There is something uncomfortably “American” about the phenomenon of Donald Trump. I’m not the first to recognize this. It is, nevertheless, something we as a people should acknowledge, and then, hopefully, reject.
A few months ago, a young academic appeared with MSNBC’s Ali Velshi and was asked to comment on President Trump’s tepid response to the murder of 49 Muslims in New Zealand, on March 15. “Trump is a bigot!” the academic exclaimed, then added (describing Trump’s response), “it’s un-American!” as if that followed.
Trump’s attacks on a free press and an independent judiciary are, recognizably, un-American, yet his bigotry fits us all too well, unfortunately. Throughout the nation’s history, Euro-Americans voiced religious-ethnic biases, and created policy from them. As recently as the mid 1830s, George Catlin, painter of American Indians and considered a champion of Indian causes, wrote: “The tribes of the red men of North America, as a nation of human beings, are on their wane … the traveler who would see these people in their native simplicity and beauty, must need be hastily on his way to the prairies and Rocky Mountains, or he will see them only as they are now seen on the frontiers, as a basket of dead game.”
Native Americans were slated to extinction, Catlin said, because Americans regarded them as “a nation of savages.” He implored Christian missionaries to travel quickly to places where they could convert “unspoiled” natives and thus prove “to the world that the poor Indian is … a human and humane being, that he is capable of improvement.”
Slavery (America’s “Peculiar Institution” ) was similarly rationalized. Enslaving Africans provided a route to Christianity and civilization (the two considered synonymous). Civilizing will take a while, but “Americanization” was considered redemptive. Later in the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Jewish and Greek immigrants faced the nation’s meager estimation of them. From the mid 19th to the early 20th century, in fact, immigrant groups were greeted with exclusion acts, social revulsion, intolerance and, ultimately, nation-based immigration quotas that limited their numbers. So ethno-religious bias is part of our fabric. We can’t dismiss it as “un-American.”
However, we can recognize that from the nation’s beginnings another America also was envisioned, and fought for. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, an 18th century immigrant from France, asked in “Letters of an American Farmer” (his classic account of the nation at its founding): “What then is the American?” His answer: “He is … that strange mixture of blood you will find in no other country. ... Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race …, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
A few years later, George Washington, the nation’s first president, visited Newport, R.I., at the request of its emerging Jewish community, who feared religious bigotry. In a letter to community leaders, he said:
“The Citizens of the United States of America ... all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For … the United States, … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
For the next two centuries, Americans fought to secure this nation that “gives to bigotry no sanction.” We fought through slave uprisings; a Civil War; Reconstruction; the national NAACP; the free press, including the black press; the Second World War; the courts; Montgomery (and other) boycotts; the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements; amended immigration laws; the United Farm Workers union; the American Indian Movement (AIM): the Women’s movement; Stonewall and the LGBTQ movement; reparations to Japanese-Americans; the election of Barack Obama; and much more.
Trump’s moral corruption threatens to unravel this nation and obliterate the possibilities James Baldwin evoked in his book, “The Fire Next Time:”
“America, of all the western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity. ... This is because white Americans have supposed ‘Europe’ and ‘Civilization’ to be synonymous — which they are not — and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself… What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to Western achievements, and transform them.”
Who we are, where we have been, and what we will be, remain, as ever, in our hearts and hands. Where do we go from here?
Leslie Kelen, Salt Lake City, is a child of Holocaust survivors and the author/editor of five books, including “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement”