I still remember the day that my family and I became American citizens. We emigrated from Iran and had wound our way through this country’s arcane immigration system for 14 years. After filling out countless forms, enduring endless waits in INS offices and taking the citizenship exam, we were finally ready. We got into our brand new Toyota and drove to a small courthouse in Danville, Illinois, where we raised our right hands and were sworn in. Just months later, I was so excited to get my navy-blue covered passport in the mail.
I felt like we had finally made it. I felt like maybe we were free and equal. Yet more than 20 years later, all of that feels like a farce. Because of the poisonous effects of Donald Trump, our newest American demagogue, I am about to become a second-class citizen when I travel abroad. After Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S., his fellow Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan, condemned the plan. Yet that very same day, Speaker Ryan’s own US House passed a bill that would restrict my travel – as well as Syrian-, Iraqi- and Sudanese-Americans by eliminating a visa waiver program.
Last Friday, Congress approved that toxic measure as part of the omnibus government-funding bill and President Obama signed the bill the same day.
Words matter. Donald Trump’s words are far more than fodder for fellow politicians, late night comedians, and people who create amusing social media memes. His Islamophobic rants in GOP debates and his rallies have a real-life effect, and these reverberate in seemingly small but deeply important shifts in public policy, as well as personal interactions. Our country will feel the effect of his words for years to come in many ways.
Ask the young Muslim girl in the Bronx who was physically attacked by fellow students who yelled “ISIS” at her. Talk to the Moroccan-American cab driver who was shot with a rifle by an Islamophobic customer in Pittsburgh. Or the Latino man in Boston, beat up by two brothers who said that Trump was right about deporting immigrants after they beat the man with a pipe and urinated on him.
Ignoring and laughing at Trump haven’t worked. What are we to do about the clear and present danger that Mr. Trump presents? First and most obviously, we have to fight the onslaught of hate on the airwaves and stop its spread in our city councils, statehouses and of course in Congress. I know few organizers and communicators who don’t regret seeing the threat of Mr. Trump earlier, and treating it more seriously.
Second, we must organize against him at the ballot box. As Trump is far too happy to point out, our country’s demographics are changing: every year, 800,000 Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. We should use every moment to naturalize, register, educate and turn out these new voters.
Our third task is the most difficult: we have to engage, confront and actually talk with his supporters. Because Trump’s moment is temporary, the issue is really about his supporters. An easy go-to is to write off his base and turn up our noses in liberal arrogance: “Can you believe some bigoted dimwit thinks this way?” Rather than writing off a voter who is interested in Trump as racist or ignorant, we need to engage them. The rise of social media and narrow-casting have enveloped all of us in comfortable cocoons occupied by only the people who agree with us.
No matter what they think, Trump’s supporters will continue to be a durable part of one big electorate, and a part of our nation. A recent study by Pew Research Center is just the latest to show the incredible trends in downward mobility for tens of millions of people. And as another recent study from the National Academy of Sciences shows, middle-aged white people are literally killing themselves off at an alarming rate. Xenophobia is an easy answer for their anxieties about skyrocketing income inequality and the extraordinary concentration of wealth. But we can’t let this easy answer win.
One small but hopeful example is from Ohio on a recent day of coordinated protests against mosques. In Columbus, a lone woman showed up and held signs filled with Islamophobic slogans. A woman from the mosque nudged the protestor into conversation and then did the unthinkable: she invited the protestor into the mosque. The woman dropped her hostility and put down her signs. “I’ve never been in a mosque,” said the woman as she entered the building to applause from the assembled members. These leaders modeled the simple courage and determination that we all must carry.
Though I didn’t have to answer any questions on my US citizenship exam about American demagogues, our country is getting a full-scale lesson in one now. Demagogues have been a familiar character in democracies since the ancient Greeks created the term -- “demos agogos” meaning “the one leading the people” -- centuries ago. And in the history of demagogues in our country, from the anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin during the 1930’s to red-baiter Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, people have always defeated them. The political historian Michael Signer writes “History shows that the American people have internalized a set of constitutional values that short-circuit demagogues…the people themselves have refused to accede to a national demagogue’s seductions.”
We have to call to the best angels in our country’s nature, which takes more than words. It takes engagement, vigilance and refusing xenophobic policies. I look forward to helping defeat our most recent demagogue.