It is inconceivable to me that my mother would have approved of Trump, though as an inveterate gambler, she once liked him for his casinos. My only question is not whether she’d be furious at him, but how sad, as well. Next to her family, she loved America the most, and I think Trump would have broken her heart. He is the most un-American of all American presidents, a boorish man who has erased the distance between the mob and the speaker. He is both at the same time.
My mother had dark memories. Her very first was of hunger, of a childhood in Poland during World War I, of feasting on the single potato my grandmother filched from a field. She remembered the loaf of bread secreted at the top of a chest of drawers and how the household’s children boosted one another up so they could sneak a quick bite. She remembered when the communists rode into town and “liberated” the food warehouse and how, sometime later, the Polish army returned and executed the liberators. She remembered pogroms and then the voyage to America, a shampoo in steerage with urine to kill head lice and then, off in the distance, the Statue of Liberty.
Trump’s call for congresswomen to “go back” would have chilled her. Back? Back to that? It’s not as though deportations didn’t happen. In 1919, 249 so-called radicals, including Emma Goldman, were deported to Russia. They had been incarcerated on Ellis Island, of all places, and then loaded on an old tub of a ship, the USS Buford. On his way to becoming FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover had reportedly witnessed Goldman’s deportation himself, probably as a taunting goodbye. Hoover hated Goldman, whom he called “the most dangerous woman in America.” She believed in free speech and free love. Hoover believed in neither.
Trump, too, has a problem with free speech. He thinks American critics of the United States ought to keep their mouths shut. This is something he has never done in his entire life, but he has come to see himself as the personification of the nation. “Treason,” as some of his supporters yelled at a recent North Carolina rally, is any criticism of America. Un-Americanism is pointing out where this country falls short. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has been a consistent critic. For Trump, she is the perfect foil: Muslim, radical, a woman, dark-skinned and an immigrant from Somalia. It is she, above all, who Trump and his supporters want to send back. It is she and people like her who, in fact, need the support of political leaders. Trump, though, is the president of white people.
Trump apologists who measure morality by basis points celebrate the vibrant economy. They say he has made a difference — lower taxes, fewer regulations — that will not only endure but provide economic guidance for future administrations. Many of them also believe Trump is a passing cloud on the American horizon. He casts a dark shadow, but soon the sun will shine. America will revert to America. The special character of Americans will make sure this happens.
Others wonder and worry. They look not to U.S. history and its periodic dark moments, but to the European experience and the sudden emergence of fascism. It is this example that is so troubling about the rally in North Carolina. It was so fundamentally not American. It was fundamentally so European. It was fundamentally so ugly.
My mother had seen crowds like that. She had seen that kind of hatred and her America was the antidote. It was racist, yes, and anti-Semites held public office and radio microphones. But America welcomed her and made her feel secure. Now, new immigrants are shaken. Now, expressions of hate are routine. When my mother arrived, her father, who had immigrated years earlier, greeted her with a bright orange, a fitting symbol of America. I like to think it caught the sun. I fear now the sun is gone.