When, 30 years ago as an idealistic, immigrant graduate student, someone first objected that if I “didn’t like it here [in America], then [I] can just [go] back to England,” I was naïve enough to take it as a challenge and tried to show the error of the argument.
The result was obvious, in hindsight – a prolonged and increasingly animated debate with no positive resolution. The university where I pursued my graduate study was, by its nature, an environment populated with curious people; however, in those early days, I also had a glimpse of a different side of America.
I have come to learn that the “if you don’t like it here” criticism – which is not uniquely American – is one against which it is impossible to argue. It reflects a mindset that is uncomfortable with differences and that resists change and new ideas. It is often thrown out with the intent of ending discussion in a way that allows no viable rejoinder. It is a trademark of an insecurity that resists critical evaluation of a nation’s flaws. It is akin to walking away from the game and taking your marbles.
This is how President Donald Trump plays. If he doesn’t get his way, he takes his marbles and uses childish epithets to kick everyone else out of the playground. It is symptomatic of his insecurity – a difference of opinion is perceived as a personal insult. That a man like that has become the most powerful in the world has deep – and dark – implications about the state of America today.
President Trump, thin-skinned and childish as he can be, is smart. His agenda is solely the aggrandizement of Donald J. Trump. To fulfil this agenda, he has intuited the power of the fear of uncertainty, difference and change.
He has tapped into a minority, but potent, sentiment (that, to be fair, exists within all nationalities, not just the US – note Brexit, National Rally, Law and Justice, the Northern League…) and he has been masterful in its exploitation. He has weaponised fear of the unfamiliar.
Contrary to much of the impassioned responses to the now-infamous July 14 tweets, my experience is that this language is not inherently racist. The way Trump used it may be racist, but, as a white male, I have received the same directive. That Mr Trump’s directed his invective at four women of colour, illustrates his guile. It simultaneously taps into the tensions of race relations, women’s rights, and religious intolerance that exist in America today, while exploiting the fear by “us” of “them”.
By focusing on whether or not Mr Trump is racist, the opposition has played into his hand; the new immigration order has gone virtually unquestioned; Mr Trump has been able to paint his opponents as radicals, who focus on identity issues; and he has avoided his biggest weakness – the inability to discuss ideas.
After 30 years living in the US, I clearly have not returned to England as I had been encouraged. Instead, I have embraced America, with all its flaws. America is a great country whose legacy is built on acknowledging its flaws and problems and then doing something about them. The maxim “nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives” (often, incorrectly, attributed to Sir Winston Churchill) holds hope that America – and the rest of the world that is toying with populism – will ultimately do the right thing.
America will eventually confine Donald Trump’s inflammatory style to the dustbin of history; it will recognize its 21st Century challenges; and it will ultimately do the right thing again. That is the power of ideas.