What the Trump/Khan Debate Really Says About America
Presidential elections aren’t battles for the soul of a country. Politics in general is that battle. Politics is how a stable and inclusive society is built. We cannot do this kind of building on a cracked foundation.
Donald Trump is the ultimate reckoning for a certain type of ideology. He is hatred and bluster writ large. He’s a glimpse into a future where America’s destiny is steered by bullies.
We thought we were learning about Trump as we watched his feud with the Khan family unfold, but we were really learning about ourselves.
The Trump-Khan Feud: A Brief History
The very public feud between the Trumps and the Khans dates back to December 2015, when Trump called publically for a “temporary ban” on all Muslims entering the United States. You and I know it was an absurd proposal, and Khizr Khan knew it, too. In response, Khan said in an interview that Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric does not reflect American values.
Khan, of course, is a Muslim, and the father of Humayun Khan, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq back in 2004. One of the most telling passages in that first interview from Mr. Khan is this: “We still wonder what made him take those 10 steps [toward the suicide bomber’s car] … Maybe that’s the point where all the values, all the service to country … kicked on. These were the values we wanted to adopt. Not religious values, human values.”
In other words: My family may be Muslim, but we’re also much more than that.
Nevertheless, it appears beyond the scope of Trump’s comprehension that a person can adhere both to the values of Islam and to the United States Constitution. And so, on July 28, 2016, during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Khan spoke again, directly to Trump: “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? … You have sacrificed nothing, and no one.”
Two days later, Trump took to ABC to once again display the ease with which one can puncture his hugely inflated ego. He said he’s sacrificed a lot because he’s worked hard, and he questioned the origin of Khan’s speech, speculating that speechwriters for Hillary Clinton had written it. Khan, of course, had declined the services of a speechwriter for his address to the DNC.
But Trump didn’t stop there, because of course not. He also decided it would be prudent and presidential to insult Ghazala Khan, wife of Khizr and mother of Humayun, for standing silently beside her husband on stage. He implied that her religious beliefs were the reason for her silence.
The war of words continued from that point on Twitter, on televised interviews and across American Media in general. Each time one of the Khans spoke on television, Trump’s riposte would appear on Twitter, each dispatch more desperate and ugly than the last.
The whole spectacle appears to have just about run its course, but it culminated in John McCain’s denouncement of Trump’s comments: “Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or its candidates,” he said.
One might strenuously object to the idea that racism is not, in fact, an intrinsic part of the modern Republican Party’s DNA, but that’s a discussion for another time. The point is, McCain became the latest — but still one of the dishearteningly few — Republican politicians to grow a spine and call out Trump for what he is: a hate-monger and a racist.
What Does This Episode Say About America?
What can we learn from this? After all the sound bites and the back-and-forth in the media, what have we really learned about America?
I think there are three key things we can take away from this, and, unfortunately, none of them reflect very positively on the state of the country — or on the media’s complicity in fanning the flames of dissent:
1. America is more satisfied with spectacle than with substance.
Make no mistake: Trump’s comments deserve to be disseminated, dissected and ultimately seen for the hate-speech they are — but do we have to do it 24 hours a day?
Whenever I grab my phone to listen to NPR’s 4-and-a-half-minute hourly national news roundup, the first words I hear, 90 percent of the time, are: “Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump…”
Enough is enough. The country was right to react the way it did (most of the country, at least) to Trump’s latest effusion of hot air, but there are bigger fish to fry. While we were fixated on the latest Trump Tweets®, you might have missed these other stories:
– The FCC’s efforts to allow cities to build their own broadband networks were defeated in court by media conglomerates, including Comcast.
– Republican judges in Wisconsin restored the state’s poisonous voter ID laws (read: voter suppression laws), which was dreamed up by — you guessed it — Republicans.
– While rejecting calls to reclassify the Schedule I drug, the DEA announced it would finally begin allowing more research into medical marijuana.
See what I mean? There’s a lot more going on in this country than “Trump said this” or “Trump did that.” Donald Trump is a reality television star — and guess what? That’s exactly what he’s being, even as he tilts pointlessly at the White House. His only real talent, besides inheriting money and claiming status as a self-made man, is knowing how to drum up controversy. He does so practically on a fixed schedule, and each new asinine comment is more appalling than the last.
