Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans
Credit: JD Lasica/

Yesterday Politico published an interesting article by Edward-Isaac Dovere about Mitch Landrieu. As is often the case with that publication, the article focused primarily on whether or not Landrieu will throw his hat into the 2020 presidential primary. But in between all of that, it is obvious that the former mayor of New Orleans is struggling with the most important questions that we face today as a country.

By way of background, you might remember that one of Landrieu’s last acts as mayor was to take down four confederate statues. He wrote a book about his awakening to their message that’s titled, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” and gave an profound speech about the past, present and future of New Orleans. For those efforts, he was given the 2018 Profile in Courage Award by the JFK Library Foundation.

Here is what he told Dovere:

“You’ve never had a president, Republican or a Democrat, speak like this and give license to the kind of darkness that you see going on,” Landrieu said in June, in Brooklyn, in a way not many white southerners tend to do publicly. “And I don’t think you can let people run from that without being called out for it on this particular issue. There is plenty of room in the United States of America to have a vociferous debate about left, middle, right. On the issue of white nationalism, and white supremacy, that is a notion that ought to be rejected forcefully by everyone on the political spectrum. It looks sometimes the same. People make it like you can blend in, and you can’t do that. You’ve got to call it out for what it is.”…

White supremacy shouldn’t be a political issue in the 21st century. We all thought we’d gotten beyond that kind of overt racism. And yet, here we are. Need I recount all of the ways that Trump and his administration have embraced overt racism in both word and deed? Beyond that, in at least five state and national elections across the country, the Republican Party candidates are either a card-carrying Nazi, a Holocaust denier, a proud white supremacist or all of the above. As Landrieu says, that is not something to debate. It has to be rejected forcefully by everyone.

What do Donald Trump’s America and Louisiana’s past have in common?

When exactly is Trump saying America was great? What was it that made it great then? He pushes people to think about the answers, and he thinks they’re frighteningly clear. He sees what he lived through in Louisiana playing out in the country, has spoken and written about how much Donald Trump reminds him of David Duke. He says he knows people can be afraid to call it out but knows what happens when they don’t. He says he can’t believe he has to be the one to say there’s no place for white supremacy in 21st-century America.

Landrieu isn’t the first one to compare Trump to David Duke. But the history he lived through in Louisiana goes back a lot further than a KKK Grand Wizard running for office. This summary is from his speech in 2017:

New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

When Trump refers to the days that America was great, this is what that history was all about for African-Americans in Louisiana.

All of that raises some difficult questions about how we got (back) here.

For now, Landrieu is more concerned about understanding why Trump happened, and figuring out what he is prepared to do about it. “If you say to yourself, ‘It’s really not about him, what were the conditions that caused us to be able to choose this level of chaos over what we thought we had?’ And then what you would have to say is, the conditions in the country should never have been where they were, because it’s clear to me, historically, without necessarily equating them, when you look at the Holocaust, you look at apartheid, you look at slavery, when you look at the Japanese internment—when we as humans did terrible things to each other,” Landrieu told me when I caught up with him two weeks later, again in Boston, where he was to say goodbye to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “and you ask yourself, ‘What were the conditions in which human beings decided to denigrate another human being that badly?’ They were for the most part in times when people thought that they were supreme to other people because of genetics, or people were fearing for their personal livelihood or safety, and as a consequence, human beings are capable of that evil.

No matter where you stood on the endless debates after the election about whether Trump supporters were responding to racism or economic anxiety, it is now clear that any notion of “populist” economic proposals are out the window and what remains is white supremacy. We are confronted with a president who denigrates other human beings via both words and policies and a Republican Party that is, at best, complicit. Over the last two years, polls have consistently shown that roughly 40 to 45 percent of the American public supports this president, making them complicit as well.

According to Dovere, Landrieu is trying to decide if running for president is the best way to get people to pay attention to this reality. Personally, I doubt that. It is too easy for people to dismiss the critiques he’s making as nothing more than politics. On the other hand, he’s right to question whether people will pay attention to anyone saying these things who doesn’t join the presidential race.

It strikes me that Landrieu is asking the right questions and this last one is critical: given the darkness that has been let loose by this administration, what is our best response? Here’s how he answered that question upon receiving the Profile in Courage Award:

Our democracy is counting on each and every one of you, and in your countless acts of selfless courage. When millions of us do just our small part all at the same time, there is no mountain too high, no task too daunting, no dream too big. To every American listening: You may not be the tallest or the strongest or best-looking, or richest or fastest or smartest or the most well-connected. You may look different, love different or pray different. It is of no moment nor matter. We must all choose to find a way or make one. This is our America.

Whether or not Mitch Landrieu decides to run for president is not the critical issue. We must all chose to engage in acts of selfless courage. That is our only hope.

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