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Columns

Then, As Now, Trumpism Dreams of America

Thanksgiving, collegiate liberalism, and the search for an American identity

By Winston Shi, Contributing Writer

It is Nov. 22, 2016, and the newly minted Senior Counselor to Donald Trump is angry. Even if Asians are navigating America fairly, Steve Bannon doesn’t like the fact that there are so many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley. “A country is more than an economy,” he explained. “We’re a civic society.” Apparently Asians still tear apart the social fabric of this country if we do too well.

It is Nov. 22, 2016, and Harvard is about to break for Thanksgiving. And for many people at Harvard, there seems to be awfully little to be thankful for.

But let’s just remember that Donald Trump won the election because a lot of white Americans don’t think there’s very much to be thankful for too.

***

Thanksgiving is part of America’s founding myth. It’s the day when the Pilgrims first truly felt at home in their new country. And as the country awakened to race, we redefined Thanksgiving as a time when whites and Native Americans broke bread together.

Yet, except in times of war, America has never been a truly united nation. The notion of a united America has survived for so long because our federal system—the division of Americans into partially self-governing states—makes it easy to overlook the true depth of our internal divisions. The modern disintegration of federalism has forced Americans to realize that we’re not so similar after all, and never have been.

Trump’s America recalls the past as homogeneous nonetheless. It blames immigration, both a consequence and harbinger of the future, for destroying that past, and with it American identity. (This is, of course, only one foundation of Trumpism, but it’s the one that threatens to change America the most.) Of course, the past was not homogeneous; society simply has a selective memory. There were minorities before immigration: They were called black people, and society simply ignored them. But at least we know what Steve Bannon was talking about.

As Ronald Reagan first understood, revisionist nostalgia still wields an astonishing psychic power that can be bent to any purpose. Many college students seek to transcend the past. But we can either come to terms with the past and recall that there was something good about it, or we can be overwhelmed by millions of voters seeking to make America great again.

In particular, we can try to recreate the true foundations of the “civic society” that white America thinks it once enjoyed—by delivering economic growth for all, emphasizing immigrants’ shared desire for stable communities, and not talking down to Trump’s America. Yes, there are Trump voters who believe in white nationalism. That’s obvious. But Trump wouldn’t have won without the remnants of the Silent Majority—people who are not racist but will tolerate prejudiced rhetoric in service of what they feel is a greater purpose. People who are still coming to terms with the fact that this country is bigger and deeper and far more diverse than they had ever imagined.

White working-class Americans have learned to play identity politics. We can try to create a new American identity that includes them, even if their vision doesn’t include us. If not…well, there are more of them, and their votes count the same as ours.

***

Part of me has always wanted to be Tom Wolfe, journalist/auteur/literary marvel. I am precisely none of these things, but I know what Michael Lewis meant about Wolfe when he said: “He dresses exotically and is talented and intellectually powerful, like the sophisticates in the bubble. But he isn’t really one of them. To an extent that shocks the people inside the bubble, when they learn of it, he shares the values of the hinterland. He believes in God, Country, and even, up to a point, Republican Presidents.”

Never having a bubble of your own lets you see inside the worlds of others with greater clarity.

While there are many people of color who are angry about the Trump election, the angriest people I’ve seen have all been friendly liberal white people on Facebook—the sort of people who think that the arc of liberty bends towards justice, or at least towards Harvard Square.

To them, I can only say one thing from my own experience: It doesn’t feel right to make nice with people who break bread with racists. But let me repeat: Their votes count the same as mine. The impeachment truthers and the National Popular Vote idealists do me no good. The Silent Majority, on the other hand, can still shout down the racists, if only you can get them on your side. Compromise is not a dirty word when it is a necessity, and the moment has never demanded our empathy more. It is time to come to terms with the present.

After the election, a lot of people at Harvard—all of them white—told me, “I don’t know whether I’m at home at this country anymore.” In my experience, white people at Harvard—the allies that people of color like me need if we are going to find our place in Trump’s America—felt so lost in the past two weeks because they thought a liberal America was both their home and their birthright.

But as a person of color, I’ve never expected these things.

Being Asian in America teaches you to keep your aspirations realistic. Only white people threaten to move to Canada.

And yet without aspirations there is no America at all. It’s why I stayed in America instead of moving to Vancouver, why I’ve kept on fighting to be American, even when union workers yell racial slurs at me and establishment types use me as the new “Some of my best friends are black.” Hell, it’s why I title my column “Letters from Cambridge.” America is home, and someday it will feel that way.

I am used to being the odd person out—the Chinese in America, the American in China, the Christian in California, the conservative at Harvard. I get it. I’m not sure Trump voters actually get it, but they think they do, and that’s the important thing. As hard as it is for me to say: Like me, all Trump voters really want is some place—or someone—to send their letters.


Winston Shi is a current first-year at Harvard Law School. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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