This Is a Test: How Sharp Is Your Pencil?

Donald Trump: The Ugly Face of America[This is a copy of a speak-out I submitted to the Brookings (SD) Register. It was published on March 15, 2016. Corrections made on March 16.]

The other night I was cooking supper with my son Nathan, a seventh-grader at Mickelson Middle School. Out of the blue, standing at the stove, he asked, “Mom, what will happen to our family if Donald Trump is elected president?”

I wish you could have heard the tone of his voice, so sober and grim for a thirteen-year-old. His question was rooted in the ugliness of Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric and behavior, his relentless verbal attacks on people he resents, and his constant whipping up of supporters to verbally and sometimes physically assault anybody who disagrees with him.

“I mean, I know we’re not Muslim,” Nathan said, “but will we be okay?”

I didn’t want to answer Nathan in a partisan way. I wanted to answer it in an American way. In a considerate, humane way. “If a Muslim family in our country isn’t okay,” I replied, “our family isn’t okay either. If an immigrant family isn’t okay, if an African-American family isn’t okay, if a Hispanic family isn’t okay, if women aren’t okay, if working-class people aren’t okay—if we’re not all okay, nobody’s okay.”

My words were reminiscent of a famous statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor who was executed under critical of the Hitler regime. “First [the Nazis] came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not meaning to imply either that Mr. Trump is a Nazi or that anyone who supports him is in full agreement with his most bigoted views. Nor am I meaning to dismiss out-of-hand the grievances and concerns of the many disaffected citizens who are carrying the Trump crusade forward. I’m merely observing the obvious: Though it might be well intended, Mr. Trump’s “shock and awe” campaign is doing serious damage to our society. Whether or not he’s actually elected, that damage won’t soon be undone. And it will be up to us to undo it. Plainly Mr. Trump couldn’t care less.

“The ultimate test of a moral society,” wrote a contemporary of Niemöller‘s, the Reverend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by Hitler, “is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” But what is Mr. Trump’s vision for my child, and yours? Or for X.—my son’s friend and classmate, born of immigrant parents—called an ugly racist slur at school the day after Nathan and I had our talk? Mr. Trump’s “vision” is on daily display. If a teacher ever acted like him in a Brookings classroom, we would demand his removal. So why are we considering him as our country’s leader?

This “Trump moment” is a test of our political democracy and our moral society. Are we really a nation where everyone has the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Where every child can feel safe, because everybody’s safe, and nobody’s “coming for” or “going after” somebody else? Where we won’t tolerate bullying, whether in our schools or in our politics, no matter what the bully might stand for? Now that, in my opinion, would be a great America.

Sharpen your pencil, and take a deep breath. For the sake of our children, this is a test we’ve got to pass. Better yet, let’s shoot for an “A.”

9 thoughts on “This Is a Test: How Sharp Is Your Pencil?

  1. Stephen Palo

    Great article! However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not say, “First the Nazis…” This a quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller who was a contemporary of Bonhoeffer. I admire both theologians. And I admire your article which raises many good moral issues for our children, families, friends, and community. Words matter! They are sticks and stones that can hurt us.

  2. Andy Hamilton

    Excellent article. However it is likely that the US will be saved by the election of Hilary Clinton as president – but if I was an american i wouldn’t be complacent about this. I am British and concerned about our own potential “Trumps” – George Osbourne and Boris. Because they are English and went to Eton and Oxbridge they talk politely and hide their true agenda more effectively; but they are both Elitists, with the same agenda as Trump. We haven’t got a Hilary Clinton …. – or have we? Can we persuade Caroline Lucas to head up a collation of those in the UK who want to preserve the BBC, and NHS, oppose TTIP and Fracking and save disabled people from poverty induced by savage cuts to benefits.

    1. Thanks for your perspective on this, Andy, from there in Great Britain. The rise of nationalism and xenophobia, the growing wealth gap, the continuing devastation of the environment–all of these are global issues. I agree that there are politicians whose ugly agendas are couched in “polite talk” (in America, Ted Cruz comes to mind). In some ways they are even more dangerous than those like Trump. Whether crass or silver-tongued, all these politicians have to be taken seriously, and resisted heartily. They can’t come to power unless they mobilize masses of “common people.” As I see it, our job is to keep that mobilization from happening, by advocating forthrightly and respectfully for humane values in our own communities, however we can.

    2. kenneth Dawson

      the hillery clinton in our country is worse all than all the ones you spoke of ; she should be in jail not inpublic office

      1. Mr. Dawson, I hope you don’t presume that my objections to Mr. Trump spring from my support for any other candidate. But in the case of Ms. Clinton, we should allow the investigation take its course. In this country, one is innocent until proven guilty, and Ms. Clinton isn’t even on trial. We have a responsibility to keep an open mind. In the meantime, Mr. Trump is inciting violence. The evidence of that is right in front of our eyes. This isn’t about politics. It’s about respect and decency.

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