The 2016 US Presidential Election: A View from Below
Or the Anxiety of the Minority in the Age of Trump
My name is the most emblematic of my faith. It is a weight I carry, and sometimes these days it feels like a burden. I am sure when my parents decided to give me the name, it never crossed their mind that one day, somewhere, it could be a source of worry for their son.
Traveling just after 9–11 meant being pulled out of lines for the occasional ‘random’ checks. I remember arriving in London in August of 2003 for my brother’s wedding. As it happened, I was last in line at the Heathrow airport customs and immigration line. When it was my turn, the nice border agent took my passport, looked at me, then at my passport, and back again at me. “Could you wait here, Mr. Kamara? I will be back in five minutes.” She returned thirty or so minutes later. “Sorry about the wait,” she said as she handed me my passport. “Enjoy your stay in London… By the way, just curious… Have you ever thought about changing your first name to something else,” she said with a smile as I was walking away. Smiling back at her I said: “Good idea. But I think I will keep my name.”
These days, I have become more aware of my name. When I go to my doctor’s office, and I am asked my name, I instinctively summon all my antennae. The split second it takes between the question and my answer I wonder: who is listening, what are they thinking, planning? Or when I go to Wal-Mart to send money via MoneyGram, I wonder how much my name factors into that extra security question I am asked or the request for that extra identification. Or when, in the middle of my daughter’s soccer game, my phone plays the adhan to remind me it is time for maghrib! No law-abiding citizen or resident of this country should be made to feel this way.
And my color is not invisible, though the rest of me sometimes feel like it!
We live in an uncertain time. From Cape Town to Sana’a to Donetsk. From Tegucigalpa to Kyongsong, passing through Wichita. We live in a fearful time. A time when it seems everything we know and hold dear is slowly crumbling around and upon us. A time when our will as individuals and communities is tested. Indeed, a time when the nerves of our common humanity are strained to extreme limits.
Brexit. New rise of Ultra-ethnicisms in Europe. Totalitarianism in Russia and Turkey. Violence in the name of Islam everywhere. Extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. North Korea flexing its nuclear muscles. Spineless politicians everywhere running away from the truth. A perfect storm seems to be brewing. What we do this November in America will determine greatly whether that storm matures and explodes, or recedes.
I had a short exchange with my kids the day of the Nice attacks, a conversation synthesizing many we have had in similar circumstances before. My daughter said: “That is so sad, and on such a celebratory day… I feel like a lot of bad things are happening in too short a period of time.” In my attempt at assuaging her concerns, I offered this: “It is sad indeed. Violence, regardless of who perpetrates it, is just outright unacceptable and counterproductive. It seems we are at a crossroads in our human history when we have to decide which road to take. We must stay firm in our commitment to peace, love, and nonviolence. The current incubus will pass as others before did.” My son, for his part, gave a philosophical retort reminiscent of one Robert Frost: “We can only hope that we do take the right course before we get to the point where it’s too late.”
Human relations, including politics, are driven mainly by the two related but opposing passions of hate and love, and by a grey matter called indifference. In the current election cycle, there seems to be among the electorate quite a bit of indifference, an inordinate amount of hate, and too little love. Political campaign speeches, rather than being uplifting, are ridden with fear and hate. And when the debate is cast in the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it or eat-or-you-are-eaten terms, leaders perceived to be strong and more committed to the survival of ‘the group’ rather than some cosmopolitan ideal, tend to have the upper hand. In such a climate, optimism and compassion are at best on life support.
In the midst of rampaging political dishonesty and indifference in today’s America, and the unwillingness or inability of the established political elites to work together for the good of the country, voter frustration and disillusionment have become the order of the day. The ensuing disenchantment with the status quo produces its own noxious side effects: voter apathy or outright rage against the system. People are in pain, and they feel ignored by their elected leaders. And when apathy collides with anger there is always the danger that the country’s long-term interest will bear the scar. In this light, the story of Germany and Hitler serves as a powerful lesson for us. Buoyed by the anger and hunger on the part of an electorate for new, firm and decisive leadership (no matter how hollow in reality his offering was), Hitler rose from relative political obscurity to become the sole administrator of Germany. Germans in their majority — and, of course, the rest of Europe — will forever regret the series of choices on their part that brought Hitler to power.
