This week, People For the American Way marked the passing of our beloved founder, Norman Lear. Tributes have been pouring in as so many people remember the values Norman stood for during his life, so this week, we’re departing from our normal Trumptastrophe format to recognize Norman’s fearless advocacy for democracy and freedom of speech, which stands in such stark contrast to the agenda of Donald Trump.
The contrast between Norman’s vision of America and Trump’s was emphatically demonstrated over the past week, as Trump and his henchmen escalated their threats to wage a campaign of revenge against his political opponents and to abuse the power of the presidency to destroy media outlets that criticized him. He told us he would govern as a dictator on day one of his next term as president.
Also this week, Trump enabler and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson addressed a closed-to-media gathering of Christian nationalist activists, where he said God has elevated him as the “Moses” to lead America in this “Red Sea moment”—a speech captured and reported on by People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch team, allowing millions of Americans to hear what Johnson intended to reveal only to his supporters.
Norman was a passionate defender of our First Amendment freedoms. He took action to create People For the American Way after he began watching televangelists who were part of the rising religious-right political movement. He was horrified by what he heard. Prayers for the death of a Supreme Court justice. Insistence that you could only be a good American if you were the “right” kind of Christian—and you could only be a good Christian if you embraced far-right political views.
Norman understood earlier than most that such divisive rhetoric, hitched to a power-building political movement, was a threat to democratic values. He traveled the country to recruit other prominent Americans, including the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, to join him in resisting religious bigotry and right-wing authoritarianism. They proclaimed that the American Way was to defend individual freedoms and work to build a country where the promises of liberty and justice for all were not just an ideal but a reality.
Trump’s rise was empowered and has been sustained with overwhelming support from religious-right leaders, many of whom have declared Trump anointed by God to rule the country. Christian nationalist “prophets” and political operatives tell followers that they can’t be good Christians unless they vote for Trump and other far-right candidates. In the words of People For the American Way’s first television ad, “That’s not the American Way.”
In recent years, Norman was dismayed by the aggressive Christian nationalist and white nationalist movements energized by Trump. He was appalled that Trump’s Supreme Court justices are moving to reverse decades of hard-won social justice progress. But he had a centenarian’s long view of the progress made in his lifetime, and he remained optimistic about the ability of Americans to build a better future. He told us he was inspired by members of People For the American Way’s Young Elected Officials network—one of whom, Svante Myrick, now leads the organization as its president.
Norman never saw People For the American Way as “his” organization. He saw it as a collective effort. “Pushing back on bigotry, resisting voter suppression, exposing extremism, making our communities safer—these are not things I can do effectively on my own,” Norman wrote to People For members last year. “But through People For the American Way, I partner with fellow Americans to defend our freedom wherever and whenever it is at risk.”
In a recent tribute to Norman, Rob Reiner reminded people that Norman fought fascism during World War II, when he flew on more than 50 bombing missions. “The idea that we would slip into fascism less than 80 years later is unfathomable,” Reiner said, calling on Americans to defeat Trump in 2024 to preserve our democracy.
People For the American Way was proud to be part of the massive effort by local, state, and national organizations and individual citizens who defeated Trump in 2020 and we’re gearing up to do the same next year. At Norman’s request, his family has asked that people honor him with a contribution to People For the American Way to carry on his work.
You can see People For the American Way’s press release and a sampling of tributes to Norman on our website.
Thanks – as always – for all that you do, and for helping us strengthen Norman’s legacy and his vision of the American Way.