Defining the American nationhood

Even some Republicans are worried that Trump has taken their party in a direction they do not approve of

Shahid Javed Burki July 15, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

There is now a deep reaction to what has come to be called “Trumpism”. This is the style of governance in which the entire focus is on the president by the president himself. He has made no effort to hide his narcissism. In the process, he has weakened or entirely brushed aside institutional constraints on the exercise of executive power. He does not value truth. He has exhibited lack of respect for democratic politics within the country and in the world in general. He feels comfortable in the presence of strong men who have no respect for democratic ways. In the email correspondence between the UK embassy in Washington and the London Foreign Office, it was revealed that Sir Kim Darroch, the ambassador, called the US President “clumsy, incompetent and inept”, and the Trump White House dysfunctional. The President fired back calling the British diplomat “whacky” and “foolish”. But there is an impression in Washington that Sir Kim was not only the diplomat working in the city who had used these kinds of words to describe Trump and his White House. That said, the ambassador resigned.

Even some Republicans are worried that Trump has taken their party in a direction they do not approve of. For instance, Michael Gerson who was a speech writer in the George W Bush White House and now writes a regular column for The Washington Post wrote about different interpretations of American nationhood. “If the United States is primarily a normal nation, united by common culture, then it is diluted by outsiders and weakened by diversity. In this circumstance, cultural differences lead inexorably to conflict and disunity. A nation defined primarily by culture or ethnicity is a fortress to be defended.” This is the position taken by Donald Trump who has won the hearts and minds of those 40 per cent or so of the American population that is identified as the president’s base.

But the remaining 60 per cent feel differently. Continued Gerson, “If the United States somehow embodies the best and highest of human aspirations — separate from culture and ethnicity — then there is hope of mutual progress.” The latter position was articulated well, by President George W Bush in his first inaugural address. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less American.”

Among those fighting back against Trump and his ways are four newly-elected Congresswomen who are called the “Squad”. They are all non-white; two of them are Muslims; one of them is the first person to wear the hijab in the Capitol chamber. Two of these, being Muslims, are worried about debate concerning the presence of Islam and Muslims in the United States. The debate was sharpened in particular with the arrival of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in the House of Representatives. A three-page profile of Omar in The Washington Post published on July 7 recognised a number of firsts to the Congresswoman’s credit. She is the first female refugee from Africa to be elected to the US Congress and the first person to wear a hijab to the Capitol. She, at 36, is also one of the youngest persons to be elected to the House. She migrated from Kenya to the United States after having spent several years in a refugee camp to which she had gone with her family to escape the civil war in her homeland, Somalia. “I grew up in an extremely unjust society, and the only thing that made me excited about coming to the United States was that the United States was supposed to be the country that guaranteed justice to all,” she told a gathering of high school students as she became the subject of attacks by the American right including President Trump. “So, I feel it’s necessary for me to speak about that promise that’s not kept.”

Her father painted a picture of the United States, the land that would become theirs which Ilhan Omar feels was not true. Among the things that made her feel different was her religion, Islam. “I arrived at the age of 12 and learned that I was the extreme other. I was black, I was Muslim. I also learned that I was extremely poor and that the classless America that my father talked about did not exist.” Some politicians are inseparable from their story. Such is her case. She was only eight years old when she arrived with her family to the refugee camp in Kenya. “It was the first time I understood what hunger would feel like, what death looked like,” she said in a documentary, “Time for Ilhan”, that chronicles her 2016 run for the Minnesota State House.

Her campaign to be elected to the United States Congress three years later did not stop with her election in November 2019 that put the Democrats, her political party, in power in the legislature. Of her many concerns, four received a great deal of her attention: economic and social inequality in the country, growing Islamophobia, the role of money in American politics and poor governance by President Donald Trump. She told Trevor Noah, a late-night TV host, “I am America’s hope, and the president’s nightmare.” The thin-skinned Trump responded to her attacks by picking up on her statement in which she seemed to downplay the 9/11 tragedy. While addressing the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, she said that Muslims in America were starting to lose out on civil liberties because “some people did something.”

Trump picked up the comment interpreting it as downplaying the importance of 9/11. In a Tweet he interspersed her remarks with the footage of the burning Trade Center Towers. Democrats denounced the President for inciting violence against her. One week after the Trump Tweet, a man who threatened the Congresswoman’s life was arrested in New York with a cache of ammunition and guns.

Omar arrived as a Congresswoman in Washington after being elected first to the Minnesota State House. She was only one of more than 5,000 state legislators across the country, but as the first-ever Somalian lawmaker and a refugee, she drew national attention and scrutiny. She was not deterred by that; only encouraged. She has continued her struggle and by doing so she is living President George W Bush’s dream and becoming President Trump’s nightmare. “This is not going to be a country of white people,” she has vowed. “This is not going to be the country of the few.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2019.

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