The Tragic Irony of the Trump Campaign

In class earlier this week I read to my Italian students that famous line from our nation’s founding document: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. I asked them very plainly if they could identify the two grand hypocrisies inherent in these famous words. The answers did not take very long at all: in these lofty, oft-repeated lines there is no mention of women, the human beings whose bodies actually perform the work of creating new human beings. And the wombless men who signed this piece of paper owned slaves.

It is not possible to understand our nation’s history or present without first reconciling oneself to the grand hypocrisies with which it was founded. It is not possible to understand America without first acknowledging that we are not simply a nation of immigrants, but at the outset were a nation of invaders, that the Declaration of Independence meant to establish a new nation by first stripping away a native people’s unalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

I believe that recognizing ourselves for who we are and have always been is a necessary first step in becoming the nation that our lofty founding words imagined us to be. And in this present moment I believe we are uniquely equipped to furnish reparations to the peoples our nation has wronged for 240 years and more. This past year has revealed so many sinister, ugly, but pervasive truths in our human nature. But the laying bare of these ugly truths has also fanned so many fervors and fires burning righteously in the name of justice for everyone excluded by our nation’s founding words: indigenous peoples, black Americans, women, queer Americans, the disabled and mentally ill, immigrant families from South and Central America, Asia, the Middle East and basically everywhere that isn’t Europe. The charges continue. But I sincerely believe that this collective righteous energy can become the engine that powers our nation’s long overdue transformation in the years ahead.

However, our first task must be to confront the vile energy that has erupted into our national discourse and politics the world over. In the past year I’ve spent finding a way to Italy and now living here, I’ve found some clarity to how such a vile energy spreads and sustains itself. Nearly 100 years ago, Italian Fascism rose to power by fabricating a toxic national identity from manufactured nostalgia for the glory of Rome and a distorted ideal of the “ethnic Italian.” Today, Donald Trump fuels his campaign with ugly American jingoism. This sentiment is rooted in a self-image of the United States as righteous victor after two world wars. When Trump declares that “we do not win anymore,” he is provoking a nostalgia for this former glory. And in a way he has a point – our military has not had such clarity of victory or moral standing in the decades since we defeated Fascism in Europe. Not in Korea, or Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq.

Whereas Benito Mussolini conjured an ideal of the ethnic Italian as heir to the glory of Rome, Trump conjures an image of the working class, white, heterosexual male of the post war era. [1] He promises his supporters a return to this chimera of glory and prosperity, and in so doing also to drag us deeper into the dark depths of bigotry and bluster in which our nation is so dangerously anchored. He wants to divide and deport families that are American in every sense minus a piece of paper. He wants to shutter our borders and throw money at building a gross symbol of isolationism along our southern border. He wants to prosecute journalists for doing their job and women for exercising control over their bodies. He wants to wildly brandish our military power, and in particular our stockpile of nuclear weapons. Somehow Donald Trump has channeled nostalgia for the days of America the Fascist-Beater into support for Fascism itself. Only seventy years post WWII – a single human lifetime – America in 2016 has become the most tragic kind of Shakespearean character.

Please vote today. But realize also that tonight is neither an ending nor a beginning. The work continues tomorrow and forever after, and our problems are older than we are. My own great-grandfather was conscripted into Mussolini’s Italian army as a teenager in Sicily. But the United States still welcomed him in 1937, and granted him citizenship not long after the war. As we march forward into the next four years, let us not erase the beautiful words housed inside the Statue of Liberty, whose torch first led my family to the city of New York. And let us not forget that whoever wins tonight [2], we must still share our streets and towns and cities in the morning. We must respond to bigotry firmly but also with an abundance of empathy – and those of us for whom the stakes are inherently lower must especially share in carrying the burdens borne by our American brothers and sisters. I voted first for Bernie Sanders and now for Hillary Clinton this election cycle, but all the real work is still yet to come.

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[1] This nefarious promise of whiteness is one of the great conceits in the common romantic notion of America. We describe ourselves as a melting pot, but only immigrants from Europe were melted together to form this new identity of white Americans, who of course enjoy so many artificial privileges denied every other group.

[2] In a previous version of this post I teased in this footnote that my equivocating was facetious and that of course Hillary Clinton would win. Now I realize the extent of my own naivete regarding the depth of racist sentiments in white America – Donald Trump won this demographic by 20 percentage points, men and women…

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