BY BRUCE LEVINE
Former Chairman of the Rockland County Legislature
Nowhere in any of the speeches of five President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and Assistant to the President Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference do you find the words or even a hint that our nation’s true greatness arises from being an ever-changing religiously and ethnically diverse community of freedom-loving Americans who have come here from every nation on earth. Instead, Pence tells conservatives, “This is our time.” Nothing was said about the recent wave of hate crimes and incidents directed at Jews, Muslims, African-Americans and Latinos.
In his first address to Congress, President Trump opened with this:
Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains to be done. Recent threats targeting the Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City [actually Kansas], remind us that, while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.
Does this comment on the biggest stage to the biggest audience in the young Trump administration mark a change or is it just lip service?
The key ideal of America’s greatness shared by all patriots is community – a community where each American sees his or her neighbors as individuals who are directly connected to all other Americans. Sharing this vision, we together enable each of us individually and all of us collectively to live out our dreams of freedom, equality, prosperity and progress.
This vision of our national greatness was, perhaps, best expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said that the American gospel of freedom is that “when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
But in President Trump’s America, we see this dream of a community of equals joining together to make a great nation under existential threat. Instead, violence based on ancient hatreds and ideas of ethnic and religious hierarchies are stalking our land. In the last several weeks alone, we have witnessed a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis desecrated (my maternal grandmother is buried there), two engineers from India and a hero who came to their defense shot and one of them killed by a man spouting ethnic slurs and, here in our own Rockland County, swastikas painted on a fence on the border of the Hasidic Jewish community of New Square. These swastikas are an affront to all Americans but the hurt to a community that was founded by survivors of the Holocaust who found a home and a refuge here in suburban New York cannot be described or fathomed.
Are these hate crimes and the hundreds of others that are occurring across our land a mere coincidence? Certainly, they are not related to an economic downturn during a continuing eight-year recovery from the Great Recession. They are not occurring because we are losing the war with ISIS or other forms of terrorism, jihadist or otherwise. They are not happening because we are facing an existential threat from some foreign power, even though we have enemies like Russia who would like nothing more than to see us divided, weakened, even ashamed of ourselves.
While many forms of hatred exist among individuals across our country, they are normally balanced out and kept in check by our shared sense of American ideals. Today, our leaders, through their words and actions are unleashing individuals who feel empowered to act on their basest motives. They feel lost and in need of regaining power and self-respect and they are encouraged by our President and his enablers.
President Trump and those who share in his power tell them that to look to others in our society and place the blame on them. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are excused and encouraged by this administration to act out their hatreds even as our President and his followers deny encouraging them. These are not stupid men and women but they are ambitious. To President Trump and his aides, their success makes it there time to try to redirect our American journey, to divide us so that their rich or connected friends can further enrich themselves at the expense of most other Americans because America will become divided into warring factions. Drain the swamp, indeed.
This is not a matter of neglect but rather a matter of design. Divide and conquer is the order of the day. How can I be so sure of this? Because there is a deafening silence from our President, Vice President and his alt-right friends! What better place to begin to restore our sense of a national American community that at the annual national conference of conservatives who proclaim their love of America and with the whole world watching. Silence – nothing but silence and a statement that “This is our time.” “Out time”, not America’s time, not an opportunity to instill strength into our diverse American community.
So does President Trump’s opening remarks in his speech before Congress change anything. Of course, it is better that he said them. He “condemns hate and evil in all of its ugly forms.” But he did not call them un-American. He did not call on all American patriots to stand up to these acts and he did not call them hate crimes. He could not even say that the shooting in Kansas was an attack on supposed Iranian Muslims.
Contrast this, with what he his full throated denunciation of crimes committed by immigrants, even though statistically immigrants commit violent crimes at a much lower rate that native born Americans. He even declared that he was creating a new office in the Department of Homeland Security called V.O.I.C.E. – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. But he did not create a task force to fight hate crimes. He did not suggest that hate crimes across America would be investigated and prosecuted by the Department of Justice. He did not denounce the alt-right groups and media commentators who trade in hatred and who supported his election by name. He did not call upon our better selves, like the hero who tried to stop the shooting in Kansas, to fight evil even when it is easier to duck. Most of all, he did not take any responsibility for the evil that he condemns.
President Trump calls for a “renewal of the American spirit.” But the strength of America does not lie in its dynamic economy or in its military power. American greatness lies in our sense of community, a community that requires our leaders to have the courage to build an open, optimistic, sharing community. President Trump may be on a path to changing his rhetoric and himself. If he is, I wish him Godspeed.