Video of the crowds at Trump’s North Carolina rally chanting “send her back” in reference to Representative Ilhan Omar reminded me of the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford being heckled and harassed by a mob of 1000 as she attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
As Eckford sought to assert her legal right to enter what was previously an all-White public space, she was greeted with shouts of “lynch her” by vitriolic crowd of White women and men. Eckford was turned away by order of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and the Arkansas National Guard forcing a reluctant President Eisenhower to send in federal troops.
Of course, Eckford and Omar’s experiences are separated in time and status but there are some similarities. Both were/are young women of color exercising legal rights that challenge(d) accepted norms.
In a recent opinion piece New York Times columnist David Brooks contrasts Trump’s version of America with his own. Trump’s America is xenophobic, nostalgic, and white. The real American idea, says Brooks, is pluralistic, future-oriented, and universal.
Another New York Times writer, Timothy Egan, argues that Ireland has become what America used to be. Ireland has health care for all, nearly free college education, and welcomes immigrants. “Back home in America,” Egan states, “is the new norm: a fully blossoming fascism.” Egan asks how could Irish-Americans vote for this awful man without becoming traitors to their heritage?
The reality is that there are competing versions of what America is and who is entitled to citizenship. There were undoubtedly Irish Americans in the mob intent on punishing Elizabeth Eckford for exercising her rights under the 1954 Brown decision just as there were Irish American representatives in Congress who signed a “Southern Manifesto” pledging resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision.
And while many Americans would like to believe that the pluralistic, future-oriented, universal narrative of what it means to be American won out, Central High School today is majority Black although the Southern schools are less segregated than those in the rest of the country including New York. The controversy over “send her back” reminds us that the definition of who we are as a people is contested and ever-changing terrain (once excluding the Irish).
As various groups reach back to the past to reconstruct events, heroes, and myths that fit their conception of America, lines of difference emerge more clearly. As symbols, Harriett Tubman emerges to replace Andrew Jackson only to be sublimated once again. Difference breeds distrust of others that can be fatal for democracies. Democracy, after all, depends on trustful talk among strangers. If citizens no longer think it sensible, or feel secure enough, to place their fate in the hands of democratic strangers we are in trouble. Electoral minorities must feel that they are included as citizens; that their views are represented and heard or indeed they will leave or rebel against the polity.
Liberalism in this country began as an effort to solve the problem of religious intolerance. A kind of civil religion evolved to address the problem of radical distrust in political life. Today what is American are beliefs not arrived at inductively and analytically but rather acquired through exposure to mass and social media, formal education, and informal communal and social interaction.
Those forces that are most successful in promoting their idea of our collective identity as Americans do not just tell and retell stories—they institutionalize them in rules, laws, customs and norms. What is most alarming in the current scene is not the loss of civility but rather the loss of trust.
It is not that we have a racist president because he is not the first. It is not that he can rally a crowd to chant hateful messages because he is not the first. What is most alarming is the institutionalization of his views in the Republican Party. Through the Party they become the stuff of ordinary life that limits and excludes the rights of fellow citizens.