CNN's Don Lemon on why Trump was good for America: "Now we see them for what they are"

CNN host tells Salon why Trump "was exactly the president we deserved" — he made us see what we'd been ignoring

By Dean Obeidallah
March 25, 2021 2:34PM (UTC)
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Don Lemon, author of "This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism" (Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

For anyone who has watched CNN anchor Don Lemon on his nightly show "CNN Tonight," you know he's not bashful about speaking the hard truths about race in America. Lemon didn't hold back when I talked to him on "Salon Talks" about his new book, "This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends about Racism."

Lemon traces the history of white supremacy in our country back to his own ancestors being brought to America as slaves, or as "property" as he put it. He even shares a story of returning to Africa with his mother to trace his roots to the Slave Coast in Ghana. The CNN host explained that the fact he is a descendant of slaves actually makes him prouder of what he and others in his family have accomplished, given where they began on our soil.

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He also traces our nation's history of white supremacy through the acts of violence visited upon Black Americans such as the 1898 violent coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, by white supremacists to overthrow the biracial government that also led to the slaughter of Black leaders and the destruction of Black-owned businesses. As Lemon made clear, Americans need to know the full history of our nation — not to make white people feel pointlessly guilty, but in order to address the issues of racism and white supremacy in an open and honest way.

The title of the book, "This Is the Fire," is inspired by one of Lemon's heroes, the late great writer James Baldwin, who like Lemon spoke truthfully and often poetically about race in America. Lemon may be more optimistic than Baldwin, who might have been dismayed at Lemon's view that Donald Trump's election actually will lead to positive changes. As Lemon puts it, "With the election of a blatant white supremacist, the problem became palpable, impossible to ignore." For the sake of our nation, I hope Lemon is right. Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Lemon below or read a transcript below, lightly edited for clarity and length.

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Don, your new book, "This Is the Fire," is compelling and provocative. You talk about one of your heroes, James Baldwin. In fact, you start with a letter to your nephew, similar to one Baldwin wrote. There is a famous quote of Baldwin's from 1961 where he says, "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time." Do you think that still resonates today?

It does resonate. And I think more there can be a state of rage, but I think it's also more in a state of paranoia. Especially if you look at social media, if you look at what's happening videos all over the internet of people calling the cops on Black people, and then just sort of the garden variety discrimination that happens. I write about it in the book, it's almost like a race when you're ready, set, go: African Americans live in a perpetual state of set, where we're concerned about what's going to happen, and if we are going to be discriminated against, or something weird is going to happen, and sadly it does. Sometimes when it happens, you don't realize it until after the event is over, so it's a strange sort of paranoid state to live in.

On your show this week when you were covering the shooting of the six Asian women in Atlanta you talked about this idea of people on the right saying that they have the freedom to say whatever they want, even if it's horrible things, negative comments, nicknames about Asian Americans, about any group. Deep down, do you think it comes from a place of white supremacy, the idea of, "How dare you minorities tell me, as a white man, what I can say and what I can't say?"

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I look at it this way. People want to be able to say the most horrible things without impunity. You can say whatever you want to say, you can be a bigot. You could say it, but you have to suffer the consequences of it. People are just surprised that they're actually facing consequences for saying horrible things. I hate that little catchphrase, "cancel culture," and all that. I hate those things. I think you have a First Amendment right to say whatever you want. But if you say something that is offensive and someone calls you out on it, you suffer consequences. That's not cancel culture, that's called reality. That's called life. That's how it should work. People have been used to doing it for so long and not suffering any consequences and just kind of laughing about it, or that they did it for so long they thought it was normal, right? It's not normal, and now people are saying, "Hey, no."

You write about Trump and you say, "It breaks my heart and burns my tongue to say it, but in 2016 Donald Trump was exactly the president we deserved, and probably the president we needed, in the way that you need symptoms that alert you to the disease. With the election of a blatant white supremacist, the problem became palpable, impossible to ignore."

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That's when you threw the book out the window, right?

No. [Laughter.] I get what you're saying. I have questions about it, though. Who didn't know that white supremacy is a problem in America? How has it made things better?

I think people knew. Obviously, I think people knew about white supremacy, but when was the last time you saw a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist boldly walk down a street in khakis with tiki torches? When was the last time that that happened? And then you have a president saying, "It was very fine people on both sides." When was the last time that white supremacists and neo-Nazis and bigots and racists have been so emboldened in our society?

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Look, Dean, I'm older than you, and I knew it existed, of course. I come from the South. But as I have been saying recently, I think that the former president was the bigots' greatest imprimatur. He gave them a seal of approval, a stamp of approval. I haven't seen people so emboldened probably since I was a kid in the late '60s or early '70s. I think people knew it was there, but I think we were sort of lulled into this false existence that we were somehow moving towards a post-racial society because we had elected a Black president, and the bigots were hiding. They just weren't out there. Now we see them. Now we know who they are because there were a lot of them that we weren't aware of. And now we're aware of them. They walk around in suits every day, a lot of them are on television, and a lot of them are holding public office.

