Late one night in April 1942, the city of Rostok, Germany, erupted into flames. Over four nights, Britain’s Royal Air Force dropped millions of pounds of explosives. Civilians were warned to hide in their basements, but the city’s buildings were incinerated.
Rolf Joachim Mehlhorn, my dad, was not yet two years old. After the second night of bombing, his mom came upstairs from the basement to find their house and everything they owned in embers. With his mom and infant sister, he fled the city for his grandparents’ home in another German city. He remembers the 1940s in snatches: hunger, fear, begging for potatoes, walking through forests with machine guns firing in the distance, and finally arriving in the United States a decade after the bombing of his birth city.
Six years later, my dad became a United States citizen in Ohio, the state where he also earned a degree from Case Western. He went to California, earned a PhD in physics, and met my mom. He became a hardworking America patriot, just like millions of other tired, poor, and huddled masses over the years (including my mom’s grandparents, who fled to America as Jewish refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of greater Russia).
Trump’s Bigotry: Cowardly, Irrational And Dangerous
Donald Trump attacks Muslims and Mexicans, and casts aspersions on Barack Obama’s birthplace, by suggesting that people of these religions and ethnicities are different. Even if they’re residents, or citizens, or elected to high office, they are not really Americans like us.
Throughout, he said that these ideas were pragmatic, rational, and tough, justified by unusual conditions of today. Anyone who disagreed was jeopardizing America because of their slavery to political correctness. Shamefully, some folks backed him in this. For instance, Ian Tuttle of The National Review argues that we have “serious, unbigoted reasons to be wary of a flood of Syrian refugees.”
That claim was and is garbage. Trump’s ideas are not tough, they are not rational, and they would not keep us safe. On the contrary, Trump’s ethnic nationalism is cowardly, irrational, and dangerous.
The starting point is to remember that Trump’s basic arguments have been made against immigrants for most of America’s history. My dad, for instance, was a young male “of fighting age” when he arrived on America’s shores in late 1952. He arrived without money, without his father, and without English. His language, habits, and even his name reeked of a culture widely seen as an existential threat to world peace. Twice in the previous few decades, America had tracked and detained German residents due to suspicions of disloyalty in the midst of total war. And, yes, Germans engaged in massive violence against other Germans — German Jews and non-Jews were killed at scale during the Holocaust. In other words, every argument made by Mr. Tuttle and his fellow travelers against Syrian refugees would have applied, in spades, to bar my father from America.
As for my mom, her grandparents were Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. During that period, nativists such as the Immigration Restriction League waged lobbying and public relations campaigns to bar Eastern European immigrants, arguing that their cultural stock could never fit in America. Jews aroused additional fear for many reasons, including their alleged affinity for violent Communist revolution. Again, Mr. Tuttle’s arguments against Syrians would require no translation to have blocked the entry of my maternal great-grandparents.
Indeed, the logical extension of Trump’s xenophobia would have blocked millions of immigrants from war-torn and culturally suspicious regions of Europe, Mexico, and the Carribean. To name only a few, Mr. Tuttle’s America would have had no Nikola Tesla (Serbian), Ayn Rand (Russian), Stokely Carmichael (Trinidadian), Mario Molina (Mexican), Enrico Fermi (Italian), Albert Einstein (German), or Elon Musk (African) — not to mention children of immigrants, such as Steve Jobs (whose biological father was born in the Syrian city of Homs).
This would not only have been hypocritical and morally tragic — it would have been foolish for our national security. These men and women built our nation’s economy and inventiveness, which has directly translated into military power and security.
Indeed, immigrants help our country’s security by helping us understand and react to threats abroad. As noted by former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa, Syrian refugees “present a unique intelligence opportunity to help prevent a Paris-style attack from occurring here.” Per Rangappa’s argument, this is precisely the type of refugee population that can keep us safe, according to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Xenophobes defend their anti-refugee stances as tough-minded. As Marco Rubio said, “it’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t.” To be fair, Rubio has been the least egregious nativist of the GOP presidential candidates, but his statement gets it exactly wrong. Tribalism is not strong-minded, and xenopobic political stances are not leadership. Immigrants make us strong — they are future American patriots.
Khan Unmasked Trump As Anti-American
The power of Khan’s words, as well as his personal life story and demeanor, exposed the anti-American, anti-patriotic innuendo of Trump’s rhetoric.
The power of Khan’s speech was that he unmasked Trump’s claims for what they were: anti-American hatred. This idea was captured best by prominent conservative Republicans immediately after Khan spoke. For example, former Reagan speechwriter and current Commentary editor John Podhoretz wrote that “The Khizr Khan speech is just going to enrage Trumpkins because somewhere inside, it made them ashamed.” Longtime Republican campaign strategist wrote “I will take the America of Khizr Khan & his fallen son over Trump’s distorted & selfish version every day of the week.” Former Gingrich staffer Rich Galen wrote: “How can it be that I am standing at my kitchen counter sobbing because of the messages being driven at the DNC? Where has the GOP gone?” Republican Josh Barro was most eloquent of all:
We are having an election that is about whether we, as a nation, value people like Khizr and Humayun Khan. Whether they are real Americans. Whether we will define our nation by shared values, as both parties have claimed we do for decades, or by ethnicity, as Donald Trump would have us do.
Of course, Trump supporters object to the claim that this is what Trump wants. Donald Trump is talking only about immigrants living in the US illegally, they say. He’s talking only about barring foreign Muslims. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, may love Trump, but Trump’s fans will insist that the Republican nominee’s politics are distinct from white supremacy.
This is a load of nonsense, as we can all tell by Trump’s attacks on “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo Curiel and by his demands for President Obama’s birth certificate. Trump’s concept of the nation he speaks for is not about values or citizenship or even birthplace. It is about ethnicity.
If you are a white model from Europe, like Antonio Sabato Jr. or Melania Knauss, you are welcome in Trump’s America. If you are a brown or black person, you are suspect, even if you are a citizen, and even if you were born in Indiana or Hawaii (as in the cases of Curiel and Obama).
This is the philosophy of a major-party candidate for president, who has most of his own political party lined up behind him. It is enraging, it is scary, and it is sad. And I cried Friday morning because it was even necessary for someone to stand up at a party convention and explain why that candidate is wrong.
Like Barro, I cried as I watched Khan speak. I cried because of my dad’s residual accent and foreign-sounding name. I cried because I love America, and Trump is attacking it in the ways that matter most. And I cried with gratitude that Khan had unmasked him.
Fortunately, Khan’s faith in America was justified. After the convention, and after Trump’s entanglement with the Khan family, Trump’s standing in the polls plummeted. Large majorities of Americans now say that they won’t vote for Trump, and that they disapproved of his interactions with them. Finally, America appears to be on the brink of standing up to the hatred represented by this bully.