A Word About Hysteria
The president of the United States asked recently why we needed immigration from “shithole countries” like those in Central America and Africa and why there wasn’t more from places like Norway. For once the obvious racism this statement revealed in its utterer did not go rationalized by mainstream news organizations. I, however, am disgusted by what I did when I first saw the headline. My reaction was simply to roll my eyes and go back to my work.
It’s not that what he said was unimportant. In addition to being the impulse of what is at this point an indisputably racist man, it betrayed a heartbreaking lack of understanding of this country’s fundamental mission and appeal to its citizens, its aspiring citizens, and even those abroad with no intention of immigrating.
The reason people from poverty stricken countries that have been leveled by natural disasters or famine or war want to come to the United States is simple. It lies in the small kernel of the human condition that makes people of all types strive to improve themselves and their circumstances for the sake of those they love. People want to come to the United States because, for roughly a century and a half, the United States was the place to do that. Our president seems unfamiliar both with that animating characteristic of all manner of strivers and his country’s historic role in nurturing that impulse. I can’t put into words how sad that makes me.
I could only roll my eyes because I’m not sure why that statement from Donald Trump should be surprising.
This is a man who dodged the draft. This is a man who mocked John McCain's military service. This is a man who attacked a gold star family because they criticized him. We knew long before he was elected that he has no concept of patriotism or brotherhood or compassion or service
He was a nationally prominent racial demagogue long before he announced his Republican candidacy. There is still a picture in his Twitter archive from May 5, 2016 of him smiling about how much he loves "Hispanics" while sitting over a taco bowl in Trump Tower. The Speaker of the House and leader of Trump's own party pronounced himself appalled by his racism when, shortly thereafter, he challenged a judge’s impartiality based solely on his ancestry. His presidency has been dotted with incidences of extreme verbal aggression when challenged, either in reality or in his own perception, by powerful or influential men and women of color.
Over the course of a year and a half, however, we minimized his racism. The media was fascinated by the spectacle of it all. He was not racist but colorful and impolitic. He was not startlingly incapable of appreciating service or contemplating sacrifice, he was just provocative. The closer we came to electing him, the harder it became for people to recognize what he was. People like that can’t be elected president, but he might become president. Therefore, he must not really be like that. Warnings about out and out racism, authoritarian tendencies, corruption, and the permission his candidacy offered to still more dangerous cultural elements were dismissed as hysteria. But sometimes “hysteria” is really just a word people use to describe a willingness to exercise normal feats of imagination.
I could only roll my eyes because there is no reason for me to expect anything different. There never has been. Donald Trump has always been the person who, in one brief moment, could betray his obvious incuriosity, lack of compassion, lack of appreciation for his country, and overt bigotry. His words this week didn’t break my heart. My heart broke when we elected him, knowing fully that this is the sort of thing he thinks and feels and says. Damage done.