Authors: Joshua L. Miller, PhD, Hannah Karpman, PhD, and Crystal Hayes, MSW
“Who is This America?”*
“Who is this America?” The answer to this question can be tightly tied to our individual socio cultural identities, and the experience of those identities in this country. To be sure, there are many answers and narratives to this question and the range of answers speak to the complexity of understanding who is this America today. On the optimistic side of the spectrum, the U.S. is a beacon of hope and liberty, a safe haven to many immigrants from all parts of the world, symbolized by the words etched on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Building on these aspirational words, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated national quotas and focused on skills, family relationships with those already in the U.S. while also explicitly affirming the importance of receiving refugees. But this narrative represents only part of the reason that the U.S. today is probably the most ethnically diverse nation in the world.
There is also the truth of U.S. history. The U.S. is founded on the genocide, dispossession, and brutal and evil subjugation of the Indigenous native peoples who populated North America. The cruel enslavement of people from Africa quickly became a defining institution and maimed the U.S., which all the while claimed to adhere to principles of liberty, freedom and human rights. This scar grew through “Jim and Jane Crow” and persists to this day through institutional racism such as mass incarceration, the wealth gap, and education inequity. People from China and Japan were barred from entering the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, based on federal law (The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and Presidential executive actions (The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907). Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were forced to register and were placed in internment camps during World War II. During the “Great Depression,” up to 2 million Mexican Americans were forcibly deported and repatriated to Mexico, the majority of them American citizens. During World War II, the US intentionally closed its borders to Jews, who were being systematically exterminated. Throughout U.S. history there have been acts of cruelty (and to use a word preferred by Donald Trump) carnage, and exclusion perpetrated by the government and people (mainly white people) towards citizens, residents, and immigrants (particularly people of color).
Donald Trump’s First Week in Office
We offer these competing and contradictory narratives as we briefly review Donald Trump’s first week in office as President. Mainly through the use of executive orders, he has abrogated the Trans Pacific Partnership and threatened to do the same with NAFTA, alarming and alienating two of America’s biggest trade partners, China and Mexico. His order to build a wall with Mexico led to the cancellation of a state visit by President Enrique Pena Nieto. He also greased the wheels to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and with it health care for over 20 million people. He reinstituted the “global gag order” against funding international aid groups that either discuss or perform abortions. He threatened to withhold federal aid from “sanctuary cities,” that have pledged to resist his efforts to deport immigrants. He stated that he would like to bring back torture. And perhaps most frighteningly, he consolidated the power to decide this to a group of unelected advisors by restructuring the National Security Council (NSC) to exclude high-level career intelligence officials and to include Steve Bannon a combative alt-right leader and favorite of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with very little military and no government experience. This is of grave concern. The NSC controls a secret panel that has the power to assassinate anyone (including American citizens) that they believe to be a threat to the United States, without due process. They do not have to follow traditional legal channels of accountability. Thus far, Bannon has demonstrated his influence and power within the administration and Trump appears to want to consolidate it further while brushing aside traditional intelligence and military institutions. These are but a few of the troubling recent highlights of Trump's first 10 days.
Trump also became obsessed with two lies that he has consistently perpetuated and that are echoed by his enablers, such as Kellyanne Conway (who introduced us the notion of “alternative facts”), press spokesman Sean Spicer, and Fox news. The first is that he drew huge crowds to his inauguration, which all independent sources refute and the second is that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton, without a shred of evidence to support this claim. He is even planning to establish an investigation to prove his spurious point. His closest advisor, Steve Bannon, lambasted the mainstream media, telling them to “shut-up” and declaring them irrelevant.
So what we were left with after but a few days of his presidency were attempts to intimidate and muzzle the press, create a reality based on “alternative facts,” and an “America First” ideology that is rooted in white supremacy and is really a white Christian Americans first creed. This was a prelude to Trump’s executive order on January 27 that blocked all immigration from seven nations (Iraq (our ally!), Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. He also has proposed “extreme vetting,” where priority for immigration will be given to Christians over Muslims. Not only does this policy cruelly separate families, betraying the ideals and values engraved on the Statue of Liberty, but it is a regression to the worst tendencies of U.S. history; targeting and excluding people because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. Given how Trump has quickly enacted executive orders that align with his campaign promises, does registration of Muslims lurk around the corner? When we consider the opposing narratives of “who is this America,” Trump has clearly aligned himself with the dystopian, fear-mongering, divisive narrative of exclusion of those who he designates as “the other.” He has, and continues, to closely follow the promises he made on the campaign trail. There is no longer a reason to doubt his intentions. We must anticipate his next steps, and respond accordingly.
The role of Leadership, Metaphor, Public Emotions and Discourse
Most people are good people and most people want to trust their leaders. Thus leaders carry an immense burden and a great deal of power over how people think, understand and act. Leaders can inspire or incite, heal or harm, bring together or divide, offer hope or hate, and encourage collaboration of confrontation. Through Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, the use of words such as “carnage” and “crooked” “illegal” and “criminal” to describe people, geographic regions (like cities) groups or nations that he is at odds with, he promotes a public discourse of fear, animosity, scapegoating, and pessimism – and presents himself as the only person who can protect and save people. This discourse of denigration is accompanied by an emotional tone of selfishness (America first), lacking compassion and empathy for those categorized as different, and a fortress, bunker mentality that justifies marginalization, harassment, torture, and other acts of brutality. If Trump was basing his concern about protecting Americans on facts, not alternative facts, he would be considering how to protect us from the usual perpetrators of mass violence in this nation: armed white men and right-wing extremists.
