The politics and optics of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Watergate press conference
A deeper look at Farrakhan as literal mover of millions, and controversy merchant.
Over the past four decades, few political figures have found as much resonance, nor as much controversy, as Louis Farrakhan. And so when the Minister announced he would hold a press conference at the Watergate Hotel — a different sort of D.C. monument, synonymous with the criminal acts which led to former President Richard Nixon nearly being impeached before a hasty and disgraced premature retirement from office — it seemed the Minister was up to his old ways. And indeed he was.
From the jump, the choice of venue for this conference illustrated Farrakhan’s uncanny knack for optics and messaging. Given the tense political climate in D.C. surrounding Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia and the ever-present prospect of impeachment, Farrakhan’s speech invited obvious inference.
Farrakhan was not joining the throngs calling for Trump’s impeachment, however. While he did structure the two-hour address as a sermon and message to Trump, Farrakhan focused on a range of topics — from his own history as a firebrand to the “sins” of Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton, with the thesis that America’s war on the Islamic world abroad and its own black youth at home was coming to a head in the immediate future. His speech arrived at the conclusion that, while Trump was not a friend, the transparency of the President’s “America First” ill-intent made him a sort of ally in casting light on the government’s inherent corruption. Trump’s straight talk was “busting up the institutions of democracy,” the Minister insisted. “[Americans] expected a man to be like the other presidents. You wanted him to be more presidential. He’s so transparent! Like thieves and robbers who dress in suits and tell lies — you wanted him to be like that. You’re angry because he’s your reflection.”
For Farrakhan, Trump represents an opportunity to dance with the devil you know. But equally to the point, for the Minister, Trump is the latest face in a long line of evil. “Mr. President, you won’t make America great again, not in our time,” he said. “She became great killing Native Americans, enslaving us, bringing us from Africa to work the cotton fields. You are not going to get that opportunity back anymore.”
Viewed through this lens, speaking at the Watergate wasn’t meant to endorse the idea of Trump’s impeachment. It was, rather, meant to underscore Farrakhan’s allegation that Trump, like the Presidents that have preceded him (save Obama), is guilty of criminal contempt for black and Islamic peoples.
To lay the historical and political predicate for his case, Farrakhan cited moments from recent administrations. He spoke of President Clinton’s much maligned 1994 crime bill, which has been widely criticized in the ensuing years for leading to a disproportionately high incarceration rate of black people. He also spoke of Reagan’s “war games,” exemplified in the United States’ bombing of Libya and its crusade against Muammar Gadaffi. He then pointed to both Bushes Iraq wars as an example of an American plot to exploit the age-old feud between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Arabic world, thereby exploiting the economies of oil-rich Gulf countries.
And then Farrakhan took it way back to the 1877 Compromise, in which a deadlocked Presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was decided in Congress in favor of Hayes; in exchange, the Northern states agreed to remove the federal troops that Lincoln had installed in the South to ensure that post-slavery Reconstruction efforts would take effect. Farrakhan identified this as the moment in which the Emancipation Proclamation was rendered ineffective, and whatever gains were made in the 12 years since the Civil War were erased, leaving the Ku Klux Klan, black codes, and the like in their wake.
This is an important and oft-forgotten moment with dark ramifications from our country’s history. But lecturing on the 1877 Compromise was more than just an opportunity to deliver a history lesson for Farrakhan. In his reading at the Watergate, Farrakhan identified the key villain in negotiating this nefarious compromise as a Jewish Louisiana congressman by the name of William M. Levy.
In so doing, Farrakhan employed a tactic dating back to his work for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential campaign: Controversial and inflammatory rhetoric regarding Jewish people and the state of Israel, which has led to him facing persistent claims of anti-Semitism. And in 1984, as the Minister discussed at length at the Watergate, this led to the Jesse Jackson campaign repudiating and officially cutting ties with the Minister.
And now 33 years later, Farrakhan is steadfast on the topic. Indeed, bringing up a 19th century Jewish Senator wasn’t the Minister’s only Hebrew move at the Watergate conference: Additionally, Farrakhan was adamant that a poster-sized copy of the Nation Of Islam book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews: How Jews Gained Control Of The Black American Economy be placed onstage next to him, despite the Watergate Hotel’s requests that it be struck from the stage. The Watergate management likely contested Farrakhan’s desire to display the book due to its highly controversial nature; it’s been called “the Bible of new anti-Semitism” by the the respected scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who heads the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University. The easel and book cover were replaced and stood next to the Minister for the speech’s duration.
Over the course of a career of polemical fire-starting, Farrakhan has struck a chord with critical masses. The ultimate example of this will always be 2015’s Million Man March, a watershed moment in the new millennial dialogue around civil rights and racial grievance.
Clearly, the Minister is speaking to historical inequities with which our country needs to grapple.
But in doing so, and just as clearly, his vitriol spreads to topics and concepts that are fundamentally divisive, questionable in accuracy, and inflammatory by definition. (Other examples from the Watergate speech include the idea that homosexuality is linked to a doctored national food supply, and that the government is tampering with weed in order to lobotomize young black men, and that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attack in order to unite the country after “stealing” the election for George W. Bush.)
And so the crux question for younger people walking that “woke” line in trying to cobble together their own sense of personal identity politics is this: How to reconcile the notion of Farrakhan as literal mover-of-millions with Farrakhan as sensibility-offender and controversy-merchant? Moreover: Is this even possible?
In his post-Obama reflection We Were Eight Years In Power, the esteemed and progressive-minded author Ta-Nehisi Coates grapples with this tension in reckoning with Farrakhan by way of addressing his own attendance at the Million Man March, saying “For us, Farrakhan’s opinions on the Jews mostly seemed beside the point…What stuck was the chance to assert our humanity and our manhood by marching on the Mall, and not acting like we were all fresh out of San Quentin.”
And Coates isn’t alone in parsing the man from the message. As Farrakhan reminded time and again at the Watergate: “This message is not from Louis Farrakhan. This message is from the honorable Elijah Muhammed, speaking through Louis Farrakhan.”