09 October 2017

Discovering Trump's America on Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day, the quasi-holiday (I'm working) honoring the discoverer of the western hemisphere as the man who made the U.S. possible, as well as the secular patron saint of Italian Americans. Many Americans prefer to observe the day as "Indigenous People's Day" in remembrance of the native population for whom Columbus's appearance marked the beginning of a centuries-long invasion and dispossession of their land. USA Today points out that, in keeping with the previous Republican president, and in contrast with Presidents Clinton and Obama, President Trump made no mention of Native Americans in his mandatory Columbus Day proclamation. Instead, he hailed Columbus unambiguously as a "skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity." What matters to the President is that Columbus's voyages "set the stage for the development of our great Nation." He nods to the nation's "diverse history" elsewhere in the proclamation, but nowhere in the document does he acknowledge that anyone might have any reason to see Columbus's arrival as a bad thing, or the start of one. By now this should surprise no one, though it will certainly annoy many.

Does Donald Trump hate Native Americans?  I doubt it. Does he think it was their inescapable destiny to give way to a superior civilization? I doubt he's ever thought about it that deeply, and in any event such questions most likely would strike him as irrelevant if not antithetical to his obligation to proclaim the holiday. For him and his supporters Columbus Day takes place in the same sphere as the raising of the American flag and the playing of the national anthem. That sphere is neither "private" nor "public" in the usual sense of either word, but national. The continuing controversy over whether athletes should salute the flag when the anthem is played, freshly escalated by the Vice-President's angry departure from one of yesterday's games after more athletes took the knee and a threat by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys to bench players who refuse to stand, shows the existence in the Trumpist mindscape of certain spaces that are public in the most basic sense, yet not really the same as the seemingly synonymous "civil society" where everyone's right to make personal or political statements is largely unquestioned. In this national sphere, the right to principled self-expression guaranteed by the First Amendment still holds, but is overridden informally by a patriotic obligation to affirm allegiance to the country, the flag, the troops, etc. In other words, it may not be illegal to withhold allegiance, but forms of sanction short of criminal prosecution -- getting fired by an employer, for instance, are considered appropriate and encouraged by Trumpist patriots.

Where this relates to Columbus Day is the presidential position, implicit by omission in his proclamation and explicit in his railing against football players, that minority grievances are ultimately irrelevant in the national sphere, where citizens ought to be Americans first and exclusively. To my knowledge, despite his constant whining against the media's insults, Donald Trump doesn't intend to curtail our First Amendment right to protest  his policies or alleged injustices in American society. He appears to insist, however, that there are times and places where the First Amendment is not properly our first consideration, where citizen obligations trump the rights of conscience, and where others are entitled to question your loyalty to the nation when you withhold allegiance. The President's aggressive expression of this attitude comes as a shock to a culture that has revered the 1968 Olympic athletes who gave the Black Power salute during their medals ceremony as heroes of civil liberty, and it probably disturbs some ideological conservatives in his own party who might see something suspiciously "statist" about his demands. But it probably comes as a welcome relief to those Americans who feel, justly or not, that something had gone terribly wrong in the country over the last half-century that could be characterized as neglect of duty, embodied by the refusal of allegiance or the refusal to keep faith with the dead during the Vietnam era. Their feeling will be written off by many principled protesters as the sort of authoritarian nationalism that leads to fascism if it isn't there already, and it will be resented by those who feel that compulsory shows of allegiance mean having to say everything's okay with the country when they feel obliged to tell the country the opposite. But whether a line can be drawn anywhere, whether there's a point beyond which people can fairly question whether protesters will have their backs when it counts without being called fascists, seems like an appropriate question for a national debate -- if either side considered the question debatable, that is. Columbus, this is your fault!

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