Friday, November 4, 2016

Donald Trump, my Grandfather, and Tuesday

When I think about how to vote on Election Day this year, I’ll be wearing a number of different hats.  Each of them, in different ways, will shape my decision.
I will vote as an historian, someone who spends a lot of time thinking, teaching, writing, and reflecting on the past.  The "history repeats itself" line that is often deployed to justify the study of the past is a little simplistic.  
However, historians can use knowledge and critical thinking to evaluate how convergences of ideas and practices in other times and places have led to particular outcomes.  We can think about which of those variables are peculiar to that time and place, and which we can see emerging for similar reasons elsewhere.  We can understand human motivations and behavior with reference to their social, cultural, and economic contexts.
When I listen to Donald Trump, I think of the 1930s.  I don't mean that Donald Trump is equivalent to Hitler.  I'm not saying he's a Nazi or that he will send Jews (or anyone else) to the gas chamber.
But I would argue that Trump possesses many of the attributes of a fascist, and that this should worry us.  Trump is an ethnic nationalist, who claims that not all people possess the full attributes of citizenship.  He claims that some people should not be able to serve in certain capacities because of their race or religion, and has argued that some Americans, on the basis of their religion, should bear--privately or publicly--markers that identify them as a kind of internal menace to their fellow citizens.  
He is a militaristic, jingoistic nationalist, who believes in American exceptionalism.  He might not use the word, but this is what he means when he describes how our country should be able to bomb, plunder, murder, and torture with impunity.  The irony that a "law and order" candidate should possess this view, as well as so much contempt for courts and the checks of democracy, is one that Trump shares with fascists of the 1930s.
He also shares their vitriol toward international institutions and frameworks, their threats to suppress media, their cult of personality, and their combination of populist rhetoric with plutocratic economics.
Finally, Trump shares fascists' disdain for democratic politics when it does not yield the desired results.  He has insinuated that his supporters should assassinate his opponent, has refused to say that he will respect the results of the election, and is running a campaign staffed by people who have called for a constitutional crisis or a bloodbath if Trump loses.
Trump shares broad policy characteristics with the variety of fascists of interwar Europe, and also many similarities when it comes to political culture.  While this does not mean that under Trump the United States would become a nation of death camps and Gestapo raids, it suggests that he could do significant and lasting damage to our national social fabric, which endures because of at least a rhetorical commitment to universally applicable laws and values.
So I am voting against Donald Trump because he represents a resurgence of an identifiable threat that has the capacity to engulf our nation and our world in conflict.
My second hat is as the grandson of an undocumented immigrant.  Donald Trump, of course, would prefer the term "illegal."  He refers to people like my grandfather, who came to the U.S alone as a teenager to make a better life for himself as an "Illegal," as though the entire existence of this man should be summed up by a single action.
To Donald Trump, it doesn't matter that my grandfather was not then and never has been a scrounger.  It doesn't matter to him that my grandfather labored in fields before finding his way to Oakland, where he worked for a railroad company, married into a family of Mexican Americans, and became a father to six children, while paying taxes and earning the respect of everyone he met in his life.
It doesn't matter to Donald Trump that after my grandmother died, my grandfather--with the support of his extended family--raised his younger children as a single parent.  It doesn't matter that he helped to equip his children with the means and the confidence and the support network to pursue successful lives, whether that meant following him into a union job for the railroad, entering the classroom in a pre-school, middle-school, or college, or any one of the other paths to success and fulfillment that my mother and her siblings found.
It doesn't matter to Donald Trump that my grandfather helped to create a family woven into the fabric of his community or that he labored with solidarity for those who shared his trade.  It doesn't matter that he remarried around the time of his retirement, that he and my nana travelled the world, that he stayed connected through visits to his family in El Salvador to his roots.  It doesn’t matter that he has been a far better example of good citizenship and strong values to his grandchildren than the likes of Donald Trump, a man who exploits others, doesn’t pay his taxes, and talks in vicious, contemptuous terms of his fellow citizens.
My grandfather has for many years now been a U.S. citizen, but before and since he received his citizenship he paid taxes and contributed to his country, his community, his family, and his society more of real value than anything Donald Trump has offered.
And so I am voting against Donald Trump because he thinks that my grandfather and people like him can be stripped of their humanity, their worth, their complexity, and cast out of our communities.
My third hat is the Latino heritage bequeathed to me by my grandparents and my mother's family.  This is tied up not only in my grandfather's immigration status, and what Donald Trump would use that status to do to young people like him.  It is also tied to what Donald Trump says about the place that people like me can occupy in our country.
