Stop me if you’ve heard this one. There was an old man in some godforsaken land clinging to power, and he, in his weakness, needed to look strong. And so he found those who were powerless and alone for the people to hate and to fear.
It’s an old story, one that’s played out again and again through all of human history. It’s easy to blame everything on people who are different and strange, and to trust the big man at the top who is bellowing his hate out at you day in and day out.
The leader of the mob always looks strong, as the light of the torches plays across his twisted, hateful features.
I watched President Donald J. Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night, and it was a deeply unnerving one. There were a lot of moments that I couldn’t stomach, from Trump’s preening smugness and patronizing rebuffs to Democrats to the agonizing use of a military widow whose husband had died in a raid Trump couldn’t even be bothered to go to the Situation Room for, to the utterly brainless plaudits from the pundit class when it was over.
It was a fist-poundingly nationalist speech, a xenophobic speech, and it was delivered with all the gravitas of a teenager wearing his dad’s oversize suit jacket.
But it was also a very worrisome speech. Here, to applause from the conservatives-turned-nationalists of the Republican Party, Trump told us about how our country was crime-ridden, in ruins, swamped by illegal immigrants, and impoverished by sending cash to ungrateful nations overseas. This version of our country is the hallucination of the right wing fever swamps.
In fact, if facts still matter to any of us, unemployment is low, crime has been falling steadily since its peak in the mid-1990s, and illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, has slowed to a trickle. But if you want people to follow you, convincing them there’s an awful crisis that you can lead them out of is another old, reliable trick.
And who is to blame for this sad, false state of affairs? Undocumented immigrants, immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and refugees. They are the scapegoats.
One of the most jaw-dropping things the Trump administration has done thus far is the creation of an office called VOICE (Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement), which sounds like something out of a bad dystopian novel. The whole purpose of the office is to highlight and name crimes committed specifically by undocumented immigrants.
Another pesky fact: immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit crimes at a far lower rate than natural born citizens. But what does that matter? The lie is easier to believe.
This is the fruit of the poisoned tree of nationalism. Nationalism, which began as a way for Europeans to unite against the creaking, autocratic regimes of the old 19th century empires, is a philosophy that puts the “nation” above everything else. The reason it leads to so much evil is that nationalism requires there to be a sorting: who belongs to the nation? Who doesn’t? Who should be cast out?
Europe now is the result of nationalism. The continent was once more cosmopolitan and diverse, with people from all ethnic groups living all over the continent. Germans once lived on the Volga. Yiddish-speaking Jews could be found in every major city. Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats shared Sarajevo in peace. But after a century of wars, deportations, and genocide, this is no longer true. And now that immigration to Europe is rising again, nationalism there has reared its ugly head once more.
Nationalism needs outsiders to rally against. It needs to define “us” and “them.” It needs scapegoats.
We can already see nationalism’s bitter hate playing out all over the country. Hate groups are on the rise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors them. Jewish organizations are being threatened. Mosques are being burned and attacked. Raids against the undocumented are on the rise, spreading fear and panic.
The border patrol, never a bastion of tolerance and understanding, is targeting anyone with a Muslim-sounding name or a dislike of Trump for detention or denial of entry. Muhammed Ali’s son, who is absolutely a citizen, was held at an airport for hours. They’re doing this because Trump exhorted them to.
I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2017
And here in Connecticut, white students from Canton chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” at a basketball game against mostly Black and Latino students from a Hartford school.
We have to reject this cancer of a philosophy. I believe in a diverse, cosmopolitan America that embraces the world, not this nationalist, walled-off dystopia. Our leaders in Connecticut and our representatives in Congress must stand against this hateful nationalism.
No more scapegoats, Mr. President. If you want to find the source of so many of America’s problems, look in the mirror.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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