I am going to be honest I am not the biggest fan of election years. Maybe I find it distasteful to watch adults my grandparents age engage in ruthless bickering and name-calling. Maybe I find the lack of authenticity and honesty in my potential leaders disillusioning. Or maybe it is just the optics of the whole affair that is more about the individual personalities than the job itself, i.e. serving the people. Yet this summer I have been unable to ignore candidates making the case for their candidacy, particularly the business mogul Donald Trump and his incendiary anti-immigration rhetoric. In June, he said the following in his presidential announcement speech:
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best...they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Many across the spectrum assumed that this statement would be the end of his political career. Since making this statement, however, his hateful rhetoric has surged and so has his popularity. As someone who studies human behavior and American history, I find his ascend to become the leading candidate for the Republican Party nomination particularly telling, specifically what it says about America and us as a people. Below is a list of five things I think his popularity says about all of us, regardless of our political affiliation.
1. It's Not About Facts. But Beliefs.
Scientific progress of the last century has provided us with answers to the vast majority of questions we have about ourselves as human beings, our social relations, our economy, and ecology. Yet, when it comes to politics, we do not like to hear hard truths and facts about the real causes of social ills such as unemployment, crime, or obesity as identified by leading scientists. We like to hear our personal beliefs.
Case in point is Mr. Trump's statement above. Despite its sheer inaccuracy - Latinos, of which people of Mexican origins are a part, make up 17 percent of the American population but they accounted for 9 percent of documented sexual assaults in 2013, far below their representation, whereas Whites accounted for 71 percent of sexual assaults, far above above their 63 percent makeup of the U.S. population-- Mr. Trump's rise to be the top candidate demonstrates that people want to have their personal beliefs confirmed. In other words, they want to believe these false characterizations and stereotypes about "Mexicans" and immigrants.
2. Beliefs Masquerade as Opinion Presented as Facts.
Mr. Trump is leading the polls because his audience agrees with him. Despite being disrespectful and bashful with his words, he reflects his audience's personal beliefs, which are then presented as facts. Continuing with the aforementioned example, Mr. Trump is able to artfully present his factually inaccurate beliefs about people of Mexican origin as facts. Not only that, he is able to create a "bad guy," which in this case is the country of Mexico for actively "sending" its people to the United States, as if the Mexican government has nothing better to do. Such fear mongering tragically activates the people's fear and stress response, which is what Mr. Trump needs to stay ahead in the polls.
3. Beliefs Are Based on Historical Ignorance Not Historical Amnesia.
Many people comment that Americans have amnesia around our history. Amnesia is a state of losing one's memory, which requires one to actually know something at one time. When it comes to our history, most Americans, particularly White Americans, across the political spectrum are not taught our history. The fact is that the entirety of the southwest (from Texas to California) was a part of Mexico as recently as 170 years ago. The fact is that millions of people of Mexican heritage were forcibly repatriated from their ancestral homelands to Mexico at different points in our history because they were "other," i.e. non-white (1840s-1950s). The fact is that the modern American economy was built on the exploitation of Mexican laborers through the Bracero program from 1942-1964, renditions of which continue to this day. And the fact is that millions of Americans were, have been, and are of Mexican heritage, but they have lived as second-class citizens, much like African-Americans, because of their racial impurity for being "mongrel" or mixed-race people. In fact, segregationists of the South often used the fear of Mexico and Latin America, i.e. "mongrel nations," to rouse crowds to fund and support their hateful agendas to maintain segregation in the South.
4. Beliefs Are Founded Upon Age-Old False and Negative Stereotypes.
The underlining false belief upon which this whole kerfuffle is created is the belief in the division of human beings between us versus them. For Mr. Trump and his audiences, the "us" is people that look like us, i.e. hardworking, family loving, Christian, White people. "Them" is anyone who does not look like us or share our beliefs. And this demarcation of division of humanity into white and non-white was created as recently as 300 years ago. This division prescribed to non-white people - people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, Mixed ancestry - unwholesome aesthetic, behavioral, and moral characteristics. These attributes have captured our imagination through the stories we see, tell, and observe reflected in our culture. This is why when Mr. Trump goes on his hateful rants his intended audiences cheer him on. But, at the end of the day, these stories are fictional. The Human Genome Project showed that there is no genetic or biological basis of race. Race is a story. A fictional story of a color based human hierarchy that unfortunately pigeonholes the majority of humanity as "problem" because of their non-European appearance.
5. People Believe Stereotypes Over Systemic Realities.
There are libraries full of scientifically proven evidence that contradict Mr. Trump's beliefs and statements. For example, we live in a nation where race IS the single most important determinant of inequality in America. In other words, even after accounting for class, education, and wealth, a person's racial categorization determines the life opportunities and experiences they are afforded. For example, 1 in 2 children of color attend high poverty schools, compared to 1 in 14 white children. The median net worth of a Black, Latino or Native family is under $14,000 compared to $142,000 for a white family. People of color are 37 percent of the American population but 3.9 percent of the 1 percent. I can go on and on about the grave inequalities in our nation - but people across the political spectrum cannot face these facts. Mr. Trump's audience wants to believe that people of Mexican origin are criminals and addicts. Why? Because it emotionally easier to think: "There is something wrong with those people." The belief in the story of race is not rational, it is emotional.
The truth is that there isn't anything special about Mexicans, other people of color, or White people. We are all people with the same joys and sorrows that is a part of the human existence. At the end of the day all of us, regardless of our political affiliation, want the same things: good relations with our family and friends, a healthy body, a decent job, a quality education for our children, and a safe place to live. We differ in our means to secure these basic needs for our community members and ourselves. Unfortunately, the two-edged sword of race-baiting based on stereotypes and colorblindness that is pervasive in our politics diminish our strength as a people and our ability to flourish together as a nation.
As I watch the direction in which my nation is going, I am reminded of Martin Niemöller's haunting quote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
On this 9/11 day, my hope for the upcoming election year is that our political candidates and the numerous pressure points on these candidates will demand accountability, honesty, and decency from individuals seeking the highest office of the land. It is the only way we can retain a government that is of the people, by the people, for the people.