In six months, Donald Trump has gone from a sputtering brat and a punch line on the fringes of the American political scene to a legitimate contender for our highest office. Trump has systematically, by a psychological mechanism greased with staggering narcissism, ignorance, fear-mongering, hate and bigotry, managed to reign at the top of the list of Republicans vying to get the party’s nomination for the White House.
For Trump, being offensive is a sport. Whether it’s insulting Sen. John McCain’s service record and time in captivity as a prisoner of war to branding Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as rapists, from false claims about African-Americans and crime culled from a white supremacist website to denigrating women and mocking a disabled person. And now, Muslims —by claiming that he would authorize databases to track them, and then on Monday sounding his clarion call for banning Muslims altogether from entering the U.S., he’s thoroughly covered the bases.
With his increasing vitriol against Muslims, databases and bans are likely just the appetizer. I am a U.S. citizen and a Muslim of Bangladeshi heritage. By his decree, customs officials could ask me to declare my religion, and not allow me to come home after an overseas trip.
Like so many thoughtful, engaged and conscientious Americans, I began by laughing off Donald Trump. Like so many Americans, I thought he had lowered the lid to his own coffin and shouted for the nails to be hammered in after the John McCain fiasco. And then again after the “all Mexicans are rapists” moment. After the chauvinism, and the rubbish statistics about African-Americans and deadly crime. And anti-Semitism. A moment of hope reared yet again after the call for Muslim databases — nothing. The man’s popularity and numbers only soared.
The morning after the Paris attacks, Facebook was awash with calls to “kill them all,” and “bomb the hell out of them.” Many of those calls came from acquaintances, friends, friends of friends — and sadly, some family. I told myself I needed to get my work done, that I wouldn’t get lured into the conversation, and I stuck to my resolve for all of an hour.
I posted a lot that week, my anger unbearable. I even managed to offend a couple of people. My language and sentiments, to say the least, were strong without being profane. By the end of that first week, my head and ears buzzing with language on the news that was all too familiar about Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, Shariah law, the ever-confounding incompatibility of Islam and America, I wanted to sound my barbaric yawp for the Americans that were buying into it again to wake up and read some history.
It was all too familiar to me. Fourteen years ago, I had been in the same state of anger and disillusionment when anti-Muslim rhetoric ignited after 9/11. I was working for a newspaper in Chicago at the time, and I remember the day we received a fax in the newsroom from the Department of Homeland Security — a press release listing the countries branded as hotspots where terrorists were radicalized, trained and deployed to end freedom in Europe and America. Bangladesh was on the list. Because I was born there, I received letter from DHS to report for being fingerprinted as part of the Special Registration stipulated by the Patriot Act.
I went. I obeyed an unlawful law to make sure my clear name was further defended against the blame of terrorism, just because of the way it sounds.
Last month, in the week after the Paris attacks when the Muslim bashing started, a wellspring of bad muscle memory and anger reignited. By now, terrorist and terrorism no longer meant what the dictionaries and experts said. Terrorist was, is, has become interchangeable with Muslim.
So for Donald Trump’s information, I have already been tracked in a database for Muslims. If he manages his time with the FBI and DHS, I’m sure he’ll find a way to locate my prints, name and photograph, along with any other information he could use to keep tabs on me as I work on a Ph.D. in fiction and post-colonial studies.
And for Donald Trump’s information, after that experience, I returned once more to be fingerprinted by the government — this time by lawful summons, when I volunteered to enlist in the United States Army. At 32, I was a decrepit old man by conventional standards, joining the Army, but the damnable socialist in me wanted to use the G.I. Bill to go to graduate school. (Franklin Roosevelt's executive orders included the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and he also signed the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944. I'm happy to call out the bad and the good in human nature.) And even better — I could finally afford the application fees to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, since it’s free for armed forces members.
One of the first commanding officers I met at a preparatory drilling session with a National Guard unit in Chicago, before leaving for basic training, was a Muslim. As was another sergeant. Between the two of them, they had more loyalty and devotion to America than Trump’s billions could buy, even if he went bankrupt (a fifth time) trying. After all, billionaire sons of billionaire fathers don’t join the armed services and die in the wars that become sources of profit for the billionaires who lobby for the wars. If they do, they might be assigned a cozy position in intel thanks to daddy’s connections and never have to set foot on the front lines.
Unfortunately, what Donald Trump has been successful in buying is the fear, anger and vulnerabilities of his seething bands of supporters. And, in that way that only he can, he’s making it work. He’s filling people with resentment and hate, investing in their anger like he’s buying cheap land in a depressed neighborhood to fill with luxury buildings, only to turn around and drive off the very people to whom he promised he would make the neighborhood great again. And like wound-up puppets, his supporters are hopping, ranting, flailing arms and legs, and piping his hate speech verbatim.
Trump supporters want to “ship ‘em all back.” Sadly, his supporters won’t take a moment to understand the history of American politics and foreign policy in the 20th century, to read up on Islam, to maybe even try to meet and befriend a Muslim man or woman, see Trump’s lies for lies, and then get angry about allowing themselves to be so egregiously manipulated. They would rather keep their blinders exactly where they are.
In two recent posts on Facebook, I said that anyone living in Trump Towers anywhere is complicit in funding the campaign of a lying bigot, and that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for bigotry. I don’t know how else to explain the men and women that cheer, one after another, at Trump’s declarations of hate. How else am I supposed to regard a person who feels in their mind and heart, without a doubt, that I should be shipped out of the United States, along with my family, because we’re Muslim?
Would it matter if I told them, for the sake of experimenting, that I’m a Bangladeshi Christian? They exist. Or that this isn’t a new tactic in America’s history, that the only thing new about it is the group of people being demonized? No Colored Allowed. No Irish Need Apply. Japs Keep Moving. These and other shameful episodes of bigotry and xenophobia took decades to overcome, to be acknowledged for what they were, and in some cases, were quietly forgotten. And so they return, blazing at a new target.
Perhaps 50 years from now, when the next ethnic or religious group is being profiled, attacked, demonized and used as a punching bag by a future manifestation of Donald Trump as dejected Americans are waiting to be pointed toward an enemy to blame, the post-9/11 era of Muslim bashing will be resurrected and examined along with the rest.
But I will never absolve anyone of bigotry. No one. Not family, not friends, not colleagues, not peers. Bigotry is a choice. No amount of anger will ever justify it. Donald Trump’s supporters do not get a pass for not knowing better. Blighted out of their senses with Trumpist dogma for the time being they may be, but in the end they’re making the conscious choice to accept his lies and absorb his hate. By so doing, they’re keeping alive the trend of amnesia that will pave the way for the next wave of attacks on a new community and people. And with each rearing of this ugly head of bigotry, America will wade farther and farther away from its greeting to the tired and poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and shut out the neediest of those who seek the light of the lifted lamp to see the golden door.
For Donald Trump, I want to say that door should be shut, that he should be banned from entering. And yet satisfying as that may be, it would not be American.