Elections are about choices! Every election matters, but some matter more than others. Truisms have not been more true than they are in 2016. Some things are so obvious, they need to be pointed out. Our human history is stained with moments of ‘we wish we had done otherwise.’ We can only hope 2016 does not become one. We are faced with two candidates, each coming to us with his or her own albatrosses.
Hillary Clinton has serious problems. She is an integral part of the dynastic political orthodoxy (and all the implications of that) at a time when politics-as-usual suffers from a self-inflicted malady. She is perceived by many as being untrustworthy. Whether she is or not makes little or no difference to a good number of people. If you keep throwing mud at a wall, even a clean slippery one, some of it might end up sticking to it. It seems the only visceral response Hillary Clinton is capable of eliciting is that of loathing from her detractors. Another fly in Clinton’s macédoine: ISIS and violence on the home front. Trump has set the grim canvas of law and order and fear. Any attacks, here or abroad, signed by ISIS or anyone with a Muslim-sounding name or saying the phrase ‘Allahu Akbar’ — it won’t matter that they are not Muslim — or by a minority person against a law enforcement agent, will add a bloody stroke to that canvas. The effect of this is clear: those who already support Donald Trump will find justification and become more entrenched in their position. As for those wavering between Trump and Clinton, some, out of fear and uncertainty of the future, may either swing to Trump, or just stay home (or vote for other candidates). And we are not talking about the unknowns that not even the most expert punditry can predict. That the election is close is testament not to Trump’s inherent qualities as a candidate or as a person, but rather to Clinton’s personal and political vulnerabilities.
And then there is Donald Trump
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves. (Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2)
Many reasons have been proffered as to why Donald Trump will make a better president than Hillary Clinton. A. J. Delgado alone presents twenty in “20 Reasons It Should Be Donald Trump in 2016” on Breitbart.com.
One reason people often give is that in private, Trump is a nice person; he is a good family man who has raised good kids. He is also generous, we are told. To be sure, these are all laudable qualities to have. But the Trumps are a very private family. Except for those in their close circle, Americans don’t really know them. So we cannot use this claim of Trumps ‘goodness’ as a realistic yardstick for the candidate’s qualification. By many accounts, Adolf Hitler was very fond of Eva Braun, and his mother, and was nice to children, too. Yet we all know what he thought of and did to the rest of the world!
We also hear the chant that Trump should be President because he is a successful businessman with an empire to and in his name. True, the Trump name is everywhere (could probably even be seen from outer space). There is also water everywhere (even visible from outer space), but whether it is potable to the weary traveler is another matter altogether. But that aside, we do have to realize a country is not a Fortune 500 company. In the Little Rascals (1994), the brat, Waldo, is told by his father (played by Donald Trump): “you are the best son money can buy.” A country, like a family, is made up of real flesh and blood people, not bonds and faceless customers to be bought and paid according to one’s caprices. While it may actually be a good thing to run your company like you treat your family (assuming you treat your family with respect, love and compassion), it is probably not a good idea to treat your family the way you run your business. Metaphors, after all, have their limits.
Often and again, we have heard statements like these: I am supporting Donald Trump because I am sick and tired of the status quo. Trump says it as he means it. A New Hampshire voter interviewed by NPR in December, 2015 expressed this sentiment quite well: “I am leaning toward Donald Trump because I am fed up with the politicians that have been in there. And I’d vote for Donald Duck if he was running.” The voter went on to note that Trump, unlike the typical politicians he was running against, would do what he said he would do (it was unclear how the voter came to this conclusion). Furthermore, he agreed with the candidate’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States: “I think we don’t have any choice whatsoever but to ban them from coming in. This is not something new. We did it to the Japanese during World War II.” As George Bernard Shaw put it, “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Or maybe some of us do, but just do not care.
