America’s five-month primary election season formally ended on Tuesday, but a new, brutally serious phase had already begun with the weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. It was the deadliest such incident in US history and was perpetrated by an American-born-and-bred Muslim man of Afghan ethnicity who may have been both mentally disturbed and self-radicalised. Unsurprisingly, the tragedy was cynically seized by the Republican Party’s presidential hopeful Donald Trump as a chance to hammer his Islamophobic ideas for keeping America safe.
In this new phase of the presidential election campaign, then, the old worries about Mr Trump’s candidature continue. There are fears, most recently expressed by the previous Republican party nominee for president Mitt Romney, that Mr Trump’s brief political career could change the moral fabric of America for generations to come by introducing “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry and trickle-down misogyny”.
Is this just overblown rhetoric, of the sort one might expect during an unusually polarising presidential election? Can just one political season really change a country for ever? And if a political campaign can inject a new idea — for good or ill — into a national mindset, does that not imply predisposition? Could seemingly new campaign slogans simply reflect a people’s deeply buried atavistic ways of thinking?
This presidential election, the fourth since the 9/11 attacks, may eventually offer some answers. Even before the Orlando massacre, it was clear that Mr Trump’s campaign and message were having an extraordinary effect on the country.
His rallies had been marked by high levels of violence both by his supporters and those protesting against his divisive message.
More disturbingly, there were several outbreaks of anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Hispanic racism at high schools and university campuses across the country. “Stop Islam” slogans, for instance, were found chalked on a pedestrian walkway at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mr Trump’s “build a wall” proposal for America’s border with Mexico was taken up by white high school students in places as different as Beloit in Wisconsin and Palo Alto in California. Their aim seemed to be the humiliation of Hispanic classmates by asserting racial superiority.
Is it a sign of politically induced “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry and trickle-down misogyny” that America’s children are taking up Mr Trump’s anti-Islam, anti-Mexican chant? Yes, but that may not be the whole story. Young people routinely mimic their elders.
They are learning the lessons being handed down by Mr Trump, who turned 70 on Tuesday and should rightly be expected to be a venerable role model by virtue of running for the highest office in the land. He isn’t proving a role model but that’s another matter.
If Mr Trump’s demagoguery is defeated at the ballot box on November 8, we can expect “ban Muslims” and “build the wall” to fade from communal memory and American children to find more innocent slogans.
But what if the newly observed bad behaviour on school playgrounds and campuses is a sign of something deeper than Mr Trump’s demagoguery? Something more nativist, an ethno-nationalism that unmakes the idea of America, e pluribus unum, or out of many, one?
Filmmaker Michael Moore recently pointed to Germany as a good example for America to follow if it is to recover from the overt racism introduced into standard discourse this political season.
More specifically, Moore commended the way that Germany has come to terms with its past and the immense historical wrong done within living memory. Acknowledging a problem is “step one of the 12-step programme” of atonement, he said.
He is absolutely right. Germany has been remarkably resolute about looking evil in the eye and expressing remorse and determination.
Even the German parliament’s recent controversial decision to recognise the Armenian “genocide” reflected Germany’s unflinching acknowledgement of its sins.
The parliamentary resolution says that the massacre and forced resettlement of more than a million Armenians during the Ottoman period “exemplifies the history of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, expulsions and yes, the genocides that distinguished the 20th century in such a horrible way.” And then it offered a mea culpa: “At the same time, we recognise the uniqueness of the Holocaust, for which Germany takes the blame and bears responsibility. The Bundestag deplores the inglorious role of the German Empire, which, as Turkey’s military ally, had clear information from its diplomats and missionaries about the expulsion and annihilation of Armenians, but did not attempt to stop these crimes against humanity.”
The US hasn’t done anything so humble and remorseful, especially with respect to African-Americans and Native Americans at home, and communities of Muslims and others abroad. This failure to acknowledge and atone arguably prevents the US from making the social changes it must to move on, as Moore suggested.
That may be one reason that Trump-ian politics became possible at all. And that more than 50 years after racial equality achieved sacred legal status, there is a US presidential candidate whose agenda belongs to 1930s Germany.
It was Richard von Weizsaecker, president of the then West Germany, who said while visiting Israel’s Holocaust memorial in 1985: “The past cannot be wiped out. The more openly we face the truth, the freer we are to meet present-day challenges.”
Only atonement can make America whole and free.