Rothman At-Large

De-Trumping America: A Few Lessons From My Ride With Muhammad

December 12, 2018

The Uber driver—let’s call him Muhammad—was from Afghanistan.


“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about Donald Trump?”


I wasn’t going to take anything for granted.


The Aryan in the White House might not like Muhammad’s skin color and his probable Muslim faith. But earlier I’d run across a religious African immigrant who cherished Trump for—gasp—the President’s professions of piety.


“I love him,” Muhammad said of Trump without the least irony. “He plays by the rules. He’s President, he’s strong and he puts America first.”


“Do you know about Trump’s days in New York?” I asked. “He stiffed a lot of working people. Craftsmen, carpenters, painters, others. He just didn’t pay them.” So allege countless lawsuits, at least. In fact, as shown by the filing of at least sixty suits as of two years ago, the problem has gone far beyond New York. Trump at times has even refused to pay his lawyers. See USA Today.



“No,” Muhammad said.


“Where do get your news?” I asked


“Fox,” he said.


“Where else?”




“You don’t read the newspapers?”


Muhammad said he didn’t.


I gently suggested that Muhammad read the Washington Post and at least consider tuning in MSNBC. CNN-watching might also help.


Now—here’s the kicker. Muhammad is no dummy. He says he’s an IT student at a Maryland university. And guess what he did for U.S. forces in Afghanistan? He analyzed news stories in the local media.


“You don’t have to believe the Post and MSNBC automatically,” I said. “Just try comparing different news sources against the others and seeing who’s right. Pretend you’re back in Afghanistan analyzing stories there.”


Likewise frustrating is that Muhammad isn’t isolated in a rural hamlet. He lives in a Maryland suburb.


As if that isn’t enough, Trump’s record on immigration from Afghanistan is hardly sterling, even in regard to locals like Muhammad who helped the U.S.


Perhaps Muhammad thought I was a well-connected Trumpist or at least one with ICE friends. But that explanation seems rather far-fetched.


So what can Democrats and others learn from my ride with Muhammad?


1. Yes, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority in America by mid-century, but one should never take demographics for granted. Muhammad’s political views certainly didn’t fit the stereotypes.


Democrats shouldn’t just make nice noises about diversity. 


Campaigning, they should try harder in immigrant communities while remembering that although ethnic identity is important, it is far from the only show—whether the immigrants are Afghans or otherwise.


Running for re-election in Texas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz carried more Hispanic voters than expected, and likely not just because Cruz’s father came from Cuba. Many Hispanics are socially conservative and may hate abortion enough for such sentiments to count even more than immigration matters do.


The Democrats shouldn’t sell out on issues like abortion just to appeal to immigrants and others, but again and again, they can emphasize how anti-family are Trump and the Republicans—on matters ranging from healthcare to childhood nutrition, maternal leave and minimum wages and tax policies.


Even more important, they can come up with better alternatives. This approach worked well in the last election in regard to healthcare. It needs to be expanded.


2. Encourage immigrants and others to watch, listen to and read major media outlets without Fox-style ideological agendas—and otherwise gain a better understanding of the issues.


Civics education in K-12 is a praiseworthy cause but can go only so far. Muhammad is already a voting-age U.S. citizen.


Meaningful U.S. history courses should be required of IT and other technical students like Muhammad, even in college. Let’s think of tech types as citizens, too, not just future workers. Just like liberal arts majors, many will vote.


3. Regardless of advice to the contrary, Democrats can zero in on Donald Trump’s flaws as an individual—in germane ways. Notice how Muhammad thought Trump played by the rules? Muhammad didn’t even know Trump had stiffed carpenters and painters. You won’t hear news like that on right-wing outlets as often as elsewhere. Generalities will go only so far, but specifics could help—including facts about Trump’s use of immigrants without proper papers on his private properties.


Note: I’ve changed minor details here and there to protect Muhammad’s identity.

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Jewish Casino Billionaire Is Major Trump Donor; Stop Enabling Bigots, Sheldon Adelson

November 4, 2018

Donald Trump is still demonizing billionaire George Soros and other “globalists,” just as he did in a 2016 campaign commercial with anti-Semitic dog-whistles, or at least something very close.


But Trump is picky about which Jewish billionaires to smear, and for good reason.


None other than Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish casino billionaire, helped finance our demagogic President’s rise to power. In this election cycle, he is the number one donor to the Republican Party in its Trumpist incarnation. Adelson has splurged at least $55 million on the sullied GOP through two groups.


As a fellow Jew, I’ve got some advice for the 85-year-old Adelson, borrowed from Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign. “Just say no” to Trump and GOP fundraisers.


Vile anti-Semitism has been spiking under Trump, and even if Adelson and other Jewish Trumpists deny the existence of a provable cause-effect, they should at least concede the probability of one.


“Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population,” the AP’s David Crary writes, “but in annual FBI data they repeatedly account for more than half of the Americans targeted by hate crimes committed due to religious bias. The Anti-Defamation League identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017, up from 1,267 in 2016, and also reported a major increase in anti-Semitic online harassment.”


