I’ve rarely felt as unsettled by a government decision as I have about President Trump’s decision to suddenly shut America’s door to many refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. We, a nation with a proud history of welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” of welcoming “the tempest-tossed,” have slammed the door on many of the world’s most desperate people ― many of them refugees from war-torn nations. What has happened to the big-hearted America we grew up in?
All this reminds me of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Dr. King criticized the priest and the Levite who passed by a poor man beaten by thieves and left half dead in the road. The priest and the Levite refused to help him, Dr. King explained, because they feared that if they helped that desperate man, something might happen to them. They were too worried about themselves to help another in need. But the Good Samaritan ― in the spirit of humanity, in the spirit of brotherhood ― had compassion for the man left half dead. Jesus hailed the Good Samaritan for rushing to bind the man’s wounds, care for him and carry him to an inn.
Mr. Trump ordered his hugely controversial restrictions on immigration from seven Muslim countries just two days after he announced plans to build a hugely expensive wall, expected to cost nearly $20 billion. With that move, the president got off to an ugly start with Mexico by insulting the Mexican people and picking a fight with our poorer, needier southern neighbor, which wants better relations with the United States.
As John Cassidy of the “New Yorker” magazine wrote,
In a week, Donald Trump has arguably done more damage to (America’s) reputation than any president in history. Bullying neighbors, tearing up international agreements, banning refugees, introducing religious tests for entry, saying he endorses torture. From role model to rogue nation in eight days.
I imagine that many lovers of the American ideal are eager to add one word to Cassidy’s remarks: “SAD!”
In his inauguration address, John F. Kennedy ― who had talked of a New Frontier ― idealistically said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” President Reagan held out America as a Shining City on the Hill, while George H.W. Bush talked of 1,000 points of light ― of all the good, large and small, that millions of Americans do. At his inauguration, George W. Bush also had an uplifting message. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests,” the younger Bush said, adding that “every citizen must uphold” those ideals. During his historic inauguration, Barack Obama said,
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord... The time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history.
But in his inauguration address, Donald Trump chose not our better history, but our worse history, depicting a nation that many of us hardly recognize – a dystopian, doom-tinged place with carnage seemingly everywhere. Yes, the United States has problems with gangs, drugs and shootings, but that is only a small part of our great nation. We’re also a nation of strivers, of builders, of toilers, of idealists ― of those who volunteer at food banks, who build great companies that invent wondrous things, who bravely volunteer to protect our nation, who devote their lives to teaching and inspiring the young. We are the land of the brave and the home of the free. We push ahead, we do not cower. We hold out a welcoming hand, we do not turn our back on the world or the needy.
I saw a moving tweet from James Martin, a Jesuit priest: “We’re banning all Syrian refugees? The men, women and children who ‘most’ need help? What an immoral nation we are becoming. Jesus weeps.” Trump’s executive order evidently violates a Geneva Convention requiring member states to accept refugees fleeing from war.
Emma Lazarus must be turning in her grave. It seems as if we’re a nation turned upside down and inside out. Our president is embracing the authoritarian leader of Russia who many say has been responsible for killing and imprisoning dissidents and journalists. Our new president lost the popular vote by 2.9 million, but is taking pains to avoid governing from the center, all while demonizing those who criticize him. President Trump has named Steve Bannon as a senior adviser; the former publisher of Breitbart ran a Website that spent years demonizing President Obama and distorting his record. But now Bannon tells the media it should keep its mouth shut if it’s going to criticize President Trump. What a perverse view of the First Amendment and of the media’s role in holding those in power accountable. Sad that Bannon, much like a Soviet apparatchik, values propaganda far more than he does truth and accuracy. Sad that Mr. Trump ― whom fact checkers have found utters a higher percentage of falsehoods than any politician they’ve ever encountered – has the chutzpah to call the nation’s two greatest newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, “dishonest.” Shameful and SAD!
Trump and Bannon lash out at those who criticize the President, but let’s not forget what Teddy Roosevelt once said: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the public Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”
As I said, we’re in a topsy-turvy world, which means all the more that we need a robust, unfettered, unintimidated press to keep those in power from constructing a distorted reality of “alternative facts,” of building a “1984”-like world where two plus two equals five. Trump has named as education secretary someone who disdains public schools, a labor secretary who has denounced many regulations that seek to improve the lives of workers, an environmental protection administrator who has filed lawsuit after lawsuit to eviscerate regulations that protect the environment.
Many people I know say their biggest worry is for their children and their children’s children. They ask what kind of model is being set by a president who is bombastic, bullying, impulsive, dishonest and frequently uncaring and callous, who often traffics in fear and dark urges. Where is the optimism of Reagan, the youthful confidence of JFK, the careful deliberativeness of Eisenhower, the big-heartedness of FDR, the thoughtfulness of Obama, or Teddy Roosevelt’s hunger to take on concentrated power and battle for the little guy. In contrast, Trump, in his first few days, has shown himself obsessed with the size of his inauguration crowd and with the unsubstantiated tweets of a conspiracy theorist who insists there were three million illegal voters.
We all hope President Trump will learn from, and be inspired, by his illustrious predecessors. We all want his presidency to boost America’s poor and middle-class, to lift the U.S. and other nations and to assure peace in the world. It would be great if President Trump took to heart the wisdom of our nation’s greatest Republican and greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, who underlined the importance of acting “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”