What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?

Trump's War on Civil Rights


By Juan Williams

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The bestselling author, political analyst, and civil rights expert delivers a forceful critique of the Trump administration’s ignorant and unprecedented rollback of the civil rights movement.

In this powerful and timely book, civil rights historian and political analyst Juan Williams denounces Donald Trump for intentionally twisting history to fuel racial tensions for his political advantage. In Williams’s lifetime, crusaders for civil rights have braved hatred, violence, and imprisonment, and in so doing made life immeasurably better for African Americans and other marginalized groups. Remarkably, all this progress suddenly seems to have been forgotten — or worse, undone. The stirring history of hard-fought and heroic battles for voting rights, integrated schools, and more is under direct threat from an administration dedicated to restricting these basic freedoms.

Williams pulls the fire alarm on the Trump administration’s policies, which pose a threat to civil rights without precedent in modern America. What the Hell Do You Have to Lose? makes a searing case for the enduring value of our historic accomplishments and what happens if they are lost.



DURING HIS SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN for the presidency, Donald Trump’s message to black voters was that supporting Democrats left them with bad schools, high crime, and higher unemployment. In asking them to join his campaign, Trump famously threw an explosive and simple question at black people: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

The president should know the answer.

When Trump was seven years old in 1954, the Supreme Court in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case outlawed racially separate public schools.

Then, when he was eighteen, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opening the way to an era of rapid progress in race relations.

Now seventy-two years old, Trump has lived through the astonishing growth in the black middle class. He just has to pick up the paper to see incredible advances in black political power that have taken place in his lifetime, including the election of the first black president.

As a casino owner, beauty competition sponsor, and television personality, he had a front row seat from which to watch the rush of black talent to the front line of the nation’s culture from music (Michael Jackson), to beauty contests (Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America), to television (Oprah) and sports (Michael Jordan).

Having attended a military academy for high school, Trump might have noticed that in 1980 Vincent Brooks became the first black student to lead the cadets at West Point. How about the front-page headlines that greeted Colin Powell when he became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989? Did he miss that too? These days, trailblazing black people hardly get any attention. In 2017, when Simone Askew became the first black woman to lead the cadets at West Point, it was buried inside the papers. I can understand if Trump missed that one.

As a businessman, however, he could hardly have ignored the rise of black people into the ranks of top executives. In his time, a black woman broke through racial and gender ceilings to become the head of Xerox. In his lifetime, black men have taken the top jobs at American Express, Merrill Lynch, Merck, and Time Warner. He saw entertainment moguls Bob Johnson and Oprah Winfrey become the world’s first two black billionaires, reaching a threshold he himself often claims to have achieved, though the record is far from clear. And at Carnegie Hall, just a few blocks from his Fifth Avenue apartment, Trump might have noticed that another black billionaire, Robert F. Smith, made the front pages when he was elected as chairman of the board.

I’m just seven years younger than Trump. But I’m black. The changes he sniffed at make up the prime story of my lifetime.

Let me boil this down for Trump. Take a look at two men—my father and me—and do a generational comparison.

The difference between the life my father led as a black man—he was born in 1902—and the life I lead today as a black man—I was born in 1954—are so different I might as well live on another planet.

As a first stop, go to restaurants in downtown Washington, DC. They were closed to my dad and other black people as late as the 1960s. Today I’ve been welcomed in fancy restaurants in DC and even farther south, from Richmond to Birmingham to New Orleans. The same is true for hotels that kept out my dad. How about housing? I bought my first house in a neighborhood once governed by “restrictive covenants” that legally banned a black man like my dad from buying a house. My father’s heart would have swelled with pride and wonder to see my daughter’s Georgetown law degree. Georgetown University did not accept its first black student until the 1950s. And what might Daddy have said about me having lunch with another black man at the White House, when he realized the other guy was Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States?

He’d say that’s a different planet. I agree. And we’d both give thanks for all the progress toward racial equality in a nation whose founding ideals of liberty and justice have always sat uncomfortably beside the reality of slavery.

