Tag Archives: nativism

What Can One Person Do?

Early Wednesday morning, I got a call from my 14-year-old grandson. He wanted reassurance that there are limits to what Trump can do, that “checks and balances” will contain him. He wanted to know what I thought would happen now.

He wanted to know just how frightened he should be.

My grandson is a freshman at an excellent high school in downtown Indianapolis. Before high school, he went to a magnet school, also downtown. His friends include African-Americans, Latinos and Muslims. Some of his classmates’ families immigrated to the United States. He is Jewish. During this ugly, divisive campaign they’ve all heard what will happen to “their kind” when Trump is President.

So many parents asked the principal of his high school what they should tell their children about these threats that she sent out an article from the Huffington Post, addressing that question.

Tell them, first, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. that make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes ― and we will use them ― so that Trump is unable to act on many of the false promises he made during his campaign.

Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school.

I encourage those of you with children and grandchildren to read the entire article. But all of us who value fundamental American values of inclusion and equality–whether we are young or old, whether we have children or not, whether we are part of a minority group or as WASPy as they come–must resist the urge to “go along” with Trump’s efforts to undermine those values.

Many years ago, there was a television mini-series about the Holocaust that my mother and I watched with my children. After one episode, my mother said –with great conviction– that, had she been a German, she would never have gone along with the Nazis, that she would never have participated or stood by silently.

As I told her at the time, I wish I could be so sure of how I would have behaved. It’s one thing to sit on a couch in a free country and speculate on your response to a situation you don’t face, but when fascism (or any sort of authoritarianism) begins, it’s deceptively easy to convince yourself that this is just a “hiccup”–that really bad things aren’t happening, that the “other guy” would have been as bad or worse.

It’s so tempting to close your eyes to injustices aimed at other people. After all, we have lives to live, errands to run, houses to clean, offices to go to. How many of us would really, actively resist fascist measures that didn’t immediately or directly threaten us or our families?

It appears we are going to get the chance to answer that question.

In the wake of this horrific election and what a Trump Administration portends, every person of good will must resolve right now to be one of the “good Germans,” to be like the people who didn’t go along, who didn’t close their eyes, who didn’t make excuses for the early scapegoating, nativism and bigotry that ultimately enabled genocide.

This is a test. I can only hope we studied for it.


A Really Important History Lesson

At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton highlighted a truly important segment from Rachel Maddow’s show, in which she traces America’s history of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria.

Many readers of this blog are familiar with the broad outlines of America’s nativist history–the periodic eruptions of movements like the Know-Nothings and later, the Klan. But in this explanatory segment, Maddow ties these episodes to the nation’s political history in a way that I, certainly, had never considered, and shows how Donald Trump’s increasingly explicit and ugly fact-free rhetoric fits into that history–and what it means for the Republican party and the American two-party system.

No summary of this extraordinary history lesson could do it justice.

Watch it.

Who’s Driving?

“Who’s driving?” is actually a very scary question.

The New Republic recently ran a first-person account of a Trump rally, written by a creative writing professor who attended out of curiosity. His report on the event–what he heard from attendees and from those hawking paraphernalia–was deeply disturbing, and gave rise to a “chicken and egg” question: Did The Donald create the angry, mean-spirited crowd at that rally? Or did their seething hostility to the various “others” who are his targets create an opening for Trump or someone like him?

This campaign, whose success has long been attributed to the forgotten working and middle classes, the so-called Silent Majority, has been, and always will be, an unholy alliance between the Hateful and the Privileged, the former always on a never-ending search for new venues for their poison and the latter enjoying, for the first time since Reagan’s ’80s, an opportunity to get out and step on some necks in public.

I considered the odd pairing and its implications as I left the lot and turned onto Coliseum Boulevard. Trump can be defeated, and most likely he will be, but elections cannot cure this disease. It’s always been here and perhaps it always will be. Trump’s narcissistic quest to “Make America Great Again” has only drawn the insects to the surface, and there’s plenty of room to wonder whether he’s driving the movement or if it’s driving him.