After the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on February 19th, 1942, issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round-up and relocation of over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, nearly two-thirds of whom were Nisei, or native-born Americans of Japanese descent. Despite constitutional and ethical objections raised by some in the Department of Justice, the order, quickly legislated by both houses of Congress as Public Law 503 on March 19, was signed by the president two days later and upheld by the Supreme Court. It is worth noting that German or Italian Americans were not subjected to nearly the same treatment, even though Germany and Italy had declared war on America.
On February 19th, 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation referring to Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order upholding and justifying the treatment of Japanese Americans as “a sad day in American history.” Congress and President Reagan recognized the fallacy of equating Japanese-Americanness with anti-Americanism when in 1988 they passed and signed into law, respectively, the Civil Liberties Act providing “a Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000 to the internees, evacuees, and persons of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property because of discriminatory action by the Federal government during World War II.” But the Trump supporter from New Hampshire will probably dismiss Gerald Ford’s, Congress’s and Reagan’s decisions as political correctness and an example of American capitulation.
The treatment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps did not make America great again. What it did was expose the Republic’s vulnerability to a basic human impulse; that when gripped by fear and uncertainty, we are all too willing to suspend our core principles, constitutional and humanistic values, for imagined short term gains. As Roosevelt himself said at his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear makes us crawl into ourselves, and then blindly lash out and do terrible things to our fellow human beings.
While some voters may be pushed to vote for Trump because they are genuinely fed-up with the elite-led status quo and feel left-behind and ignored, some others are part of the system and, though they claim to disagree with Trump on matters of principle, they have promised to vote for him all the same. Or maybe, they secretly share Trump’s core worldview but are not honest enough to say so openly like the voter from New Hampshire. All lizards lie on their belly; it is difficult to tell which one has a belly-ache, says the African proverb.
Writer and retired financial adviser, Jim Ruth, a self-proclaimed member of the “silent majority,” made his case for preferring Trump to Clinton in a June 28, 2016 Washington Post piece, “I Hate Donald Trump. But he Might Get my Vote.” Ruth starts by identifying himself: “And please don’t try to stereotype us. We’re not uneducated, uninformed, unemployed or low-income zealots. We’re affluent, well-educated, gainfully employed and successfully retired. Some of us even own our own business, or did before we retired, creating not only our own job but also employment for others. While we’re fiscally conservative, we’re not tea partyers. And on certain social issues, many of us even have some leftward leanings. Shhhh.” Affluent. Well-educated. Gainfully employed and successfully retired. If this is what “silent majority” means, it is a pretty exclusionary club. One wonders what blue-collar Trump supporters make of this. But we digress! What Jim Ruth says after this is even more revealing.
“We are under no illusions about Trump. We know that this Man Who Would Be King is a classic bully and a world-class demagogue in his personal, professional and political lives. He will continue to demonize his perceived enemies and take the low road at every opportunity…. And we know that if Trump makes it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the view after that is murky at best.”
“So why then would rational, affluent, informed citizens consider voting for The Donald?” Jim Ruth asks. And answers: “he’s the only one who appears to want to preserve the American way of life as we know it. For the new silent majority, the alternative to Trump is bleak: a wealthy, entitled progressive with a national security scandal in her hip pocket. In our view, the thought of four to eight more years of a progressive agenda polluting the American Dream is even more dangerous to the survival of this country than Trump is.” A rational (or comical) intellectual tour de force indeed! The American way of life? The American Dream? Whose American way of life? Whose American Dream? This reminds me of a Daily Show episode on the Republican National Convention.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, correspondents from The Daily Show canvassed Trump supporters by asking them the question: “When was America last great?” While some respondents said America was already great, many hearkened back to what they considered the halcyon days of the Republic: “1913, when we passed the 17th amendment;” “when it was founded;” “our strongest immediately post-World War II;” “when our founding fathers put pen on paper in 1776 and decided to build a country based on laws. That was greatness… a few hiccups along the way… Like they say, nobody made it to the top without breaking a few pieces of china.” These were indeed great times except for Native American rights, the enslavement of blacks and racial segregation, denial of women’s natural and constitutional rights, so on and so forth. Nothing serious. Just hiccups and broken pieces of china along the way! Whoever thought the ‘more perfect union’ was ahead of us!