How to Respond
It is tempting to focus on Trump’s inadequacies – e.g. his limited vocabulary, his lack of interest in history or facts, his tendency to dissemble and lie, his mercenary business practices, and his bullying bearing. We too are concerned by these tendencies and have at times written in response to them. Trump’s appeals to fear and his hostile and aggressive behavior understandably triggers a sense of threat and unease for many people, including us. But will responding with ad hominin critiques about the small size of his mind or hands really alter the arc of an authoritarian Trump presidency? Will this approach change the views of people who tolerated all of these inadequacies and more during the presidential campaign? Will Trump ever listen to and reflect on this critiques and modify his behavior? We believe that the answer to these questions is no. Thus we propose the following.
Appeal to those who can stop him (Republicans), and hold them accountable for doing so
The Republican Party has claimed to stand for certain principles – e.g. free trade, traditional adherence to American values, limited national government, limited use of executive orders, personal responsibility and accountability. But in Trump’s first week in office it seems that being “giddy” with power trumps any adherence to principles. However, in recent days, we have begun to see glimmers of Republican concern about Donald Trump, particularly from leaders like John McCain and Lindsay Graham. We urge people to focus not on Trump, who we believe is unreachable, but Republican office holders who want to remain in office. Let them know they will be held accountable for their actions and that you see them as responsible for allowing Trump to implement his ideals. Call and express support to those who challenge Trump’s agenda. Explain that you do not see Trump as separate from the Republican Party, and that you are counting on Republican leadership to curtail his power. Call (rather than email) their office as this is more effective. Network. Who do you know who is a constituent of a powerful Republican leader? Do you know someone in Wisconsin (Paul Ryan) Arizona (John McCain) California (Kevin McCarthy)? Senators will listen to their constituents, their voters. Strategy matters. Tap into local organizations – for us this means local chapters of the National Association of Social Workers – and demand they take public positions against hateful and destructive policies. Out those that are complicit with letters to local newspapers. Mobilize to defeat them in two years if they continue their embrace of Trump. And do the same with Democrats – let them know that you expect stiff resistance to Trump-world.
Continue to Demonstrate
As Trump continues his cacophony of catastrophizing and his onslaught against reason and reason, the danger is that his behavior and outlandish policies become normalized. These are not normal times and we must make that clear. As Gloria Steinem said at the Million Women March, there are times when we must go beyond emails and put our bodies on the line, through protests, demonstrations and non-violent civil disobedience. Some demonstrations will be well-organized and others spontaneous; all should be peaceful but unrelenting. Keep the heat on!
Show up as a Witness
If a policy intervention is going to be implemented, be there to watch it and draw attention to it. If someone is being detained, show up. If a court hearing is scheduled, be present. Share information about times and places of important events. We have seen this happen with demonstrations at airports against Trump’s immigration ban.
Be informed and fact-based
Become familiar with the Constitution, laws, policies, history and use them to counter the disinformation campaigns that Trump is promulgating. Monitor the media as well as politicians and let them know that you are knowledgeable and are reading, watching and care about truth.
Join organizations and hold the ones that you are members of accountable
It is hard to weather this onslaught on human dignity and decency on our own. And a lone voice is amplified when we shout in unison “this is what democracy looks like.” The silver lining in the nightmare of a Trump presidency is that it is stimulating collective activism. Whether it is opposing the overall Trump regime or resisting a specific agenda, such as targeting Muslims, do it with others!
And for those of us who belong to local or national organizations, ask yourself what you are hearing from them about countering the Trump assault. And if you are not hearing from them, ask them why and tell them what you would like them to say. Unions, professional associations, political organizations, environmental groups, advocacy groups, trade associations, civic organizations, human rights monitoring groups, civil rights organizations – the list goes on - together form the tapestry of resistance.
Register as Muslims
Given Trump’s track record thus far, we should expect that registering Muslim and Arab Americans is on the horizon. In Billings, Montana in the early 1990’s there was a rash of swastikas and racial slurs that appeared in town. The response was to have most households place menorahs in their window to demonstrate solidarity and oneness with those being targeted. The message was clear: “not in our town!” If a Muslim registry is flooded with people saying that we are all Americans and we are all in this together we will be saying “not in our country.”
There has been great concern about Trump not revealing his income taxes while campaigning and not divesting himself of his many business holdings. This means that there are a lot of Trump products that can be targeted. Boycott any products that belong to him and put stores on notice that they will be subject to boycotts if they carry them. Boycott companies that donated to his inauguration. A list can be found here. Demonstrate outside of his hotels. Boycotting South Africa was a major strategy to dismantle the apartheid regime – it worked!
Who is this America? This is what is at stake with a Trump presidency. Thus far he is acting like an authoritarian despot who creates his own reality, seizes power without a mandate, pits one group of people against others, and stokes hate and scapegoating. We have been here before, both domestically and abroad, and the majority of people in this country, who voted against him by a margin of nearly three million votes, do not share his venal vision of a totalitarian fortress America. This is our America, shared by many people with a range of cultural traditions, religious beliefs and skin hues. The power to define and achieve our America is in our open hearts, thoughtful minds and collectively big hands. The majority of us affirm the ethic of caring, compassion and love that guides our lives – the very thing that Trump seeks to negate. He will fail—we must ensure it.
*Title of an album by the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra