Fifteen years ago, my son, David — adopted from South Korea — got off a school bus and appeared at our front door with a black eye. A bully named Scott had told him to “go back to China where you belong.” A fight ensued.
Some 20 years ago, at a college reunion, a classmate, later to be honored as alumnus of the year, sat at a bar and told a joke about blacks. The rest of us abandoned him mid-sentence.
Fifty years ago, one high school classmate labeled me a “kike.” Another called me “Shylock.”
And in town, a barber — the barber — refused to give a black classmate a haircut.
None of this can be blamed on Donald Trump.
Donald Trump didn’t bring bigotry to America. It has always been there. He has merely brought it into the light. We may have disdain for him because of his words and his positions, but we cannot hold him responsible for the sentiments held by millions of Americans who feel disenfranchised and threatened by profound demographic shifts in American society. Trump is just another in a long line of American demagogues — figures like Father Charles Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace.
His adherents are not all poor, uneducated white
men, as we so desperately want to believe. They cannot be so easily dismissed as “losers,” a breed apart from
the rest of us. Some wear pinstripes. Some work in banks. Some teach in universities. Many are faithful churchgoers. They are our neighbors. Many are decent people in other ways.
It is a fool’s errand to rant against them, or to pretend that we are shocked and surprised that such a figure as Trump could command the loyalties of so many. Of course he can. Men such as Trump always could. The real question is whether we pretend that he is an anomaly, someone that we should merely wait out, or whether we see him as an opportunity to confront all those American demons whose existence we largely deny, choosing instead to celebrate our mythical exceptionalism.
Trump boasts that he is the Master of the Deal. Actually, he is the court jester — clownish, foppish, pathetically delusional. But he is right about one thing. We must deal with him, not simply content ourselves with his defeat. He should be seen as the catalyst for a long-overdue public debate about who we are as a nation, what our identity is to be, and what it is we value about our culture and society. We must move beyond easy platitudes and kumbayas, recognize the legitimacy of others’ discomfort, and not be so fast to brand them racists and bigots. We must hope for more than a racial armistice or a tolerance of differences.
Here, political correctness has done us no service. Suppression of speech and the policing of expression can only drive the offenders underground in the short term. Over time, it makes them more brazen, energized by denial, coercion, and resentment. The true liberal — the likes of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell — understood that robust and unfettered speech was the ultimate change agent, that to overcome societal resistance and apprehension we must confront them, openly, unabashedly, and without constraints. At its truest, democracy is a contact sport.
And for that, we may, in hindsight, owe Donald Trump a debt of gratitude. He has taken a wrecking ball to political correctness, to the facade of a post-racial society, to the complacency of so many. And he has inadvertently opened the door for a more open and honest discussion of pluralism in America.Ted Gup is a Boston-based author and professor of journalism who teaches at Emerson College and Brown University.