Is the American way of life built on hate and hubris? Can the American Dream be truly guaranteed by “a Would Be King,” “a classic bully,” “a world-class demagogue,” one who “demonizes his perceived enemies?” The last time I checked that’s what Hitler was, that’s what Stalin was, and Ahmadinejad in Iran, too. And that’s how Idi Amin was in Uganda. And we all know the outcomes of those regimes. And that is what Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become in Turkey. And Najib Razak of Malaysia. Not to mention Russia’s Putin, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. And we know down which path those countries are heading if their citizens just sit and wait for a deus ex machina.
In all fairness to Mr. Ruth, he leaves open in his piece the possibility of not voting at all this November. A decision that will still produce an effect.
Much bigger names in the Republican Party have expressed their support for Trump. Right after Donald Trump came out with his ban-Muslims policy line, Ryan released a strongly worded rebuke of the presidential candidate’s ideas. “This is not who we are as a party or a country.” The Speaker went on to cite two amendments violated by the Trump proposal: “the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of religion, and the 14th, guaranteeing due process of law and citizenship to all persons ‘born or naturalized’ in the U.S.” Ryan has had other occasions to criticize Trump (on the Judge Gonzalo Curiel issue, Trump’s reaction to the DNC speech of the father of Captain Humayun Khan, the proposed wall between Mexico and the US, the renegotiation of trade agreements, the 2005 tape). That notwithstanding, Ryan maintains his endorsement of and promise to vote for Trump: “I feel like I have certain responsibilities, as not just Congressman Paul Ryan from the 1st District of Wisconsin, but as speaker of the House… The last thing I want to see happen is another Democrat in the White House,” (NBC Meet the Press, 6–19–16). “I’m going to support whomever the Republican nominee is, and I’m going to stand up for what I believe as I do that.”
But why is Ryan supporting a candidate who defers from him on so many important issues, a candidate he has effectively accused of disregarding the constitution, of racism, and of disrespecting women?
If Ryan is making a partisan case for voting for the Republican candidate, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (a one-time potential Trump running-mate, a PhD in history from Tulane University, and an ideologue and member of the elite who has picked up of late the habit of denigrating members of the elite), has been busy erecting the intellectual bulwark for the Trump campaign. In a statement reminiscent of the clichéd discourses of the ‘us-versus-them’ binary paradigm, Gingrich told Sean Hannity in a July 14 conversation: “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.”
There are three problems with Gingrich’s statement. The first has to do with the speaker’s very unidimensional and truncated interpretation of sharia. Like jihad, Sharia is not a one-size-fits-all garment that all Muslims ‘must’ wear. In the introduction to his edited volume, Qur’an in Conversation, Michael Birkel tells us that “a little scripture can be a dangerous thing.” He goes on to present two verses from the bible which can be read as clearly promoting violence and social inequality: Deuteronomy 21: 18, 21 “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother… all the men of the town shall stone him to death,” and Ephesians 6.5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters…” If verses like these were the yardstick you use to characterize Christianity, the religion of Christ would also be a religion of violence. It is clear Gingrich is conflating all Muslims with partisans of Daesh, AlQuaeda, Boko Haram and similar groups. Would you judge all Christians by the actions of the Inquisitors; and all Jews by the actions of Yigal Amir and those who gave him pseudo-religious cover? If you read the Quran and the Sunnah, or the Bible, looking for verses such as those above, you will find plenty of them. When you go fishing hell-bent on catching fish, and you catch seagrasses instead, you will still call them fish. Should we not, when we read the Bible and the Quran, the Book of Mormon and the Torah, or any religious texts for that matter, gravitate toward those verses that recommend compassion, forgiveness, and love, even for our self-described enemies?
The second problem with Gingrich’s statement is his allusion to the notion of Clash of Civilizations; as in Islamic civilization vs. Judeo-Christian civilization. Or, as Trump puts it, “Islam hates us.” Whenever I hear the expression ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ I am reminded of the statement by nationalist demagogue in Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon: “There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.” You are either with us, or you are against us, once said George W. Bush.
