In an era when it seems that there is little agreement on many things that define the identity of the United States as a people and as a country, have we discovered something to agree on? That Donald Trump’s ideas and approach are un-American?
Pretty much every major news outlet and elected leader from either major American party, along with most of the leaders of the nations around the world, reacted with uncommonly united horror at Mr. Trump’s latest suggestion to ban Muslims from entering the United States until our security threats subsided at home.
The emerging consensus among the powers that be is that Mr. Trump’s approach, ideas, and values are un-American. Who knew he was such a uniter of opinion?
At the risk of appearing to be defending Mr. Trump, it might be worth asking (if the above is true) why his poll numbers are so high? Do such vast swaths of Americans not know what it means to be an American?
Maybe he is very American in a couple of key ways that, for all of our sakes, are worth pondering.
For one, in spite of all of our recent public veneer of openness and inclusivity in this Country that his remarks seemingly contradict, the fact is that America has never been shy about targeting unpopular or inconvenient groups.
For awhile it was very unpopular to support the British Crown in colonial days. But that was a long time ago, true. We have frequently vilified the wealthy, then and now. The Catholics were held in deep, deep suspicion (being told not to apply for jobs) for at least a century on our shores. For awhile no one liked the Irish until we all decided that we really loved their beer.
It was very uncomfortable during a couple of World Wars to have a German last name or accent in this country. Or to appear Asian in the same eras. We have gone through a variety of waves of xenophobia depending upon how bad things were getting here at home.
Of course there is the uncomfortable historical fact of African (and other types) of slavery here. And lest we think we’ve gotten over that one, it would be good to review the recent difficulties in Ferguson.
The Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to sterilize the mentally handicapped “for the protection and health of the state” because they were less than fully human (see Buck vs Bell, 1927). Nevermind the unborn, the immigrants, the elderly who, once they get too expensive, are forgotten in crummy nursing homes and left to die. On the list goes.
In every era, Americans seem to just require a group of people to unite against or to neglect. And, by the way, it would be hard to find any empire or society in history that did not have the same problem- it’s not unique to the U.S. Every time we think we have outgrown this tendency, a public spokesperson for it always seems to emerge. Witness Mr. Trump.
But I actually think that the deeper strain of American life that Mr. Trump and his candidacy seem to capture well, especially because it could be argued that Americans have always tried to OUTGROW so much of the above (which I guess is the point of many of his fiercest critics), would be the part of our culture that just loves a good entertainer.
The American political scene has frequently been characterized by appeals not so much to reason (that would never work), but instead to emotion and rhetoric. Once upon a time, people would make a Sunday afternoon out of picnics to the public park to watch political candidates, local and national, go at it with each other often in the most verbally bloody of ways, because it was entertaining. It’s what politicians did, and it’s what the crowds loved. Rhetoric is as old as organized society itself. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is still mild compared to some of the American campaigns of the 19th Century, for example.
Today, people watch football. Hours and hours of it. And we gorge ourselves on every manner of sensory overload, and emotional lunacy that we possibly can. This is what drives modern society and consumption. Today it is the scope and volume that are higher than ever, but the tactics and content are all the same.
Mr. Trump is an entertainer, in good old American fashion. And once in awhile, we do elect such people, and with mixed results to be sure.
His campaign is another season of “The Apprentice.” And, right now, watching the Republican field of candidates try to take him on is a bit like watching the poor guy in the corner of the living room who is trying to talk when the football game is on TV. No one cares- they cannot un-glue their eyes from the spectacle of a fight.
In the end, Mr. Trump and his candidacy are the epitome of one thing Americans will likely never let go of: the right to say anything, even if it’s outlandish, and to spend a ton of money doing it. That’s not much different than much of the major news media, or corporate America to be honest.
His candidacy needs to run its course. If it is an entertainer that we all want to attempt to govern us ungovernable people, then we should elect him and deal with the consequences. If not, then we should turn off the TV and let him yell in the darkness to himself.
But that would be pretty un-American of us to be sure. Which means we are probably still in for a long season.