Donald Trump suggested that Mexicans are rapists, murderers, and drug dealers.  With that *wink, nod* he allowed that there were undoubtedly some good Mexicans.  But the combination of language and coy denial (the same denial he uses to declaim his sexism or his suggestions that his people go out and shoot his opponent) are designed to leave no doubt as to where his sympathies lie.  His America would be less cluttered with people like me who he thinks represent some cultural threat to real Americans.
Donald Trump also suggested that Latinos are incapable of serving in all of the capacities associated with full citizenship in our country.  He argued that a Mexican American judge should be disqualified from dealing with cases involving white Americans like Trump because his race makes him biased and unfit.  That single argument is a blow at the foundation of our legal system and the security of Latinos in America.
So I am voting against Donald Trump because when combined with the racist characterizations of Latinos in this country, and the violence his campaign has whipped up among supporters, he is giving notice to anyone who looks like my aunts and uncles, sounds like my grandfather, and shares the heritage of my cousins.  If he has his way *wink, nod*, we're all second class citizens.  
My final hat is my ideological orientation.  I would identify as a social democrat, and would associate myself with this ideology that shares with some others of the left the conviction that civil rights are insufficient guarantors of well-being, and that they must be accompanied by other social and economic rights--to healthcare, education, workplace protections, and robust social welfare.
American liberalism--and Trump’s fascism--likes to pretend that our supposedly exceptional and remarkable culture, history, and character make us unfit for social democracy.  But that argument is really just a way of saying that Americans don’t deserve the security, opportunity, and liberty that comes along with the reordering of our politics and economics.
The world's social democracies are far from perfect.  But they offer their citizens equal if not greater access to the civil liberties that Americans like to believe we uniquely enjoy, along with far greater "freedom"--from fear, uncertainty, poverty--in the economic and social sphere that we enjoy in our country.  Donald Trump’s election would deal a body blow to any possibility in the near future of moving in such a direction.  
Social democrats were among the first to recognize the dangers posed by fascism.  But in parts of Europe, they led their ideological feuds with other parties of the left and the center blind them to just how far fascism could go in transforming and consuming their world.
So I am voting against Donald Trump because I don’t think that social democrats today should make the mistakes they did in the 1920s and 1930s, and because I know that my vote is not the only tool at my disposal for shaping opinions and policies.  I can vote to avert disaster and spend the next four years writing letters and blogs, protesting, donating, calling, and advocating with any other tools that come to hand to shift away from our weak liberal political economy toward something that offers more to the middle and working class.
Trump’s economics--by, for, and of the 1%--offer nothing other than the license to spit vitriol at different people.  His foreign policy is the same: nothing beyond the satisfaction--if anyone could so derive satisfaction--of lashing out furiously at the world.  
I can understand voting for a third party if you think the choices are bad.  I can understand not voting as a statement of sorts.  I won’t condemn either of those approaches.  But if you are considering them, I also ask you to consider what the election of Donald Trump would mean, from an historical perspective, and for the safety, prosperity, and humanity of your fellow Americans.
It might feel good to talk about “blowing the whole thing up,” and voting for Trump as a way of sticking it to an insufficiently democratic and responsive political system.  But when you blow things up, people get hurt.  And blowing things up by voting for Donald Trump ensures that those who get hurt will suffer because of their religion, their race, and their language.
And I am not sure that a country that is as diverse as ours can come out the other side of a Trump presidency intact.  So if you vote for Trump for the sake of something big and dramatic, you are also launching an attack on the foundations of our legal system and the citizenship of the Americans who Trump is encouraging people to hate and resent.
Normally, I might be in Nevada, the state where I now live, making calls and knocking on doors to persuade people that Donald Trump is dangerous to our country and to many of my fellow-citizens.  Instead, I have just arrived in California, to visit my grandfather.  He is eighty-seven years old.  He will not recognize me.  He does not know where he is.  I hope he will derive some comfort from being surrounded by his family.  
That is hard to see and to accept.  But it is even harder to accept that the life that he and generations of others built for themselves and their families, and the security they thought they won by coming to a country defined by a strong constitution, a robust democracy, and a culture of acceptance is in such jeopardy.  

A vote cast in the service of hatred will have no positive impact on public policy, and dangerous consequences for our society.  Fiat lux.  

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