The idea of a clash of civilizations is a myth, an invention. It is a notion behind which we hide when we want to build a wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and justify the adoption of discriminatory (and oftentimes cruel and unusual) tactics on those we regard as irrevocably different from us. Isn’t this the politics practiced by Al Qaeda and Isis? And Boko Haram? By partisans of Aryanism? In his essay, “The End of the Black American Narrative”, polymath Charles Johnson, with specific reference to the leaders of Nation of Islam, warns against this kind of politics: “Louis Farrakhan… and his mentor… provided black Americans with what is probably the most extreme, Manichean, and mythological version of the black American narrative, one that was anti-integrationist. In this incomplete and misleading rendition of the black American story, the races are locked in eternal struggle. As a story, this narrative fails because it is conceived as melodrama, a form of storytelling in which the characters are flat, lack complexity, are either all good or all bad, and the plot involves malicious villains and violent actions.”
Civilizations — all products of human intention, ingenuity, and luck — are not some fossilized, immutable entity (a fact Gingrich unwittingly underscores in his reference to “Modern Muslims” in the already mentioned conversation with Hannity); they are rather breathing organisms which, if left to intermingle freely, will produce better than themselves. Moreover, a clear-eyed view of history reveals that a civilization’s worst enemy is not outsiders, barbarians at its gates waiting to infiltrate and destroy it. A civilization is the sum and barometer of its creator’s weltanschauung; so it rises or falls according to the character strength or weaknesses of those who build it.
Civilizations, like religions, don’t clash. If they did, we would never have had the two world wars. Or was it Saracens who carried out the Inquisition? Confucian or Hindu sectarians were not responsible for Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre! Hitler and Mussolini were products (and by-products) of Western civilization. Hitler ‘clashed’ with his own Western Civilization and did more harm to its reputation than probably any other single human being would ever do. Civilizations don’t clash; people do, though they do so in the name of civilizations. Each time we suspend the respect and observance of our values and principles in the so-called defense of some civilization, we are unwittingly weakening that civilization, exposing its soft underbelly to those who seek to destroy it.
The third problem with Gingrich’s statement is the religious test he proposes. The issue here is not necessarily the deportation of people who espouse ideas inimical to the survival of the United States. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with stopping those who hate America from entering the country, or punishing — within the limits of the law, of course — anyone who lives in this country, benefits from it, yet seeks to destroy it. The problem with Gingrich’s proposal is that it is dangerously parochial and discriminatory. First of all, who is the “every person here who is of a Muslim background?” Does it include natural-born Caucasian and black American Muslims who have no other country but the US to call home? If so, how do you deport them, and to where? Gitmo, perhaps. Given that his candidate has suggested he is fine with sending American citizens there. Not to mention the fact that those with real plans to attack the US will be more likely to lie on the test than peace-loving citizens and residents. It is easy to see how such a law (the test Gingrich proposes would have to be the law of the land before it can be administered) can be easily abused. Witch-hunting, à la McCarthy, just worse.
Gingrich also proposes that anyone “who goes on a web-site favoring ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or other terrorist groups, that should be a felony, and they should go to jail.” What about those visiting white supremacist and pro-Nazi websites? What if John Smith, a ‘bona fide’ American citizen and student at Appalachian State University doing a term paper on religious extremism, visits a website for or by Isis for the purposes of his research, would he be arrested and sent to jail?
The Anxiety of the Minority
“The King will reply: Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
The demonization and deprecation of one group by another is a staple of the socio-political diet of America. This reality is made more rank by politicians who routinely abandon the high and difficult moral terrain for the easy lowlands of hollow electoral victories. If this has always been true of American politics, it is particularly resonant in recent times.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric, for example, has been on the rise. Some — citing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as attacks before and after that — argued that Muslims called it upon themselves. True, there is no action without its catalyst. But whether the catalyst is justification for the action is another matter altogether. Two wrongs don’t make a right! We mustn’t forget that globally, the vast majority of victims of self-anointed defenders of God and the Islamic faith are Muslims. Terrorists, and only they, should be held accountable for their actions, morally and otherwise.
In the 2008 election campaign, John McCain was forced on at least two occasions to respond to accusations that Obama was an Arab (read Muslim). To an elderly supporter, McCain said: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”McCain earned boos from his supporters for his perceived defense of Obama, and was lauded by observers for his courage. As Ian Reifowitz suggests in his book, Obama’s America, McCain could have done better by giving Colin Powell’s response when faced with a similar question: “So what if he is?” By closing his response as he did ( “He is not an Arab”), McCain was effectively saying being an Arab was not compatible with being American, say the way being an Italian or Irish would not disqualify you from being legitimately American today (as it used to be in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).
The current election cycle has shown that 2008 was just the preamble in the business of Muslim bashing. It got so bad during the primaries that even Ben Carson (a man who, due to no choice of his, was born into a minority race that has known the pain of dehumanization) likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.
A society’s greatness is measured in and by its treatment of its minority populations! When every law-abiding member of the minority groups located within a nation’s borders feel they have as much value as every other member of the majority group/s, then that country is doing well. In this vein, the single most important barometer of a politician’s acceptability is what he or she believes and says about minority groups.
When you are a member of a minority, a certain malaise follows you around like your shadow in the midday sun. It grows in length as the day dissolves into night!
Powerless, in numbers or otherwise,
merely by being what God has wrought,
or by self-expression. Living on edge,
dwelling in the Republic but on its fringes.
At the mercy sans merci of the word,
the word of the Influencer,
the word that could become an instrument of torment
gnawing its sharp burning edges into your flesh and mind.
To be a minority is to
on rations of tolerance. Dancing
like a coerced acrobat on fire-tipped spikes,
scrutinizing every contour of the rugged terrain below,
hoping for that sliver of dirt to soothe your inevitable fall.
You live everyday praying and hoping
plantations, internment camps, gas chambers, and nooses,
remain in the past; yet
knowing all the same that
history has a way of repeating itself.
This is the angst that early Christians felt for over 200 years in the Roman Empire. That the Rohingya feel in Buddhist dominated Myanmar. That Protestants felt during the middle ages and beyond. That Jews have felt for as long as anyone cares to remember. Armenians felt this anxiety in the Turkish Empire. Blacks feel this in America. Tutsis feel this in Rwanda. Muslims felt this in Bosnia. Christians and Yazidis experience this in ISIS/Al Qaeda controlled Syria and Iraq. And Muslims are beginning to feel this today in America. Human history, it seems, is littered with the gore of the powerless.
Writing in the Bluest Eye about life for blacks in post-Great Depression Ohio, Toni Morrison notes that being a minority was like “being put outdoors.” “Outdoors,” Morrison continues, “was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and contemplating our physical condition…the concreteness of being outdoors was… like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.”
To fully appreciate this precarity, one either has to be part of the group or be endowed with that special quality of empathy that few among us have. Newt Gingrich captures this condition in a statement about blackness in America: “If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk…it’s not part of your normal experience.” The exact same thing could be said of Muslims in America today. Food for thought for all, including the Speaker.
Is Trump a racist, a bigot, a demagogue?
Over the past few months, many have asked and answered the question. Some Trump supporters have gone to great lengths to argue that the candidate is not a racist, and doesn’t mean the hurtful things he says about minorities and other categories of people that are different from him. They blame the media for misrepresenting their candidate’s statements. Never have we seen a candidate’s surrogates execute so many semantic acrobatics and so often: “what he meant was…” Could it be that Donald Trump speaks in ciphers, and his surrogates are brilliant cryptanalysts, and the rest of us have lost even our most basic understanding of the English language?
I cannot say with absolute certainty Trump is a racist. And while some of his supporters, by their very own admission, are racists, it will not be fair to label all of them as such. That said, we take people at their word until they can consistently and unequivocally prove otherwise. My mother used to say: “My child, never second-guess people. But if someone, of their own volition, tells you they will harm you, it is wise to assume they will.” Indeed, what is not in us cannot come out of us! During the primaries and after, Trump has spoken hate, refused to criticize those among his supporters who use homophobic and racist rants and violence at his rallies, and even incited them to “knock the crap out of” protesters, promising to pay their legal fees.