I agree with you 100 percent that Donald Trump took it to levels we had never seen. Like when he called for a total, complete shutdown on Muslims on Dec. 15, 2015, I had heard that before, but from the bigots. I didn't expect the leading candidate for president on the Republican side to say that.

As I said, they wear suits and they hold public office. So, I'm glad you're agreeing with me!

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Oh no, I agree with you on the fact that he brought it to a new level. But how has that made it better?

Because, Dean, I would rather see it. I'd rather expose them. I don't necessarily want to give them a platform, and I don't do that on my show, but I would rather expose people so that you see who they are. Do you think that Ron Johnson or, what's his name, Paul —

Gosar.

Gosar. Do you think they would be so out in the open with their bigotry? No, they would just hide it amongst themselves privately, with their family, or maybe with some of their constituents. Now we see them for what they are, out in the open, and now you know how to refute it, how to rebut it, how to handle it. Otherwise, it was just this hidden problem that was festering underneath the surface.

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This is really what I'm getting at here. We know Ron Johnson says I'm not afraid of white, angry people literally carrying Confederate flags and images of white supremacy coming to the Capitol, but I would be afraid of Black Lives Matter. And Paul Gosar goes to an open white nationalist event, gives the keynote, gets no pushback from the GOP leadership at all. Trump has emboldened them. I just don't know how it's made our society better because I don't see them suffering or any penalty. It seems they're embraced by the GOP.

I don't think it's made our society better, but I think it's for the betterment of our country, and if you want to say society, it's that we know. That you see it. That you know how to combat it. Otherwise, they would be going there, and you're saying they're suffering no consequences from their constituents. They would have suffered no consequences from their constituents had we not known who they are.

Now they can at least suffer the consequences from people like you and me and others in the media, and people who are aware, who are calling them out for it. I think it's up for people who are of right and sound mind and body to stand up to them even when their own party won't hold them to account. Because otherwise, you would have been living in this false sense of, "Well everything is better," because you wouldn't know what they were doing.

What's remarkable is laws have changed. We have the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act and we've had a Black president. But when I look at a poll, two thirds of black people say George Floyd was murdered. How many white people say it was murder now in a new poll? Only 28 percent of white people. So a man had a knee put on his back for nine minutes, and only 28 percent of white people say, "That's murder." How are we different from 1961? And I'm not putting this on you. I think we're in a dire circumstance.

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I think that has a lot to do with our politics. I think that has a lot to do with not being taught the true history of this country. Because if you know the reality of this country, if you know who actually helped to build the country, if you know that before the Mayflower came over that there were plenty of Africans who had been here long before and were already helping to build this country for free. It's slave labor.

We celebrate the people, "Oh my gosh, these people came over on the Mayflower and they were somehow vaunted and distinguished. And it's really great." Well, what about the slaves who were here before them helping to build? Why aren't they vaunted and distinguished and great for helping to build the country for free? Why aren't there reparations for those people?

So I think first of all, what we need to start doing is teaching the true history of this country to all people, starting as children, and when they're adults, they probably won't grow up to be a Paul Gosar or a Ron Johnson or people who will march on the Capitol and try to overturn an election because what they're thinking and the reason they're doing it are all built on lies. They will be living in a state of reality and they probably won't be able to be co-opted or somehow won't be able to be persuaded by a cult of personality. Let's put it that way. So easily persuaded.

In your book, you bring up history in America that is talked about so little. I didn't learn about it until later in life. You talk about 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where white supremacists actually had a coup and drove out the Black leadership there, burned down Black businesses. You talk about — people know a little bit more now about 1921, the Tulsa massacre. Why is it so important that in our schools we are taught the full history, including the fact that in the original Constitution, it had the fugitive slave clause, it had the three-fifths compromise? We're not taught that slavery was enshrined in our Constitution. It was part of our DNA as a nation. You have people on the right, Trump, Tom Cotton, others, Josh Hawley, who don't want people to learn about our history. Why is it so important?

Because then you're not acting on a lie. It won't lead you to believe in the white supremacy that is embedded in the culture, in a whitewashed history. I know it infuriates some people to hear it. They don't want to hear it. They believe that Christopher Columbus discovered America. You go talk to any Native American and they will look at you and either laugh or cry because America was here before Christopher Columbus. If we actually learn that Christopher Columbus or Europeans conquered America, and you can decide, good or bad, however you feel about it, most people will tell you, once you know the true history, that it's not so great.

Instead of saying, "Oh, Christopher Columbus is this great guy," and you celebrate Christopher Columbus and you celebrate, "Oh my gosh, it's Independence Day." Independence for what? Independence for whom? Certainly not for the people who were here before, and certainly not for the Native Americans, and certainly not for the African Americans and the people of color who helped to build this country.