The country still has a long way to go before approaching racial equality. But the revolution in race relations during the last fifty years—the majority of Donald Trump’s life—has been absolutely mind-boggling.

Instead of asking black people what they have to lose by voting for him, Trump needs to ask himself, “How the hell did I miss all of this?”

But let’s be honest. Trump did not just happen to overlook it. He intentionally put on blinders because he finds comfort and political advantage in seeing a distinctly different reality. He wants to see black failure and misery. That view justifies his distaste for black people—some might say his racism. He locks his eyes on the worst of black American life because it makes him and other white people into victims of the trouble in black neighborhoods; he is the hero defending whites against the approaching barbarians.

On the campaign trail he used his awful depiction of black life as a regular feature of speeches to whip up his heavily white campaign crowds.

Trump has “opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century, according to those who track patterns of racial tension and antagonism in American life,” the New York Times reported near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Specifically, Trump has “electrified the world of white nationalists,” the newspaper noted. A company that tracks social media revealed that “almost 30 percent of the accounts Mr. Trump retweeted… followed one or more of 50 popular self-identified white nationalist accounts.”

His colorful speeches to raucous white crowds conjured scary pictures of black neighborhoods full of gunfire and desperation that threatened white people, risked infecting white neighborhoods, and required support for police, even bad police, who had to cope with these out-of-control black folks. “I mean, honestly, places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities,” he said.

He described these impoverished areas as representative of all black life. As a public avatar of white contempt, Trump encouraged Americans to damn poor black people for living with poverty and violence. By his logic, the black people in those neighborhoods made the choice to be there, to stay there. They blame racism for their problems and ask for welfare, he said. But in Trump’s world, black people don’t see that they are failing themselves because “you take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”

President Obama responded to one of Trump’s negative speeches about black America this way: “You may have heard [Trump] say that there’s never been a worse time to be a black person. I mean, he missed that whole civics lesson about slavery or Jim Crow.”

“Does Trump have the faintest clue what black America is really like?” asked Eugene Robinson, a columnist in the Washington Post. Another black columnist, Leonard Greene of the New York Daily News, decided to respond directly to Trump’s question about what black voters have “to lose” by supporting him. “No. 1: My dignity. No. 2 My self-respect. No. 3: My standing among family and friends, black or white, and anyone who has ever held me in high regard. No. 4: My future….”

Thirty years ago I wrote Eyes on the Prize—America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965, a best-selling book about the modern civil rights movement. The project included a six-part PBS television series. Twenty years ago I wrote a celebrated biography of the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. And since then I have authored books on African American religion, black colleges and universities, as well as my disappointment with so many current black leaders.

Trump’s name never came up in any of my books.

Keep in mind that prominent white people did speak out against racism. To name a few, they include the famous conservative actor Charlton Heston, who marched with Dr. King; Earl Warren, the conservative, former Republican governor of California who became chief justice of the Supreme Court and used his power to lead a unanimous vote to end school segregation; and Frank Sinatra, a singer whose work for civil rights led the NAACP to give him its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Trump will never get any award from the NAACP.

A rich, politically connected white man with a big voice in newspapers and his own show on television, Trump had ample platforms and every opportunity to speak out about racism. He never did.

Keep in mind that changes in race relations could not have taken place without several leading white Americans speaking to other white people about racial wrongs. The model of this might be Atticus Finch, the fictional white Alabama lawyer in the best-selling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. He bucked the racist culture of a small Southern town to represent a black man wrongly charged with rape and to speak out about corrupt racial attitudes.

Enough real-life white men in an all-white US Senate took the risk to cast votes to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To say that was a risky political move is an understatement. White Democrats knew it would antagonize the many white Southern segregationists in their party, known as Dixiecrats. To this day that vote stands as a historic inflection point in the nation’s racially divided politics, the biggest since the Civil War. It is the moment when the solidly Democratic Southern states began shifting to the current reality of the predominately Republican South.