I don’t know for sure Donald Trump is a bigot. But I know for certain that his rise has coincided with an exponential increase in extremist activities and paraphernalia in my ‘quiet’ corner of America, an increase that started with the election of Obama. Confederate flags, sometimes alongside the Gadsden Flag (displayed on vehicles, houses, t-shirts, bandanas, phone covers, etc) are now a fixture of the daily landscape here. A man even hung a gigantic confederate battle flag on his property on Interstate 81. As if that wasn’t enough warning, he bought an ad spot in a local newspaper in July 2015 with the message “no black people or democrats are allowed on my property until further notice.” We also saw, in March 2016, the overnight delivery of Ku Klux Klan propaganda and recruitment materials in one of our neighborhoods. All this worries me quite a bit. Call it paranoia if you like. I won’t quarrel with you. But I cannot ignore my elephant memory. And tell me, brother, should I feel at ease when I see the confederate flag in the form of the swastika waving its hate in the dense wind on the road my family uses every day? Or when I hear of a mosque set on fire in Florida, or the clothes of a Muslim woman set on fire in New York City? Not to mention the countless other incidents around the country, including a letter sent to a white woman in Wichita telling her that her biracial grandchildren were not welcome in the neighborhood. And the demonstration by heavily armed White supremacists in front of a Houston NAACP.
That Trump is a demagogue, I cannot say for sure. Judge not, not only because you don’t want to be judged. Yet, I find myself asking: what should I make of a man who says the world would be 100% better if Saddam and Gadhafi were still alive and in power, and Vladimir Putin is a “strong leader?” Is this an indication of how he would govern were he to be elected president? Stifling dissent, like Gadhafi, Putin, and Kim Jong-Un? Banning newspapers and journalists from his midst? Arresting, imprisoning, and eliminating critics and opponents?
There is something sacred about leadership, especially over a nation. What we say to people over whom we have a high degree of influence may have consequences beyond what we intend. When in March of 2015 Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini referred to foreign nationals in South Africa as “fleas and lice” who needed to pack their bags and go home, and when President Jacob Zuma’s son publically agreed with the King (and Jacob Zuma did not unequivocally criticize them); they probably unwittingly (or maybe deliberately) incited people to acts of violence against foreign nationals in the country.
When Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz (among many others) speak ill of Muslims and or other minorities, they are helping provide gunpowder for the cannons of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant elements in America, and unwittingly for the same so-called Islamic fundamentalists they claim to want to destroy. When Trump and his most influential supporters start talking about surveilling Muslims in this country, and keeping a database of them, administering a sharia test, should one be surprised if he or someone else suggests building internment camps for Muslims, as was done for Japanese-Americans in the not-too distant past? We all know it is a thin line that separates hate speech from physical violence. History teaches us that if it has been done before, it can be done again.
Some of our fellow citizens of the majority white population — and some elements of minority groups — who, in spite of the things Trump and supporters have said about minorities in this country, continue to argue Trump’s policy (were he to be elected) will not be inimical to minorities. And there are some who just don’t think about it because they are not direct targets of the current spate of hate speech and action. It is understandable, when you are not part of a minority, to look at attitudes and policies that are or could be harmful to the interest of the minority, as unthreatening to your interest. History, however, has shown us that the politics and policies of discrimination and persecution are equal opportunity offenders on the prowl, with an insatiable appetite for victims. Sooner or later, they will find a way of touching the majority. For when the Persecutor-in-Chief takes a break from discriminating against the official minorities — Muslims, immigrants, Yazidis, strong women who ask uncomfortable questions, people with disabilities, LGBTQ — he will invent new minorities from within his own majority group, including moderates, those who by their speech or silence oppose his methods. And before you know it, everyone, minorities and majorities alike, will be confounded into one single ball of enemies-of-the-homeland. Weren’t moderate Germans and Tutsis killed alongside Jews and Hutus? And at home here in America, the list of American enemies compiled by Joseph McCarthy went far beyond the few who were actual Soviet spies; it also included ordinary citizens whose only guilt was “being drunk or incompetent while working for the State Department” (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~lillsie/McCarthyism/Victims.html).