First Donald Trump spoke of “very fine people on both sides” in the 2017 Charlottesville incident where alt-right bigots clashed with counter-protestors, leaving one of the latter dead. Now comes news of another tragedy. An anti-Semitic truck driver killed 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh—the worst massacre of Jews in American history. Even if Trump didn’t fire off the AR-25 assault rifle used in the attack, Trump just might have blood on his undersized hands.


With the full power of his office, the President has been spreading the false rumor that a raggedy band of would-be immigrants poses a serious threat to the United States. Fox News and other right-wing media have repeated the canard again and again.


The man charged with the massacre at the synagogue, Robert Gregory Bowers, made his intention clear afterward in this chilling statement: “I just want to kill Jews.” And guess who conspiracists like Bowers apparently hold responsible for the migrant caravan about to “invade” the United States and end their Aryan way of life: Jews. Bowers is believed to have written online that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.”


While Donald Trump was too much of a “globalist” for Bowers’ taste, the President’s anti-immigrant message must have resonated with the suspected killer, regardless of whether the Trump mentioned HIAS.


I won’t buy Trump’s excuse that Bowers did not support him. Nor does it matter that the trucker was crazy. Deranged or not, he left his victims just as dead. The point is, the President has loosed the demons of hate. It makes not a whit of difference that Trump’s daughter, son-in-law and Kushner grandchildren are Jewish. Like any other psychopath, Trump cares mainly about Number One, and if anything, he must enjoy the ability to hide behind them. Keep in mind that Trump once kept a collection of Hitler’s speeches near his bed. Perhaps one of the few books Trump has loved other than his own ghost-written works?


You can shrug off My New Order as a chance for the Trump to learn the art of propaganda from a master—or you can say that the book was merely a conversation piece given by a friend. Still, irrefutably, Trump’s own words and deeds are those of a Hitler- or Mussolini-style fascist in spirit at the very least. Here is a Biff Tannen-style bully who punched an elementary school teacher in the face and has been quoted as saying he is the same man today as when he was young.


Trump has praised a politician for body-slamming a reporter and continues to call journalists “enemies of the people” despite the risk of lives lost. He has warned against Mexican “rapists” and, pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments, says Middle Eastern people could have been in the migrant caravan. He calls himself a “nationalist,” a term dear to many fascists: no need for “white” in front of it. How long until we Jews are Trump’s major targets—not just the dog-whistled kind—to satisfy the prejudices of The Base? Maybe not next month or next year,  and maybe never, but a future Trump-style fascist could yet arise with an urge to impose on us a bloody “final solution.” The additional havoc that automation may wreak on the U.S. labor force could eventually stir up The Base with Dachau-lethal results. Among the jobs imperiled eventually could be those of truckers like Robert Bowers.

So, Mr. Adelson, please abandon your hopes of influencing Trump’s Israeli policies via your massive campaign donations. How about the long-term safety and well-being of your fellow Jews here in the United States? If nothing else, as a $30-billion man, think of practicalities at the existential level: future fascist bigots just might want to kill you and claim your “Jewish billions” for themselves.

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Good Riddance to 'Silent Sam,' UNC’s Toppled Civil War Statue. Don't Bring Him Back.

August 26, 2018

Stone statues honoring the dead helped draw me to the University of North Carolina.


Thomas Wolfe wrote unforgettably of his father the stonecutter in Look Homeward, Angel, a classic coming-of-age novel. After reading Angel, I knew I must go to Chapel Hill.


Back in the 1960s when I was at “Pulpit Hill, as Wolfe called the university in his autobiographical work, I was blind to the full history of another monument to the dead. This bronze one was of a far different nature from the stonecutter’s creations.


“Silent Sam,” shown here in an old file shot, was a Civil War soldier who had acquired his name because he bore no ammunition. White students saw Sam as benign. Here was a landmark to sit and perhaps get drunk on. Most of the local Caucasians regarded Sam just as a tribute to the many UNC students and alumni who had fought bravely in the Civil War.


I took a class from the brilliant George Tindall, a leading Southern historian, and learned in detail of lynchings and the dark Dixie populism that would help pave the way for the Trumpist variety. For Tindall or perhaps on my own, I read David Chalmers‘s Hooded Americanism. Surely a genteel university town like Chapel Hill was above the more outrageous manifestations of Kluxery. What I did not know, and what even Professors Tindall and Chalmers probably did not, was that Silent Sam himself could have merited a harrowing mention in the latter’s book.


At Sam’s dedication in 1913, speakers praised the courage of the Confederates from UNC—I haven’t the least issue with that. But racist myths notwithstanding, the South fought the Civil War mainly to a defend a multi-billion-dollar investment in slaves. And an ugly speech, forgotten until rediscovered in 2009 by a then-graduate student named Adam Domby, was vile enough to balance out all the talk of brave student-soldiers.


