What Donald Trump considers the civil rights fight 'of all time'

Trump this week declared what he considers the civil rights fight "of all time." It had nothing to do with voting rights or equal justice under the law.
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Empty classroom.Sam Edwards / Caiaimage/Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

As many Americans took to the streets to protest in support of social justice, there was reason to believe Donald Trump didn't fully appreciate the sentiments of those hoping to be heard. As NBC News reported last week, the president saw the protestors and repeatedly told those around him, "These aren't my voters" -- as if he were only elected to serve certain segments of the population.

Around the same time, Trump told Fox News that, as far as he was concerned, some of those protesting in opposition to institutional racism "just didn't know" why they were even there. The Republican added, "[A] lot of them were really there because they're following the crowd."

It was against this backdrop that the president yesterday identified what he considers the defining civil rights fight of our time. From the official White House transcript:

"We're fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights of all time in this country. Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade, and probably beyond -- because all children have to have access to quality education.... So we're very, very strong on school choice, and I hope everybody remembers that."

Right off the bat, it's worth emphasizing that Trump is in a poor position to declare what is or is not the civil rights issue "of all time." His record of racism is disqualifying.

There's also the broader context to keep in mind: as many Americans take a stand against institutional racism, the president apparently wants to shape the debate his own way -- as if he, and not the protestors, is in a position to decide which civil rights priority is the preeminent issue.

But at its core, what Trump is presenting as the civil rights fight "of all time" is not a civil rights issue at all. The president and much of his party are proponents of school vouchers, which would effectively privatize the nation's K-12 system through coupons families would take to religious and other private institutions.

The word "vouchers" has never polled especially well -- despite being accurate -- so conservative strategists have encouraged GOP officials to use the phrase "school choice," which sounds far more benign.

Phrasing aside, the idea that privatizing education is the defining civil rights struggle "of all time" is ridiculous. Republican opponents of public schools and unionized public-school teachers are free to make their case on the merits, but to pretend their fight for vouchers is on par with fighting for voting rights or equal treatment under the law is impossible to take seriously.

"All children have to have access to quality education," Trump said. It's obviously a sentiment with broad appeal, except the president hopes to achieve the goal, not by investing in world-class schools, but by distributing coupons to be applied toward private-school tuition. The plan, such as it is, bears no resemblance to an actual fight for civil rights.

Of course, if Trump wants to be seen as a champion for kids for low-income families, I'll look forward to the White House launching a related push for all children to have access to quality health care. And housing. And nutrition.

So long as Trump and his allies' focus remains limited to schools, they're giving away the game.