This week, 470 writers across the U.S. added their name to “An Open Letter to the American People,” a rejection of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s candidacy. In it, the undersigned, which includes Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Tracy K. Smith and Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist Junot Diaz, list their reasons for opposing Trump. Among them:
Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power;
Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate;
Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another
…Because neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people
It’s a to-the-point manifesto that makes a reasoned case for questioning Donald Trump’s fitness for the White House, however, I wish the writers had sacrificed the digestibility of brevity for a more in depth rallying cry written not with the choir as its intended audience, but the unbelievers that won’t go near the church. I wish too, that there had been more than clausal treatment of American history’s “periods of nativism and bigotry” and a deeper questioning of just how much celebrity and wealth have shaped America’s value system. In short, much of the writers’ missive reads as a love letter to America’s mythic origins when what we (or at least, I) need is a confession and admission.
There have not been merely “periods” of nativism and bigotry. Prejudice, racism, and nativist intolerance of some kind have been violently, legally, and/or passively upheld in America from the very beginning of its inception–often borne of a desire to pass on “drudgery, work, and slavery” to those weaker than ourselves. Whether we are talking about the early settlers’ tense relations with the Native Americans; the economy that trafficked in human lives, kidnapping and enslaving men, women, and children to build America during the transatlantic slave trade; the laws that have denied large swaths of people the right to vote or marry whom they choose; the myths and chicanery that have consigned certain people to ghettoes and incarceration; or the economic injustice that has created such disproportion that 1% of Americans control 38-43% of the nation’s wealth, the fact is America has thrived from pitting certain groups against others in a zero sum, winner take all game. Now, as demographics shift, our economy contracts, and the world globalizes, many Americans who benefited from the game as it was played, are seeing their advantage shrink. This is why Donald Trump’s “we’re gonna win again” rhetoric has captured their imaginations and their votes. When Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” his devotees understand that he aims to make America great again for them.
Likewise, the truth is, in America, celebrity and wealth have qualified people to speak for other Americans. Everyday, celebrities and rich people–basically actors, musicians, reality stars, and businesspeople–are quoted on all manner of topics unrelated to their actual expertise. They’re enlisted to speak for charitable organizations or given the spotlight when they rally around causes of concern. If not for Princess Diana touring land mine rigged areas, would the press have reported about it? Would the New York Times have reported on this open letter by writers about Trump if the signees did not include bestselling authors like Cheryl Strayed or Pulitzer Prizewinners like Tracy K. Smith and Junot Diaz? Would I?
As we enter this election cycle, it’s incumbent on all Americans to take a sober look at where we are, and why we are here, and admit that if we want to move forward, we cannot gloss over our past and/or present for fear of discomfort. We have to confess that, yes, America was built on “winners” keeping their feet on the necks of “losers,” and that we have worshiped at the altar of wealth and celebrity to our detriment. We have to acknowledge that democracy is hard, and that our (human?) impulse is to recoil from/be cautious of those we patently disagree with, and what / whom we don’t know or understand. We have to admit that we are (by instinct?) self-absorbed and self-obsessed, and that if we and those that immediately concern us are doing well, we don’t actively care what’s happening to anyone else. We have to concede that it’s easier to blame others for our challenges than point the finger at ourselves or accept that we don’t have as much control over things as we’d like.
And then, we have to repent.
I love that writers are coming together to express their thoughts about politics and the writing business. Culture looks to scribes to keep an accurate record of their times, whether that truth is expressed through non-fiction, fiction of any genre, or poetry. So let’s commit to telling the truth. It may be the only way to trump Trump.