It is sobering and very depressing to realize that a substantial percentage of Americans reject what really does make America great: our willingness to treat our neighbors as valued fellow-citizens, whether or not they look, pray or love the same way we do. Diversity, inclusion, civic equality….those are the aspects of American culture that most of us (or so I hope) value and embrace.

Of course, America’s commitment to inclusion and equality has always been as fragile as it is laudable.

If you  click through and read Professor Sexton’s article–fittingly titled “American Horror Story”–you enter an America very different from the “can do” nation that has long taken pride in welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The people cheering for Trump aren’t welcoming huddled masses, and they aren’t looking for solutions to America’s problems; they are looking for someone to blame for whatever has gone wrong in their lives.

Trump’s supporters are attracted to his nativism and bluster, his ability to reassure them that whatever “it” is, it isn’t their fault. His appeal lies in his ability to focus their discontents and direct their animosities outward: toward Mexicans or Muslims or women or immigrants. His supporters find his utter ignorance reassuring–there’s no need to know all that mumbo-jumbo about policy and the Constitution and how government works. Just know how to wheel and deal and screw the other guy.

If the nature of his appeal is obvious, the number of voters who will respond to that appeal is not. Less obvious still is an answer to the question posed by the shaken professor who attended the rally: is Trump a cause or an effect? Is he driving this current “know nothing” eruption, or has an increase in nativism and resentment created Trumpism?

And most worrisome of all: how widespread is the Trumpian conviction that making America “great” requires making Americans white and Christian?


Paging Civics Teachers

Where are all the high-school civics teachers when you need them?

During the past few weeks, we have been treated to an absolute bonanza of constitutional ineptitude: we’ve had Dr. Laura explaining her departure from radio as an effort to get her First Amendment rights back; continuation of the ugly, ginned-up controversy over Muslims building a community center three blocks from Ground Zero; and an equally retrograde proposal to eliminate portions of the 14th Amendment, among other embarrassments.

Dr. Laura (whose doctorate, we should recall, is in physiology—not logic, and certainly not law) seems to equate the disapproval of her sponsors with denial of her First Amendment rights. Someone should gently explain to her that the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a limit on government action. It prevents the government from censoring her. Unfair as it may seem to her, her sponsors also have First Amendment rights—and in this case, they have evidently decided to exercise them by disavowing her message.

That’s the problem with those darn constitutional rights—people who disagree with us have them too.

Aside from the southern Congressman who questioned whether Islam is “really a religion,” those who oppose allowing Muslims to build a community center and mosque three blocks from Ground Zero have generally conceded that the Constitution gives them the right to do so. Instead, they have fallen back on what First Amendment lawyers call the “heckler’s veto” argument. The “heckler’s veto” was most prominently used in the 1950s, during the Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King would ask for a permit to make a speech in a public venue, the city or town would argue that allowing the speech was likely to cause a civil disturbance and thus the permit should be denied in order to protect the public’s safety. Courts weren’t receptive to the notion that some people’s rights should be held hostage to other people’s hostility; nevertheless, opponents of the mosque argue that it is “insensitive” and “offensive” to build near the neighborhood where the Twin Towers went down (and just down the street from the Pussycat Lounge strip club).

When we come to proposals to amend the 14th Amendment, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that some of our dimmer political actors have noticed that it exists. It wasn’t all that long ago that a Georgia governor denied that the Bill of Rights applied to the states—a rather clear signal that he hadn’t encountered this particular Amendment. On the other hand, there is something surreal about watching people who claim to revere the Constitution when their own rights are at issue blithely proposing to shred that document when other people are its beneficiaries.

It’s hard to know whether these folks are really constitutionally illiterate or simply playing cynical political games. As one pundit has wryly noted, there are two ways we can understand the meaning of the word “base” in the phrase “playing to the base.”