By Peter Durantine
During the Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump, like any autocrat, tried to claim America for himself. He did so, of course, in the felonious way he always conducts himself, by violating the law, in this case, the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using taxpayer dollars to advance their campaigns.
Yet, despite his position as head of the government, Trump, a mere mortal in reality, is a federal employee, even if he prefers to fashion himself king.
That GOP leaders like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky happily obliged and participated in Trump’s nomination speech on the White House lawn, a federal violation that should have earned rebuke from Paul and every member of Congress, if not the drafting of articles of impeachment, is telling of the right wing of the Republican Party.
With the White House stage bedecked and bestrewn with the red, white and blue to bedazzle his mostly mask-less supporters seated before him, Trump spent 70 minutes reveling in his own words while attacking his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, as essentially a un-American.
“Joe Biden is not a savior of America’s soul; he is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance he will be the destroyer of American greatness,” Trump said.
As preposterous as that statement was, and there were many more such falsehoods and lies, it’s the dog whistle of “Americanism” that Trump uses to divide the nation between who truly is an American and who is not. To Trump and his GOP supporters, true Americans are white, conservative, Protestant evangelicals. Everyone else is forgotten.
The night before Trump’s acceptance speech, Vice President Mike Pence laid the groundwork for this division-stoking (violence-inspiring) campaign, saying in his acceptance speech before a mostly mask-less audience at Fort McHenry in Baltimore that the choice in the election was whether “America stays America.” Really?
We can listen to the Orange Wizard of Washington D.C., and his angel-haired sidekick, or we can consider the genius of America—that it defies the narrow, permanent definition that white Christian conservatives have tried to impose on its character for decades.
Even the nation’s founding documents are open to interpretation, which is what the founders wanted because the United States was always going to be an amalgam of transformative cultures that contribute to the growth, character and strength of this country.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, John Adams and the rest of the 1776 gang in Philadelphia had to have anticipated that the United States was destined to become a nation unified by its diversity. The Constitution’s preamble states, “in order to form a more perfect union.”
Everyone gathered at that 18th century convention, which brought us a nation independent of Great Britain, also knew that the words they agreed to in the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – would absolutely apply to everyone, not just white people.
Even if they were slaveholders, which many of the founders were including Benjamin Franklin, how could that aspiration have escaped them? I doubt it really did, although the concept of non-whites having minds as great, if not greater than white men, took such white men as Franklin nearly a lifetime to grasp or accept.
Most Americans are simple folk who live in complicated times and want simple answers. So, if we want to define America in one word, perhaps it’s “opportunity.” That is opportunity for everyone, no matter race, religion or socio-economic station.
That’s one of government’s roles, ensuring opportunity, fairly and justly, with policies that make the path easier, not harder, for citizens – and for immigrants who come to the United States for freedom from want and fear – to achieve their potential.
Policies that make it easier means universal healthcare; grants and low-interest loans for college; a minimum wage that allows workers the opportunity to save for future opportunity; and an economic system that helps build and sustain communities, not tear them apart.
For some Americans, the words “freedom” and “rights” are a reflex, an emotional tic to policies they selfishly oppose like wearing a mask in a pandemic for their protection as well as those around them. To be free, to have rights, is to be responsible to your fellow citizen.
That’s what being an American means. And your birthplace, race and wealth should never matter.
Veteran journalist Peter Durantine is an occasional contributor to the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He is a former Associated Press and Capitolwire.com reporter, and the co-founder of The ‘Burg magazine.