Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Mass., in 2013. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
When documentarian Ken Burns and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. kicked off a national speaking tour on race in Charleston, S.C., in December, Donald Trump’s run for the Republican presidential nomination was a disturbing phenomenon, but one that seemed likely to collapse once voters actually started going to the polls. Three months later, Trump is the Republican front-runner. And when Gates and Burns appeared at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Monday night, they turned to history not merely as a tool of a more general national reconciliation, but in an attempt to explain the unnerving turn in American politics.
The tour began as “our attempt to try to make some meaning out of” the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, as Burns explained; they first went to that city to raise money for former mayor Joe Riley’s planned International African American Museum.
Both Burns and Gates suggested that Trump’s rise was of a piece with the backlash to President Obama’s election and tenure in office. Burns said he had been surprised by Obama’s victory, because “I assumed the American people would only tolerate a conservative, moderate Republican” as the first black president. Instead, “The fact that a black man is in the White House drove some people in America totally and completely out of their minds,” Gates suggested.
“People laughed at Donald Trump. I never did … He figured out how to tap into the fear and anxiety of a significant number of people,” Gates continued. “He seems to be getting worse. He seems to be exploiting the contradictions in American society.”