Less than 20 days. It has been a long, hard road to this election. I see fearful faces, those of tormented migrants at the Mexican border, and hate-filled faces, those of the white nationalists in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Donald Trump has been all about the fear of replacement, or as it’s sometimes called, “the great replacement.” His has been the stand — I am tempted to say the last stand — of whites against nonwhites.
Of America-first nationalists against migrants; of straight people against L.G.B.T.Q. people; of the gunned-up against the unarmed. Of Trump against all those he believes would replace the likes of him.
All means have been used — lies, brutality, incitement. But fear has been Trump’s main weapon. Fear, which depends on pitting one group against another, is the currency of the Trump presidency. It is therefore no surprise that the America that is about to vote is probably more fractured than at any time since the Vietnam War.
“The great replacement” is a phrase generally attributed to a French writer, Renaud Camus, who said: “The great replacement is very simple. You have one people, and in the space of a generation, you have a different people.”
That, of course, is a good definition of America.
Of its vitality, its churn, its reinvention, its essential openness. The America that Trump would deny. He wants to freeze a white America. Some strange blend of Norman Rockwell and “Mad Men,” in an imaginary United States strutting across a world pliant to its will. Behind “America first” lurks a very un-American credo.
Change can be frightening, which is what the great replacement conspiracy theory hinges on. Camus warns grotesquely of a “genocide by substitution,” the replacement of a white French and European order by Muslim hordes in a plot orchestrated by cosmopolitan elites. In Trump’s case, read a white American order replaced by brown Mexican rapists and Black pillagers.
France is worried about Muslims from North Africa. Germans were once so worried about Jews replacing them that they killed six million of them. In a world of mass migration, fear rages: Some idea of the nation will be diluted or lost!
America is particularly susceptible to fear today because the world has changed in unsettling ways. Power has migrated eastward to Asia. America’s recent wars have been unwon. By midcentury, non-Hispanic whites will constitute less than 50 percent of the population.
It is frightening to see an industry disappear, like coal in Kentucky. Trump understood that he could be the voice of that fear. He would build a wall to keep those brown people out!
He is an impostor. He puffs out his chest, Mussolini-style, but he is a bone-spur coward. A narrow ramp makes his limbs tremble. He is good at getting the blood up. He is good at undoing. He is not good at getting anything constructive done.
Less than 20 days.
America will decide whether to opt for the future or burrow self-destructively into some warped fantasy of the past. It will decide whether to reinvent itself again or turn mean and further inward.
As Edward R. Murrow remarked, “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
That was in 1954, at the height of McCarthyism. For Senator Joseph McCarthy, the danger to the Republic came from Communist infiltration of American life. The real danger came from his obsessions. From the purges and blacklists that branded countless Americans as un-American.
Murrow, a great journalist, stood up to McCarthy.
Donald Trump does business the McCarthy way. He deals in specters: immigrants, and Muslims, and brown people, and Black people, and L.G.B.T.Q. people.
As with McCarthy, however, the real danger comes from Trump’s obsessions, not from these imagined enemies.
American freedom is in decline. The freedom to think, because thought depends on truth. The freedom to dissent, because Trump believes he has “the right to do whatever I want as president.” The freedom to breathe because Trumpism — its nepotism, its cozying to dictators, its incessant volume — is suffocating.
The freedom inextricable from the American idea that I, a naturalized American, hold sacred with an unreasonable ardor.
No, we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. We can only defend those who trample human dignity and human rights. As Trump has done with cavalier abandon.
Is it unreasonable to see renewal in a 77-year-old man, Joe Biden? No. We live in the real world, where the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Indecency demands the restoration of decency. That’s ground zero of this election. The choice was starkly evident in the televised town hall events Thursday as Trump spouted wild far-right conspiracy theories while Biden had the self-deprecating honesty to say that if he lost, it could suggest he’s “a lousy candidate.” Biden is not a lousy candidate; he is a good man, a brave man. I doff my hat to any parent who survives with such dignity the loss of two of his four children.
Of McCarthy, Murrow observed: “He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”
The fault is in ourselves. Time for Americans to look in the mirror — and realize their America is irreplaceable if it is lost.
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