What America Does Trump See?

An American Flag in the early morning light near a levee on the Mississippi River.
An American Flag in the early morning light near a levee on the Mississippi River.

Charlottesville, Houston, the Border Wall, Human Rights, Women’s Clinics, Poverty, Wealth, Education, Illiteracy, Homelessness, Emergency Responders, Transgender, Gay, White, Black, Native American, Farm Workers, Reporters, Steel Workers, Stoop Labor, Unemployed, Military Service, Government Service, Disabled, Olympians, Representative Government, Hate, Happiness, Fear, Hope, Caring, Hubris, Depression, Optimism, Miracle Drugs, Killing Drugs, Neighborhoods of Joy, Communities of Lost Spirits, Safety, Isolation, Tragedy, and Heroes.

All of these and a myriad other descriptors define who we are and what we experience within ourselves and as citizens bound by one Constitution and the rule of law. We feel what we are, and we try to feel what others are feeling, what others are going through. We are grateful for not experiencing that which has been unjustly or at least unfairly placed on the shoulders of our fellow Americans to bear as best they can.

We are such a strange, diverse, and wonderful nation, powered by an engine of dreams created 250 years ago, fueled by the blood, toil, sweat, and deaths of patriots and foes alike, and headed toward a destination still uncertain, but awaiting us nonetheless… on the distant horizon… forever, tantalizingly, out of our present reach. One has only to look at the images flowing out of Houston and Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana to begin to understand the deep well of human kindness from which Americans draw the strength to help others in dire straits even when they, themselves, have lost everything. The churning waters of destruction — devastating as they have been — are already yielding to the indomitable will of an army of friends, neighbors, strangers and leaders who refuse, in the American tradition, to accept defeat.

It is, I am convinced, our empathy, or highly sensitive natures ― hard-wired into all but the most sociopathic, psychopathic, or otherwise damaged human beings ― that makes first responders rush toward danger, that spurs hundreds of men and women with boats to rescue total strangers, that motivates helicopter crews to press the very limits of man and machine to pluck children out of danger, that causes a random collection of men and women—of all colors—to form a human chain to bridge floodwaters and guide a hapless stranger to safety.

We are good people. We are. Goodness is not about professing a faith or belonging to a charitable organization or serving in uniform or building houses for others. Those things are artifacts of goodness. They are pretty facades hung on a sound framework of goodness. Goodness is what you are when no one is looking. It is who you are behind the scenes.

So where is the dichotomy?

A dark mirror reflecting all of what just was described shows another America—a tiny subset of people to be sure—who for some reason still unfathomable to me, refuse to engage in the bigger story of our best hopes and aspirations. The neo-Nazis, the skin heads, the hate mongers, those who celebrate ignorance and demean knowledge, the intolerant and the black-hearted, the bullies and their silent enablers, those on the far left and the far right who simply will not accept the idea that compromise is what life itself—not just politics—is all about.

I saw too much ugliness as a kid in the deep South in the early ’60s: “White Only” this and “White Only” that. Lynchings not far from home; fear in the faces of the few black people I saw; and revulsion in the eyes of whites when they passed a black person on the street. I wasn’t just looking at the world as it was; I was seeing the world as it had been for generations, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “For how much longer can we do this to ourselves?”

Now, Donald Trump and are I about the same age—he’s got three years on me, but that’s not so much. The America I saw as a boy was the same America he was living in—but we did not see it through the same lenses. The America I saw was in dire need of change, was in conflict with itself, was eating itself alive and needed leaders who would arrest the downward spiral. The America Mr. Trump saw was sanitized and all ugliness and truth of the human condition was removed from his sight. Concrete and steel and boardrooms and deals formed his mindset and skillset. Leadership to Trump meant winning bare-knuckle fights. Inequality, poverty, injustice, racism, human frustration and broken spirits formed my mindset, and led me to writing and reporting and raising my children to see through the clear glass of possibilities for every man, woman and child.

Mr. Trump can write all the million-dollar checks he wants (presuming he actually sends them) to help veterans or the hurricane victims in Houston, but my suspicion is that he is assuming a gift of gold equates to a gift from the heart and will be seen as a noble deed. It is not and will not. Gilt cannot cover guilt. His is a selfish act because he does not understand the America the rest of us have come to love and are willing to fight for with more than money. it must be fought for with honest, compromise-possible leadership. I would love to know, for example, how many transgender first responders in uniform were wading in Houston’s waters, or hoisting infants to helicopters or making sure food and water were being delivered to those in need? And how many gays, Hispanic-Americans (even Mexicans), Dreamers, Muslims, and people with disabilities were volunteering when they themselves were in danger of losing everything?

The dichotomy between the America of greatness and inclusiveness, and the America Mr. Trump sees, must not dissuade us from our daily fight to beat back the ugly waters of hatred and seek new leaders who get who we are, who believe in us, and will help us achieve the high ground of righteousness for all.

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