Every year, Americans come together to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by misinterpreting the legacy of the civil rights icon. In 2020, the trend has been prolific, from far-right protestors in Virginia comparing gun control to the oppression of Jim Crow, to the FBI’s fond remembrance of the leader on Twitter — despite the agency’s constant surveillance of King, and its 1964 letter urging the “evil” and “colossal fraud” to kill himself.
Not to be outdone, the White House joined the tradition with a statement from counselor Kellanne Conway. Answering NBC News correspondent Geoff Bennett’s question on how President Trump is spending the holiday, Conway said:
Well, I can tell you the president is preparing for Davos and agrees with many of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and agreed with for many years — including unity and equality, and he’s not the one trying to tear the country apart through an impeachment process and a lack of substance that really is very shameful at this point. I’ve held my opinion on it for a very long time, but when you see the articles of impeachment that came out, I don’t think it was Dr. King’s vision to have Americans dragged through a process where the president is not going to be removed from office, is not being charged with bribery, extortion, high crimes and misdemeanors. And I think that anybody who cares about “and justice for all” on today or any day of the year will appreciate the fact that the president will have a full-throttle defense on the facts, and everybody should have that.
The statement is an instant classic in the appropriation of King’s mission — pointing to his moral leadership in a misbegotten effort to defend a contemporary political point. It’s highly unlikely that a pastor who died fighting for equality would oppose the use of Constitutional procedures to hold a racist billionaire president accountable.
It’s even more unlikely considering that the young Trump was in direct opposition to one of MLK’s most urgent concerns. As housing discrimination allowed for legal segregation and economic subjugation in America’s cities, King fought for fair housing rights as a co-leader of the Chicago Freedom Movement, a group that ended discriminatory lending in the city and helped bring about the Fair Housing Act, passed a week after MLK’s death in 1968. Four years later, the young developer and his father were sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination at Trump properties in Brooklyn and Queens, after testers at the New York City Human Rights Division determined that the company consistently told potential tenants who were black that no units were available, though the same apartments were offered to white applicants. One superintendent caught in the act said “I’m only doing what my boss told me to do — I am not allowed to rent to black tenants.”
There’s plenty to contest elsewhere in the statement, beginning in its opening sentence: It’s hard to imagine a president who “agrees with many of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for” would spend MLK Day preparing for Davos, an economic forum where the world’s largest corporations test-kitchen the latest models of surveillance capitalism. That Trump stands for “unity” is a tough argument to make, in light of the president’s depiction of the opposition party as “deranged,” “lunatics” and liars.” The case for “equality” is sparse, too, considering that the Trump tax cuts have disproportionately benefited America’s wealthiest families and big businesses.
Conway did not attempt to qualify her statements, though she did end on a personal note: “I appreciate the fact that we as a nation respect him by giving him his own day, and I’m happy to share a birthday with this day.”