Then there are mortal risks taken by all the people, black and also white, who, despite the threat of segregationist violence, got on the buses to go to the March on Washington. There are the legal risks taken by people who stoked political pressure and raised money to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act and 1968 Fair Housing Act. The threats these activists faced down, and the changes that resulted, stand as monumental achievements for a generation of Americans, black and white, who grew up in a legally segregated, white-majority country.

During these same years, Trump played no role in bringing about racial progress in America. If anything, he attempted to stall it. As a businessman, he was distressed by the changes, specifically when blacks tried to rent apartments in his previously all-white properties. The federal government sued him, and he was forced to settle one of the biggest housing discrimination cases in history.

Trump’s silence on race throughout his long life is a bit like the dog who did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” In that case, the dog never barked because it recognized his owner as the man stealing a horse. In Trump’s case, he didn’t even bother to look.

The spark of idealism—the optimism that drives young people to question and protest and change the world—never ignited in Trump. This young white man’s attention flew by the fight for equal rights for blacks, the calls for women’s rights, and the Great Society drive to lend a hand to the poor.

Perhaps Donald Trump never spoke on equality because he didn’t see oppression as a crime. His millionaire dad’s resentment of immigrants and minorities led him to attend a KKK rally in 1920s New York. Then young Donald was sent to a private high school and universities with few black people. Coming of age among hippies, antiwar protests, and music asking, “What’s Going On?,” Trump remained unconnected to his times. He kept his distance from the romanticism of the 1960s peace-and-love culture of rebellion against war and the civil rights movement with its rejection of racism.

His inner drive was all about moving up in New York’s high society and making money in New York’s real estate business. He showed no natural desire to reach out to the poor folks below, be they black, white, Latino, immigrants, or women.

His distaste for black people is tied to his lack of empathy for the poor. Black people have the highest rates of poverty, welfare, and crime of any racial group. In absolute numbers, most poverty in the United States is among white people. That is no surprise since whites, at 70 percent of the population, are the largest racial group in the country. Similarly, white people commit most crimes. But the white poverty rate, like the white crime rate, is at a lower overall percentage than poverty and crime rates among blacks and Latinos.

Also, much of white poverty and street-level crime is hidden. Poor white people are generally outside cities, in small towns and rural areas like Appalachia that are far from Trump’s life in midtown Manhattan. Black poverty can also be found in rural areas, like the Mississippi Delta. But unlike its white counterpart, black urban dysfunction is a staple of the eleven o’clock nightly news in big cities—major media markets—including New York.

There is a lot of history here.

Black people who moved up north to escape the worst of Southern segregation in the mid-twentieth century found themselves isolated by housing and school segregation and kept out of good paying jobs in the North. Trump was less concerned with that sad human situation and racism than he was with his own anxiety about crime and the impact it had on the value of his buildings.

Trump belongs to a long tradition of white Americans who were happy to ignore our national history of racism and pretend it didn’t exist. Trump’s experience, specifically his anxiety over black crime, fits with the complaints of older political conservatives and neoconservatives, a type often described as “a white liberal who has been mugged.” This is how Trump and his cohort view black people: as a population of potential muggers.

Then there is the matter of social status. As Trump grew up it was hard to find any blacks, Latinos, or Jews in top-tier positions among America’s social elite. There were few if any black titans of Wall Street. The same held true for Madison Avenue advertising magnates, real estate developers, and the owners and top executives of major television and newspaper companies. This is the world Trump aspired to join, and black people had no place in it.

But even when older white conservatives speak honestly of their fear of the chaos of black crime and poverty, they reassure me that they are not racists. They profess to be speaking out against the damage done to people of all colors by the wrongheaded acceptance of crime and welfare dependency. They regard being called a racist as the worst, the lowest possible insult.

At first, I took them at their word and received their attitude as good news. But over time, an incredible impulse revealed itself in people who professed to be good.

In my experience, whenever I pointed to obvious racism on the part of other white people—in hiring statistics, police brutality, and more—these same white, conservative truth-tellers suddenly became defensive. The reflex puzzled me. Why should one white person resist believing a different white person is racist? But slowly I realized it was a fear that the same charge might be leveled at them. They didn’t want to hear about anyone being called a racist.