It's all based on a lie. And I know people get upset when I also talk about, as well, why does America portray Jesus in the Western world as a white man? As a hippie? He wasn't. He looked nothing like that. If you want your kids to know the truth, tell them how Jesus really looked. That he was a Jew, and he looked like a Middle Easterner, and that he had dark skin. Put that picture up in your house and see what kind of conversation you get with your kids. Except for Easter, we're running around in our pastel colors painting, coloring white Easter eggs, and celebrating a white Jesus. It's not true! It's all built on a lie! Of course, Paul Gosar and Josh Hawley and Donald Trump and all of those people, they don't want you to know that. Why? Because then they can't trick you into believing in the fake America that they use to stay in power and to separate and divide people. It's just that simple.

My dad was born about 15 miles from Bethlehem.

Right next to Norway and Sweden, right? With the people who looked like Jesus.

Exactly! Bethlehem in the West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian Territories now. In the book you also write about when you went with your mom and CNN to your roots and you saw where your family was taken as slaves. You talk about bluntly, and I think it's so important that people get this, that slaves were purely livestock. In fact, they were treated worse than livestock in a lot of cases.

Property.

Does it shape your view of this country that you are a descendant of slaves?

Of course it impacts my view, and it should impact all of our views. I don't know what's happened to the Republican Party. They've just gone, like, off the deep end, saying that I'm somehow not as American or living a lie, or that by telling the truth about America that I somehow don't like America or I don't like white people. No, that's not it. I like the truth. I believe in the truth. The more I learn about the real history of this country, and the more I learn about my ancestry and what my ancestors' contributions were to this country, the prouder it makes me feel.

I have accepted the history of this country, that I'm a descendant of a slave. That doesn't make me feel bad, quite frankly. It makes me feel good because it makes me feel like a survivor. Now, would I have rather that the history be different or somehow better for my ancestors? Absolutely. The reality of their lives? Absolutely. But I must accept reality, as my brothers and sisters who happen to be white must accept reality, that the history of this country that they learned about, for the most part, are built on lies.

All we need to do is start teaching the true history. And that doesn't mean selective history, it just means teaching all of it. That's having a more fulsome perspective about the origins of this country, and then we all won't be living a lie, or something, or a history that was used to elevate some and denigrate others. It's just that simple. So, how does it make me feel? Every time I learn more about my ancestry, it makes me stand taller and prouder, with a straighter back, and I have even more dignity than the dignity that my parents taught me as a kid.

Conversely, I always wonder, what's it like for those descended from slave owners and their view of this country? You have a remarkable exchange in your book with a descendant of a Confederate military leader, who actually was like, "You got to take these statues down of my ancestors."

Wickham, yeah.

I thought that was really remarkable stuff because, you know clearly white people are not monolithic either. Have you talked to those who were descended of slave owners?

I haven't really spoken to those kinds of people. I do a podcast called "Silence Is Not an Option" and in that podcast, I have spoken to people like Robert Lee, who is a descendant of Robert E. Lee. I spoke to Wickham's great, great, great, great, great grandson or what have you and his descendants, both white and Black. Initially the whites in the family were like, "Why take the statue down?" And then they started to learn about the history of why the statue was erected and about their ancestor, and they're like, "Maybe that statue should come down." That's why I say history is important.

People should learn about when those statues, and all that iconography and all of the pictures and whatever, when it was erected. Most of it was erected after Reconstruction, after African Americans and people of color started to gain political clout and some power in society, and what? The white folks said, "No, no, no, we can't have this." And so those figures started to come back. That was the resurgence of the Klan, they started going in and tearing down Black communities. That's all the true history of this country and I'm sure it hurts some people to hear that because they're like, "No, no, no, that's not true. That's not what I was taught." Of course it wasn't what you were taught, because people don't want you to know it.

You're very hopeful about the future of our country. And I'm an optimist too, and I always look for that hopefulness. Talk about how change will happen and why you're hopeful for a brighter future for all of us?

One is demographics, because by 2040, 2045, we're going to be a minority-majority country. You know what that says, right? It's hard to fight numbers. Unless people really find even more strange and unusual and cunning ways to gerrymander districts to favor the minority, then, you know, we'll see, that could happen. But there's going to be a minority-majority, quite frankly, rule in this country. I think that will take care of it, but I also believe that we're in the throes of the end of white supremacy and that's why people are fighting tooth and nail for it.

When I say white supremacy I don't mean normal white people who just want to live their lives and believe in equality. I'm talking about the folks who believe that they are the preeminent voice and that they should be the preeminent voice, and quite frankly the only voice, and who are used to things being the way that they are.

Everything evolves, so I am hopeful because I think there are enough right-thinking people who believe in the promise of the country, which is a more perfect union. And I think that we will continue to go along that path. My evidence of it is November of 2020, where there were millions of people who voted in the right way, but there were a lot of people who didn't. But those people, so far — I'll take the glass-half-full approach, outnumber the bigots. That's why I'm hopeful about going forward in this country. And I'm hopeful because there are Americans like me and you, who can have these conversations, and who know what's right, who are doing, every day, what's right in pointing out all of the hypocrisy and all of the lies. As long as we continue to do that, I'm going to be optimistic about this country. I have to be.


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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