Americans have always prided themselves on our no-person-left-behind ethic. We show willingness to sacrifice selfish needs to uphold a greater principle of community. In the face of adversity, real Americans choose courage over cowardliness. For them, compassion conquers fear.
I miss that America.
Donald Trump’s xenophobic, paranoid nativist rhetoric was already alarming by now, a few weeks before the presidential election. But the way he and his campaign reacted after a bomb plot and explosion in New York City and New Jersey this past weekend represented an attempt to make a fearful retreat from core American values, like someone tossing children and the elderly off the lifeboat to have more food and water for himself and his cringing cronies.
Trump’s method for convincing people to go along with doing what they know is fundamentally anti-American — and just plain evil — involves scaring voters with a constant barrage of lies and exaggerations. The fact that this propaganda is so effective is especially sad, because the nation that once stood up to bullies like Hitler, Castro and Khrushchev is now falling into goose-step behind a home-grown bully who seems afraid of everything that isn’t part of his entitled life, who responds to his irrational fears the way a child does.
Trump’s remarks the past few days — using the suspected bomber to illustrate the need for restricting Muslims’ rights — demonstrate his inability to offer any evidence to support his rhetoric of fear. “This isn’t only a matter of terrorism, but also a matter of quality of life,” Trump said Wednesday in Toledo. “We want to make sure we’re only admitting those into our country who support our values and love — and I mean love — our people.” After the bombing, he said that “you’re going to profile people that maybe look suspicious” and that “we have no choice,” though he claims, implausibly, that doesn’t mean racial profiling.
Let’s just look at the logic. Suspected bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami was a child when he came to the United States from Afghanistan; he has been a U.S. citizen since 2011. Trump’s “extreme vetting” would not have kept him out. His father, who professed anti-Taliban sentiments, contacted the FBI two years ago, naming his son as a possible terrorist, and authorities found nothing to arrest him for then. The really disturbing question we don’t want to ask is how someone raised in the United States for 16 years, who graduated from high school and attended community college here, can turn against all our values. But the answer will probably have nothing to do with Islam. “Lone wolf” terrorists of any religion usually turn out to be motivated by isolation or — as in the case of Dylann Roof, the accused mass murderer in last year’s church shooting in Charleston, S.C. — mental illness. Too often, we blame Islam when people of color are accused of a crime, and look for other excuses when whites are.
This fear-based thinking was echoed by Donald Trump Jr., who on Monday tweeted a photograph of a bowl of Skittles and the caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
The tweet left me more worried about our educational problem than our refugee problem. Trump Jr. failed to capitalize Skittles, a brand name — surprising for someone whose whole career involves maintaining the Trump brand (or is that the “trump” brand?). The punctuation is wrong, leaving the message to start with a sentence fragment of the kind corrected in elementary school grammar classes. The photo of the Skittles was taken by a former refugee from Cyprus and used by Trump without payment, even though it was copyrighted. So Trump Jr. condemns refugees while exploiting them — and his math is as bad as his grammar. According to a report last week from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion in any given year. That means you’d have to eat 68.7 million handfuls of Skittles before you found Trump Jr.’s poisoned one.
But his father wants us to cower under the beds based on those odds. And to protect us, he advocates exactly what the terrorists advocate: dismantling the Constitution. A few days after the New York and New Jersey bombings, Trump grumbled that freedom of expression and freedom of the press contributed to the spread of terrorism in the United States. He claims he supports freedom of the press, but he also stated that we should not allow certain people to sell magazines: “Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech,’” Trump complained. “These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
Trump continued his attack on the Constitution by announcing Wednesday that he’d like to see a return of the “stop and frisk” policing policy to end violence in black communities. “They see somebody that’s suspicious, they will profile,” Trump said. “Look what’s going on: Do we really have a choice? We’re trying to be so politically correct in our country, and this is only going to get worse.” In other words, he endorses unreasonable searches without probable cause based on the color of one’s skin. The theory seems to be, “If you’re black, you’re probably guilty of something.” Justifying his stance, he cited his ally Rudy Giuliani’s policy as New York mayor: “In New York City, it was so incredible, the way it worked.” But the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 12 years of stop-and-frisk had little effect on crime, managing only to anger black residents, who were disproportionately targeted. Even more to the point, a federal judge found the policy unconstitutional.
All of this hateful talk from one of the two people with a realistic chance of becoming the next president has an effect. According to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, there were about 260 hate crimes against Muslims last year — the most since 2001, and a 78 percent increase from 2014. Researches have concluded that there might be a “Trump effect” in which his anti-Muslim rhetoric encourages hate crimes against Muslims. In the days immediately after Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entry to the United States, they found an overall 87.5 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims.
Most Americans are familiar with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous 1933 “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural address. But the full quote was an even starker warning: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Fear, Roosevelt said, causes us to retreat from our duty rather than advance our causes.
This year, we are in danger of retreating from building the America we’re all supposed to be proud of, one that protects all and offers equal opportunity to all. The fact that the fear that sends some of us scuttling away is “unreasoning” and “unjustified” makes us cowards. Cowards abandon principles at the first sign of danger and look for witches to burn — or foreigners to blame. The common wisdom is that we are at our most divisive time since the Civil War, divided by differences in starkly contrasting political beliefs. That’s not true. We aren’t divided by political ideology as much as split between those blindly hoping for a savior and those rationally selecting a leader.
Compassion and courage are what makes America great, not hate and fear.