This exercise in racial denial took center stage when Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, said half of Trump’s backers were “deplorables,” and defined the group as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic.” That was not a rash generalization—it was based on polling data.

Earlier that summer, a Reuters poll found “nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African-Americans as more ‘violent’ than whites… more ‘criminal’ than whites, while 40 percent described [blacks] as more ‘lazy’ than whites.” These results fit well with a later Reuters poll from 2017, which found that 39 percent of Americans believe “whites are currently under attack in this country.” That included 63 percent of Republicans, despite what Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist, described as “the absence of any evidence that whites as a group are disadvantaged in schooling, employment, income, public accommodations, political power or any other area.” But Trump’s supporters reacted to Clinton’s “deplorables” comment by accusing her of “playing the race card” and defaming good people who did not agree with her policies and politics. They trashed her campaign with charges of using “identity politics” to stir up people of color, a key constituency of the Democratic Party, even as Trump supporters had nothing to say about to the almost all-white makeup of the GOP. Their passionate defense was notable because it required looking away from Trump’s willingness to use white racial resentments to fire up white voters.

It also required ignoring Trump’s public behavior. When a black ESPN television host called Trump a “white supremacist” during his first year in office, the president’s press secretary demanded the television anchor be fired. Trump’s political supporters rallied to his side by saying the charge lacked factual basis; it was just another example of oblivious liberal hatred of Trump.

Wait a second. Let’s go back and look at the record of what American voters were thinking when they elected Trump.

In August 2016, just a few months before he was elected president, 51 percent of Americans polled by YouGov said that they would describe Trump as a racist. A Pew poll in October found that 54 percent of Americans agreed that Trump does not “respect black people very much.” And a Quinnipiac poll a month earlier found most voters agreed, “The way Donald Trump talks appeals to bigotry.” Overall, polling research showed that as Trump took control of the presidential race in 2016, whites felt “bias against white people is more of a problem than bias against black people.” Two professors who surveyed negative attitudes toward black people from 1950 through the 2016 election concluded that a large percentage of white Americans agreed “improvements for black Americans… are likely to come at a direct cost to whites.” These anxious white attitudes about race predated Trump’s campaign.

Since President Nixon campaigned by appealing to the “Silent Majority,” who were disgusted with hippies, feminists, and black militants, Republicans have appealed to white resentment. But as far back as President Eisenhower, Republicans have been careful to separate themselves from openly racist groups like the KKK and the John Birch Society.

Trump exercised no such restraint. He took advantage of white anxieties, fears, and outright racism. AP polls found 51 percent of Americans now express explicitly anti-black attitudes compared to 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. That timeframe is important because Barack Obama, the first black president, took office in 2009. Republicans showed higher levels of racial grievance against blacks in the polls—79 percent, as compared to 32 percent of Democrats.

Before he ran for president Trump’s biggest calling card was his leadership of the racist birther movement. He questioned whether the first black president was really an American. He demanded a birth certificate to prove that Obama was born in the United States. His deceitful tactic had impact. Fifty-nine percent of Trump’s supporters told pollsters in May 2016, as the GOP primary was being decided, that Obama was not born in the United States.

The suggestion that Obama was not an American also led Trump to publicly scoff at the idea that Obama earned admission to an Ivy League school. He dismissed the idea that the black president was bright enough to have once won the esteemed title of editor of the Harvard Law Review. Trump also demanded Obama’s college transcripts and derided him as an “affirmative action” president.

Before he launched the birther attack, Trump’s bitter racial attitude was evident on social media. The Washington Post reported that in eight years of using Twitter, Trump was three times as likely to accuse black people of racism as he was to point out white racism. “Trump’s use of words like ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ is perhaps best understood in the context of a modern conservative movement that has come to believe, against all evidence, that whites face more discrimination than blacks,” the Post reported in an analysis. “… Trump has given validation to that belief.”

And then the KKK endorsed Trump’s candidacy for president. They told their followers that voting against Trump is “treason to your heritage,” in the words of former Klan leader David Duke. Trump went on CNN and said he knew nothing about Duke. This was suspect, considering that Trump understood Duke well enough to have called him a “bigot, a racist” in 2000. Yet following his CNN interview he offered the lame excuse that he didn’t denounced Duke this time because he hadn’t heard the question.

Trump’s evasions later prompted Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, to condemn Trump: “Any candidate who cannot immediately condemn a hate group like the KKK does not represent the Republican Party. If Donald Trump can’t take a stand against the KKK, we cannot trust him to stand up for America against Putin, Iran or ISIS.”

Trump offered no apology. His failure to condemn the Klan became his biggest dog whistle: words intended to give him space to escape charges of racism while still appealing to racists. This became obvious in the summer of 2017, several months into his presidency, when white supremacists, including members of the KKK, marched in Virginia with torch-bearing neo-Nazis. President Trump said the appalling group, openly carrying guns, included many “fine people” who only marched in opposition to taking down Confederate statues. So in his mind, “fine people” stand side by side with Nazis.

Trump never condemned the Nazi group for its threatening march against blacks, Jews, and immigrants. He never said a word about their responsibility for the violence, including one racist who used a car to kill a woman marching in opposition. At best, Trump blamed “both sides.” The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, thanked the president: “No condemnation at all…. When asked to condemn, [Trump] just walked out of the room…. God bless him.”

Trump’s behavior led 56 percent of Americans to tell Fox News pollsters weeks after Charlottesville that he is “tearing the country apart.” Sixty-one percent disapproved of his words and actions in handling race relations. A Pew poll after the violence found 58 percent of Americans declaring racism is now a “big problem” for the country, the most Americans to say that since polling firms started regularly asking the question twenty years earlier, in 1995.

Trump acted as if nothing happened. After the Charlottesville attack he went on to take several provocative steps on race. He made a political display of pardoning a white sheriff found guilty of racial profiling of immigrants, Arizona’s Joe Arpaio. Then he made a show of giving local police departments surplus, high-powered military weapons at a time of national concern over police shootings of black men. He also ended a program to protect undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, who came to the United States as children, from deportation.

“By playing into white fears of crime and concerns that minorities are taking their jobs, he’s signaling to his white supporters that he’s a politician who is finally taking their problems seriously,” wrote German Lopez for Vox. Lopez quoted a researcher who described Trump’s use of racially coded language as particularly pernicious in its design, allowing “people who are racially anxious and who are easily fired up with racial narratives to deny to themselves that it’s race that’s agitating them.” Many of Trump’s appeals to white racial anger, Lopez concluded, “are masked under broad concerns—over the waste of taxpayer money and crime—but they’re really appealing to underlying racial resentment.”

Trump masterfully put a twenty-first-century twist on the politics of segregation going back to the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. When Alabama governor George Wallace blocked the schoolhouse door to stop black people from attending the state university, he said he acted in the name of Southern tradition and heritage. He never said he was a white supremacist. Trump is playing a similar game. Without ever talking about racism, he goes off on big government waste of tax dollars on social programs and crime by immigrants and black people. It was an appeal to racial resentment that allowed Trump and his supporters to deny their racist feelings as long as they didn’t call names and only expressed disagreement with government programs and policies they identified as designed to help poor black people. This was true even if the programs, from Obamacare to student loan programs, helped more whites than blacks and Latinos.

His tactics gave cover to his base voters even as the press reported that Trump’s campaign for president had excited extremist, racist hate groups. After all, Trump’s run for the White House literally started with a speech full of attacks on Mexican immigrants as rapists and thieves. On the campaign trail he hammered every violent crime by an undocumented immigrant as if such crimes were the country’s major source of danger. He brought crying mothers and fathers of the victims of these crimes on stage, to applause from mostly white followers.