The orator, Julian Shakespeare Carr, was not just an ex-Confederate private transformed into a rich UNC trustee with the honorary title of “general.” He was a persistent and passionate booster of the Ku Klux Klan. Fortified with classical allusions, his dedication speech was far more flowery than demagogic rants in front of burning crosses. But the hate was the same:


“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”


Defend Sam with all the standard excuses; yes, 500 members of the university community may have died in the war or of related causes. But in the end, wittingly or not, you’ll be dog-whistling in memory of full-throated racists like Julian Carr. Let Southerns honor their beloved dead as individuals—but not Carr’s true cause dedicated to the enslavement of fellow human beings. Silent Sam should be relegated to a museum with large signage placing him in historical context. We must not erase but learn from history. But Sam’s very location provided the wrong context.


I am saddened that UNC administrators, while condemning Sam as divisive, failed to try as hard as they could to use legal means to banish Sam from the university’s upper quad facing Franklin Street. Such an essential job was left to protestors. They pulled Sam down from his pedestal on August 20 after having vandalized him in the past. Miraculously the police somehow allowed it to happen, without injuries or loss of life, even though the university had been spending about $400,000 year on Sam’s security. Of course, the protestors broke the law. But given the lack of alternatives, the statue’s toppling was a praiseworthy act of civil disobedience. The protestors should be arrested and fined—$1 each—and go through life proud of their police records.


Like my own state of Virginia, North Carolina has a law protecting public monuments. There are even provisions for restoring removed monuments to their previous locations or ones of similar prominence. May this not happen! If so, large corporations should take a stand against Tar Heel racism, just as they did with boycott threats against North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, fortunately repealed. For full clarification of the legal situation, the law protecting Sam should be amended or, ideally, stricken from the books. Passed by a viciously racist Republican state legislature, in part the product of gerrymandering and voter suppression, the law even says that a statue cannot be relocated to “museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”


University officials could help by telling Democratic Governor Roy Cooper that return of Sam really would threaten public safety. He had provided them with a similar opportunity before, but they did not respond as meaningfully as they could have. As of August 23, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt would neither reveal the statue’s current location nor tell whether Sam would return to the old one. Almost surely she and UNC System President Margaret Spellings are not bigots; nor, let me add, would I automatically apply that pejorative to every one of Sam genuine supporters. I just wish UNC had been more forceful in fighting the old prejudices that Sam symbolizes even at one of the South’s more enlightened schools. As late as 1938, saying that the State Legislature must decide, the university denied admission to an African American hoping to attend the school of social work, the very kind of place devoted to better lives for the have-nots. A racist student, in fact, threatened to tar and feather any people of color who accompanied Pauli Murray to class.


The university’s atonement should be an ongoing process. It is with me. While at UNC, I myself ridiculed the Klan and the racist Sen. Jesse Helms in the Daily Tar Heel, the school newspaper Wolfe had once edited, but I still could have shown far more sensitivity on racial issues, especially those intertwined with the Vietnam War. These days I have tried to make it up through such efforts as a proposal for a national library endowment, which, among other things, could provide scholarships to people of color aspiring toward librarianship.

Disappointingly, the library profession’s diversity statistics are abysmal. In 2012 there were just 563 credentialed black male librarians, for example, despite their value as role models. Minority neighborhoods especially have suffered when school districts cut back or close K-12 libraries. Politicians and perhaps certain librarians need to atone, too. It is wrong not to deplore Sam and other racist trappings of the American past. It is even worse not to care sufficiently about the injustices of the present.


A good response to the library world’s minority crisis would be to work toward a privately funded national library endowment, one of whose purposes would be the provision of enough money for scholarships and advocacy to address minority needs whether or not politicians are receptive. This need not be a pipe dream. Just ten Americans are together worth more than half a trillion dollars; 400, more than $2.5 or so trillion.


So far, however, the American Library Association has refused to issue even a brief endorsement of the basic endowment idea. ALA says it lacks the “bandwidth.” Really? Aren’t most cosmic issues “bandwidth”-intensive? Couldn’t ALA partner with Harvard or another wealthy institution on a conference bringing together librarians, prospective donors and other stakeholders? Would ALA feel the same if more schools in well-off white neighborhoods were losing their librarians? Another reason exists for the proposed endowment. Libraries help give voters of all colors a sense of history, which, after all, must be preceded by a certain level of curiosity and literacy—at the core of what libraries should be about. Come on, ALA. Where’s the reflection?


Thomas Wolfe fought his own internal battles. A lover was Jewish, but many critics saw tinges of anti-Semitism—in fact, much worse—in his life and work. Even so, we can all aspire.


I’m reminded of the beautiful lines from Angel about the protagonist’s father: “He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel’s head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine—but not the angel.” Still, we can at least try to carve our own angel’s heads.

Updates in the Washington Post: Three people charged, and UNC prepares for possible protests, after Confederate monument Silent Sam is toppled and Protesters clash, arrests mount after toppling of Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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