He’s not a politician — so stop treating him like one. Focus on the news that really matters.
2. America only likes the friendly Muslims.
The Democratic Party has a canny ability to play to their party’s strengths, particularly when they contrast so sharply with the “values” practiced by their counterparts across the aisle. In choosing Khizr Khan and his wife to share the stage at the DNC, they were directly challenging Trump and his assertions that all Muslims are traitorous and morally bankrupt.
But didn’t they go too far? The Khans are almost too conspicuous in their extraordinary exhibition of patriotism, sacrifice and loyalty to this great country. Don’t misunderstand: What they’ve lost in defense of the United States cannot be quantified, understated or diminished. But the Democrats sent an implicit and disquieting message to the Muslim population that night:
You have to be extraordinary to share the stage with us.
Because that’s the message, really, isn’t it? America already has a deep-seated mistrust of any faith that reads from an unfamiliar Holy Book, and Democrats have done rather little, beyond carefully crafted, PR-friendly rhetoric and strategic television appearances, do dispel the notion that Muslims are unworthy to share this country with us. Muslims are doctors, dentists, garbage men, wait staff and home inspectors. They are, predominantly, ordinary people.
However, it seems more and more that the only ones we tolerate are soldiers and other True Heroes®. Holding Muslim Americans to a loftier standard than your ordinary White American is as far from “progressive” as you can get.
There’s something deeply cynical about the Democrats’ appropriation of the Khan family’s misfortune. It was a very strategic choice, was it not? After all, Mr. Khan was not followed by a Mexican American, a Native American or a Jewish American. There was no parade of the races and creeds purportedly loved with equal intensity by the charitable, ever-loving Democratic Party. There were only the Khans — a human salvo in the continuing broadside exchange of ideals with the morally bankrupt Republican Party.
I know, and appreciate, that the DNC was looking for the moral high ground. I only wish they could do so without coming across as so desperate every time they need to showcase their compassion.
3. America has a reckless infatuation with war heroes.
I’m probably getting into controversial territory here, so I’ll be brief. In my opinion, there’s something extraordinarily unsettling about the phrase “war hero.”
I’ve had a number of political conversations with folks from my parents’ generation, and a goodly number of them believe if you haven’t served in the military, you’re unfit to run for President, much less become Commander in Chief. I think that’s a terrifying worldview.
That we’ve turned military service into something worth fetishizing reflects rather poorly on our values as a country. I have nothing but admiration and respect — awe, even — for the men and women serving in our armed forces. In case you haven’t guessed, they’re doing something I could never do. I’ve never even punched anybody in the face, so the thought of carrying a weapon into a war zone is as alien to me as anything possibly could be.
In America, the only thing more heroic than a soldier is a dead soldier. Is this not so? The last few sentences I’ve written here are not sentiments I’d offer up freely in just any conversation, most particularly because both of our major political parties have very nearly made it treasonous to speak ill of our military, or of the work they do overseas. And politicians? It’s nearly political suicide to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we need a little less military intervention in the world and a little more charity.
Soldier-worship is surrender to the idea that armed conflict is the best solution to our problems — and I just don’t buy it anymore. We can never repay a family like the Khans for the gift they’ve given us in the form of their dead son, but I think this country owes the next generation a bit more than posthumous lip-service.
If history has shown us anything, it’s this: Targeted hatred is not long for this world. It wasn’t so very long ago that America was openly hostile to Irish immigrants. It wasn’t so long ago that black people and women were denied the vote. Each new generation seems to do battle with its own specific prejudices, and each time love triumphs. The Islamophobia now sweeping this country will inevitably fade, before or after Trump’s glorious General Election implosion.
But I keep coming back to Khizr Khan’s words: “Not religious values, human values.”
That’s a powerful idea — this notion that we’re human before we’re Christian, Muslim or Hindu. The spirit of humanism so often seems to take a backseat, when in fact our humanness is the one thing every man, woman and child on this planet has in common. We ought to be able to love another person merely because they’re human.
That’s perhaps the most important lesson here. The people who we allow to speak for us — and at the moment, that regrettably includes Donald Trump — either preach words of love, or they do not. They either have a charitable spirit, or a hostile one. World peace will remain a pipe-dream until we learn, definitively, to tell the difference.
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