Something quite wonderful happened to my wife and me the other day during our annual public humiliation, which is how we refer to our one trip a year to buy sweet kosher wine—always for our Seder. We entered the neighborhood liquor store near Hunter College and sheepishly asked a group of employees gathered in front, “Where’s the sweet kosher wine?” I added, as if telling a joke, “You know, once a year…” to which the store manager answered with a lilting empathy that seemed to come from years of experience, “I know, once a year!” We were sharing a moment.
Except the manager was most certainly a sub-continental or Persian, and thus probably Muslim or Hindu and not Jewish.
In all, six ethnic groups were involved in this public ritual that always precedes our private religious-cultural celebration: A secular Syrian Jew and his Quaker wife of German-Dutch-English descent are served first by a South or Central Asian who asks his Latino employee to show us where to look—he said, “Jose, show them.” The cashier is a very friendly African-American woman.
Syrian Jew, WASP, Asian, Latino, Black—that’s five cultures. Six, when you count the man to whom the store manager was talking the entire time we were in the store—a jovial heavyset, tow-haired guy with an Eastern European accent.
Diversity and respect for everyone. It’s what I love about New York City, and what I love about America.
And it’s what Trump supporters fear.
Core Trump supporters fear the other—other cultures, other skin colors, other religions, other sexual predilections, other nationalities. They fear being invaded or physically harmed. They fear losing their traditions. They harbor a completely irrational fear of being displaced, after centuries of enjoying preferential treatment.
Virtually all the Trump positions that appeal to his white, mostly rural or working class, base begin with a fear of the other: The policy to build a wall, shut down immigration and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. The policies to get tough on crime and gut poverty programs, which appeal to the many white Americans who mistakenly believe that the majority of both criminals and the poor are people of color. The defense of Christmas, which isn’t so much a defense against encroachments on religious celebration as an attempt to assert the prerogatives of one religion as dominant and therefore normal. The anti-LGBTQ policies such as Trump’s several attempts to kick transgendered people out of the armed forces. The gun policies, as surveys show that those hoarding guns and spewing out NRA rhetoric tend to be whites who are afraid of African-Americans. Even Trump’s “America first” foreign policy reflects a fear of the other.
If it’s different from the normal defined by Walt Disney in the 1950’s, then Trump’s America hates it.
But it’s differences that I love in my America, an America I share with more than half the population, congregating primarily in big cities and their immediate suburbs along the coasts and major rivers and transit points.
In our America, we don’t fear the other, we embrace all others, as we’re likely an “other” ourselves. We enjoy our freedom to express our culture in our homes, our community centers and yes, sometimes in the streets. We love to see others express their cultures. We love to dabble sometimes in the culture of others—Native American, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Persian, Indonesian and a myriad of other cuisines, parades, neighborhoods, music festivals and exhibits. We are not threatened by diversity. Diversity makes our surroundings more interesting and provocative. Being part of a big-tent America also protects us—or is supposed to protect us—from discrimination.
Those who fear the other have always been around to impede what Martin Luther King called the long arc of our history towards justice for all. Fear of the other has a long tradition in American culture and politics. It served as a justification for both slavery and how we treated freed African-American slaves. Fear of the other animated the nativist political movements of the 19th centuries and our restrictive immigration policies between the World Wars. It guided our housing, mass transit, urban renewal and land development policies and fueled the flight to the suburbs after World War II.
Over the past twenty years, the country seems to be polarizing around these two visions of American more than ever before. With the Republican and Democratic Parties taking turns as the dominant political force, our national politics must appear bipolar to the outside world, as we violently shift between policies that stultify diversity with those that encourage it.
Sadly, the GOP even before Trump has for years exploited the irrational fear of the other to gain support for an economic agenda that has inflicted severe harm on the very constituency most susceptible to their fear-mongering—less educated, rural and working class whites.
The ironic thing about this never-ending Kulturkampf is that Trump’s Americans—the evangelicals, the cultural conservatives, the gun lovers and even the white supremacists can live their lives as exactly as they want in the privacy of their own homes, community centers and hunting lodges in an America based on diversity, as long as they don’t insist on foisting their beliefs, cultural artifacts and definitions of normalcy on others. You do your thing and let me do mine. And we’ll keep public places and institutions secular and open to all.
I’m reminded of a heated discussion about what constitutes America that I had with my much younger step brother when he was in his angry white guy phase decades ago. He was blasting away against anti-American values and the threat of Blacks and foreigners, all the while eating a taco from a fast food emporium. When I pointed out that he was eating Mexican food, my then callow step brother insisted with some vehemence, “No, I’m not. Tacos are American.”
You’ll get no argument here.