Nazism, fascism, and systems of that ilk may be dead. But their ghosts lurk in our hearts and politics. And ghosts, as we are reminded in Ghostbusters, have a way of coming back to life. This is the warning Umberto Eco offers us in his essay, “Ur-Fascism”: “I do not think that Nazism, in its original form, is about to reappear as a nationwide movement. Nevertheless, even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” If the wrong stars align, the witching hour could be unleashed upon us.
Democracy is human
Of all political systems, democracy, is the one most apt to protect the rights of minorities. But democracy, like all other political systems, is human-made. It was born with the indelible imprint of fallibility.
It is true that the US system is one of the most entrenched and resilient of democratic systems in the world today. And it is fair to say that part of the story of its strength, the reason America is so attractive to minorities from all corners of the globe, is the relative ease (compared to many other industrialized countries) with which minorities can be integrated into its body politic. A bet on the American democratic system’s ability to rectify itself after a stumble is not a bad bet at all. That said, complacency, like pride, comes before the fall. So we must not fool ourselves into believing that American democracy is completely inoculated against the disease of tyranny. To say it is will be tantamount to saying the human being is perfect. Benito Mussolini, Hitler, and Erdogan (to name just these three) rose to power on the Icarian wings of democracy. All turned out to be replicas of Ubu Roi. I am sure that the majority of German voters would never have allowed Hitler’s rise if they knew what he would become. But that is precisely the problem. You may never know for sure, even if and when there are signs and symptoms of the disease to come. Tyranny is an evil which creeps innocuously upon us, until it explodes, enshrouding victim and victimizer alike.
To spoil a ‘perfectly’ functioning democracy, a state of emergency is all you need. Real life crises or emergencies, both within a nation’s borders and on the global stage, can lead individuals and groups to make decisions detrimental to their long term interests. Where there are no compelling emergencies, demagogues, through their words or actions, create them, and then present themselves as the only ones capable of returning the world back to order. Demagogues are like the politician in the parable that goes like this: A politician sets a house on fire. Then he picks up a bullhorn and goes around town shouting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” And when everybody is standing there dolefully watching the engulfing flames, trying to figure out what to do, the politician comes back around with a grave face, carrying a bucket this time, — watch out; the bucket may have a hole or gas in it — and tells the crowd he is the only one capable of putting out the fire.
Our commitment to democracy and human values are challenged and tested the most not in moments of peace and prosperity, but in times of strife and discord. But as New Jersey Senator Corey Booker put it, “in times of crisis, we don’t abandon our values, we double down on them.” The best way to save a country is to live and die for the timeless values that made that country the shining city on the hill in the first place.
I know countless fellow Americans who are good people, and who, I believe, will stay that way even if it means their death. I go to work with them every day. I commune with them in my neighborhood. Among them are Trump supporters and Clinton supporters. My heart has been soothed by their rapid reaction to some of the hate incidents that have happened in our communities. Yet, I am in no illusion of what could happen to people like me if the purveyors of fear and hate were to possess the Republic.
Which Way Forward?
In Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging, a book about returning veterans and alienation in modern America, Sebastian Junger indicts a society that is increasingly moving away from civility: “we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It is a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it is applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits.”
America is supposed to be better than the society described by Junger. It is a one-of-a-kind country, a beacon of hope and a model to the world. This is the country that has given to so many like me what our countries of birth couldn’t give us, or took away from us. A nation built on optimism, and that thrives on the principles of equality and respect. A country that remains true to the values of love and compassion will face challenges, but will not be eclipsed by the Night. There is a lot at stake for America and the world when America loses faith in itself.
In her Republican convention speech, Melania Trump, an immigrant like so many, reminded us that “as citizens of this great nation, it is kindness, love and compassion for each other that will bring us together — and keep us together.” America has always been better when its leaders and ordinary citizens alike have looked forward rather than backwards. This Republic does well when it thrives to be a more perfect union, not a house divided on itself and whose members hearken back to the days of legalized inequalities and discrimination. This nation is not a finished experiment, but one that keeps getting better by honoring, one day at a time, the promissory note its founders bequeathed to each citizen, alive and yet unborn.
By M‘Bha Kamara