During Trump’s first year in office the FBI saw a spike in activity among racist groups. The bureau confirmed that it had one thousand investigations underway into racist organizations that had turned to violence. But Trump’s backers continued to downplay the significance of the news that the leaders of the KKK endorsed Trump’s campaign. Even more incredible, they managed to look away as he thrilled the “alt-right,” a loose affiliation of racist, sexist, and Anti-Semitic hate groups that often openly advertise themselves as white supremacists. In fact, he hired Steve Bannon as his campaign manager. Bannon once said the Civil War was a “war of Southern independence.” He said the South wanted to secede not to keep black people as slaves so much as to fight for “economic development.” Bannon is also a man who said his website, Breitbart, was “the platform for the alt-right” and allowed leaders of racist groups control over stories that appeared on the website.

During a European speaking tour in early 2018, after he was forced to step down from the Trump administration, Bannon told a right-wing French group to “let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.” Telling an audience to relish accusations of racism is a startling break from most conservative American politicians of the last half century. Even when playing racial politics, conservatives have gone out of their way to condemn outright racism and argue they are making the case for color-blind policies.

Despite stirring up racist groups and embracing Bannon, Trump denied charges of racism. Instead, he blamed the media for smearing him.

There is a tradition here. It is a tradition of denial.


  • "A vivid and beguiling investigation on how Donald Trump is hell-bent on dismantling a large slice of America's Civil Rights heritage. This is a wake-up call for those who want to keep Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream alive. Williams, who works at Fox News, is taking a brave stance in these pages. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University and author of Rosa Parks
  • "A cogent response from a veteran journalist... His skillful succinctness makes his anti-Trump commentaries often devastating... [A] relevant and well-grounded book."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Juan Williams has written an important and timely book on the future of civil rights and equal justice under the law. Williams, an eyewitness to history, warns us to 'stay woke' in the era of Trump. Otherwise, we might find the moral arc of our history suddenly bending backwards."—Donna Brazile, former Interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee
  • "This book skillfully combines observations of the current state of politics and race relations with insights from the long, and sometimes forgotten, history of the civil rights movement. With decades of hard-won progress under threat, Juan Williams reminds us that knowing our past is essential if we are to understand our present, and shape our future."—Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader, attorney, and former head of theNational Urban League
  • "Like a finely-honed fact-based scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon, Juan Williams carefully examines the pillar achievements of African Americans in our nation since Slavery and our Civil War.... A chilling, fact-based recital of just how much African Americans are losing and could lose under President Trump."—Dr. Clarence B. Jones, former political advisor, lawyer, andspeechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and adjunct professor, Universityof San Francisco
  • "In this challenging time, when the echoes of past injustices linger just beneath the surface waiting to burst forth like a broken dam, we must understand the consequences at hand. Juan Williams takes us chapter and verse through the incredible sacrifices, struggles and progress of the civil rights movement and what is now at stake for all Americans: freedom, liberty and justice- for all."—Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans
  • "By contrasting the Trump administration's blatant attempts to rewrite history to suit their goals with accounts of what really happened, Williams highlights the current administration's total lack of regard for African Americans. It's a powerful and effective structure; a call-and-response demonstrating the bleak parallels between today and past decades and the razor-thin line we walk to avoid returning to a past of intolerance. Williams' book shows not only that progress can be easily lost but also highlights the slow, painful successes of the civil rights movement, and how depressingly small some of its victories seem. Thanks in no small part to its author's writing, What the Hell Do You Have to Lose? is a civil rights lesson that's needed now more than ever before."—Anna Sheffer, Medium

On Sale
Sep 25, 2018
Page Count
320 pages

Juan Williams

About the Author

Juan Williams has covered and written about American politics for four decades. He is currently a columnist for the Hill, and was a longtime writer and correspondent for the Washington Post and NPR. Most notably, Juan is currently a cohost of FoxNews Channel’s roundtable debate show The Five, and makes regular appearances across the network on shows like FoxNews Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Brett Baier, where he regularly challenges the orthodoxy of the network’s conservative stalwarts. He is also the author of numerous books, including Eyes on the Prize, Thurgood Marshall, Enough, Muzzled, and We The People.

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