. (When it aired, explainers and even curriculums abounded online to help people understand that what they had seen, as horrible as it was, wasn’t fiction.) The superlative HBO series — which expanded the universe of Alan Moore’s seminal late-Eighties graphic novel — imagines a world in which that days-long 1921 massacre of black people in Tulsa sparked a series of events in the city that led to a reckoning 98 years later involving masked heroes and cops, a neo-Klan, two megalomaniac geniuses, and a fight for more power than any human can be trusted with.
Speaking of which, Damon Lindelof and the rest of the show’s creators experienced only dumb luck when Donald Trump, the white-nationalist president of the United States, became the subject of an impeachment inquiry during their run. The show offered a belated lesson on how the 1921 massacre manifested and later resonated throughout generations, much like an inherited cellular mutation, and it seems that the varied cruelties of Trump policy may experience something similar. More indirectly, though, the show is a reminder that history isn’t some objective record, carved into a stone tablet and preserved for all to judge objectively. History, when it isn’t used to manipulate and intimidate, has often been insufficient at holding officials accountable. In that way, the manner in which Watchmen educated the public about Tulsa actually helped expose the folly of much of the rhetoric emerging from impeachment coverage.
This may be Richard Nixon’s fault to an extent, ironic considering the Watchmen comic. The president who thwarted term limits in that world remains soiled by his crimes in this one, in the eyes of perhaps everyone but the Trump confidant Roger Stone, tattooed with Nixon’s visage. History has been on the minds of journalists and other writers tasked with evaluating the impeachment story.
Even Trump himself, in his raving prebuttal letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in advance of the House vote, wrote that “history will judge you harshly as you proceed with this impeachment charade” and “I write this letter to you for the purpose of history and to put my thoughts on a permanent and indelible record,” a rare moment when Trump attempted to understand his true place in the chronicle of the American project.
But this trope of history being the judge is common, particularly among those who feel that in a political environment in which Trump and Republicans seem to be able to behave badly without immediate consequence, the possibility of eventual repercussion reinforces an idea of America that ultimately makes this a land where justice prevails.
As Michael Luo put it recently, it is tempting to say that Nixon’s defenders wrote themselves “an unalterable epitaph.” It is tempting to assess Trump and the current Republican Party this way, as well. As we speak, they are proudly boasting of strategies to exonerate the impeached president that involve them violating what would be their sworn Constitutional duty, even while still laying claim to the mantle of patriotism. This is a person and party who proudly deny history whenever it suits them, and yet we in the press and public are hopeful that somehow, as in a piece of idealistic narrative fiction, history will win in the end and their lies will lose.
But this is America. Have you met her?
Trump and his party have a major cable network behaving like state-run media, as are some other elements of the press, if not financially then politically. But as Republicans work to help the president get away with the misdeeds that he has committed while in office (and before), they do us an inadvertent service. They show us where history fails us, and why it matters that Trump be made to pay as forcefully and as soon as possible.
Ironically, it was more than 1,500 historians who demonstrated in a brief letter they co-signed last week why this was important. Quoting the words of Alexander Hamilton, they warned that a president “unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper” and “despotic in his ordinary demeanour” cannot continue in the office. Why wait for the historians for years hence to judge Trump when the case is so clear now?
Yet still, we have seen educators more interested in whitewashing America than improving it. Incidents like the Greenwood massacre are omitted from our textbooks, and students become adults without learning about moments incongruous with an idea of the Exceptional America. It is no small wonder that so many grow up thinking that a Confederate legacy is something to be proud of, and white Southerners and Republican politicians alike still celebrate and defend the flag of slavery and traitors even after it has been associated with terrorism against black people in present day. In fact, we even see universities like North Carolina-Chapel Hill pay millions to organizations that seek to protect racist statues, even if only to placate them. These are all regressive modes of thinking, ranging from celebrating willful ignorance of America’s racist past to defending monuments designed to promote racial intimidation, that Trump has long embraced himself.
Defending a president like Trump, who is willing to defy the Constitution and threaten a foreign ally’s security unless it interfered in U.S. elections on his behalf, should cost politicians their careers and their reputations. However, that seems more like the realm of fantasy than anything the Watchmen creators conjured. The idea that history would somehow besmirch Trump in a way that the law never could is belied by not only his own behavior, but that of the same people, practices, and institutions that he helps keep powerful.
History itself tells us why it cannot be relied upon to issue a final judgment. The 1921 white-terrorist rampage in Tulsa killed a few hundred black people, if you only go by the official tally. However, survivors of the massacre maintain that the real total was in the thousands and that several who went missing were buried in unmarked graves, without ceremony. After weeks of searching, reports emerged on the day after the Watchmen finale in mid-December indicating that forensic archaeologists had discovered “anomalies” in two locations consistent with the existence of mass graves.
I do not know precisely how to hold Trump accountable. The New York state investigations into his family may yet bear fruit, and the Supreme Court, if it is still an independent body, will provide access to Trump’s tax returns at last. But I know that the alternative — trusting history to condemn a lawless president sometime in the future — is for the birds.
We receive constant reminders that the same history has left possibly thousands of Tulsa’s ancestors dead and alone in the ground, murdered and forgotten solely for the nerve to be black and prosperous in a white world. That world has changed, but is surely still white. Hoping that history will be the final judge, of Trump or anyone else, sounds like praying to an invisible American god, one who has so often failed and betrayed the most vulnerable. It is akin to waiting for a reward in a political heaven that many of us will never see or know, including the president himself.