On the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother-in-law was still in a subway on her way to work in the north tower of the World Trade Center when it was hit by American Airlines Flight 11. For a tense few hours, we waited and worried, not knowing where she was. Eventually, after walking back to Brooklyn from Lower Manhattan, she managed to call home from a pay phone. Two years ago, my wife took my two sons to visit the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. As she struggled to explain to my younger son (then five years old) why hijackers had flown airliners into his grandmother’s workplace, killing thousands of people, he quietly traced with his finger the path of American Airlines Flight 77 on a map on the wall. A blonde woman rushed up to him and yelled: “Stop touching the map!” Confused, my wife asked the woman whether she worked at the memorial. “No,” she said, “but I am an American, and it is disrespectful to me.”

Judge Gonzalo Curiel is the son of immigrants from Mexico. He was born in East Chicago, Indiana, and earned his law degree at the University of Indiana. As a federal prosecutor, he was responsible for jailing members of the Mexican Arellano Felix cartel. When the cartel threatened his life, he lived for a time under federal protection. His nomination to the federal District Court was confirmed by the Senate in a unanimous voice vote. Earlier this summer, Donald Trump shocked observers—including many in his own party—when he attacked Judge Curiel as incapable of serving as an impartial judge in the Trump University fraud case because he is “Mexican.”

My dad was born in Havana, Cuba. My mom is the daughter of Swiss immigrants—dairy farmers in Washington State. In my extended family are in-laws of Mexican, African-American, Trinidadian, Japanese, and Anglo heritage. They include Catholics, Adventists, Hindus, Muslims, and -Buddhists. My wife is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in India. We are raising our sons Catholic, but they also go to Hindu “Sunday school,” where they learn Sanskrit chants and study Hindu mythology. Sometimes they like to debate whether—when you die—you go to heaven with Jesus or reincarnate. Born and raised in the middle of central New York State, they have developed a love of the outdoors, a respect for rural America, and a fairly sophisticated taste in country music. I see in my extended family—and in my sons’ baroque cultural inheritance—a reflection of America’s richness and diversity.

Donald Trump’s monochromatic vision of America—his attack on Judge Curiel as non-American, his questioning of President Obama’s birthplace, his insulting comments about the Gold Star mother of Humayun Khan (an American Muslim soldier killed in Iraq), his refusal to reject the embrace of white nationalists, and his frequent denigration of immigrants (or at least immigrants who are not, like his first and third wives, from Europe)—feels like the assault launched on my sons by the woman at the September 11 Memorial. And so the current presidential election has become the most personal one of my life. The anxiety it has evoked is stoked by my love of my sons and my uncertainty about what Trumpism means for the kind of future this country—their country—has in store for them. Trump’s racial rhetoric has given the election the feel of a referendum on my family’s right to understand ourselves as authentically American.

To say that this is how the election is shaping up for me is not to assert that this election means (or must mean) the same thing for everyone. The most decent Trump supporters appear to back him because they are fed up with what they see as a corrupt political system. Many of them are also motivated by an overpowering distrust of Hillary Clinton. They view Trump as an outsider who will shake things up, and they are willing to overlook his divisive racial rhetoric.

For others among Trump’s supporters, his racial rhetoric seems to be part of the appeal. They are either fed up with political correctness or they long for a mythical past in which navigating America’s racial landscape was much easier. There is no question that the speed and scale of America’s demographic transformation from a (mostly) white nation to the current kaleidoscopic mosaic has been breathtaking. In the 1950s, when my parents were teenagers, the United States was 90 percent white. Today, it is just 70 percent white, and Latinos are approaching a fifth of the total population. Last year, for the first time in American history, whites represented a minority of those under the age of five. The rapidity of this transformation has left some of those formerly in the majority feeling disoriented and even angry. Many of them see in Donald Trump’s version of America a comforting affirmation of an order that seems to be slipping from their grasp.

The response to Trump from my conservative coreligionists has been—with a few exceptions—disappointing. A number of Christian conservatives have made the calculated decision to back Trump on the logic that any Republican nominee—no matter how divisive his racial rhetoric—is better than the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan described Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel as the “textbook definition of a racist comment.” But that racist statement, and many others along the way, did not lead Ryan to step back from his endorsement. “It’s a binary choice,” Ryan said. “It’s either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.... [A]nd I know where I want to go.”

Not content to treat Trump as merely the lesser of two evils, some Evangelicals have chosen to baptize him. James Dobson claimed to have spoken with someone who was present when Trump accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He is a “baby Christian,” Dobson said. He may not know how to speak the language of faith in a sophisticated way, but he is “tender to things of the Spirit.”

Even some Christian conservatives who have declined to support Trump have refused to do so not primarily because of his racial rhetoric but rather because they doubt he will actually provide an effective bulwark against the expansion of LGBT civil rights. For example, traditional-marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher wrote in the National Review:

People ask me how Trump could be worse than Hillary Clinton. Here’s the main way: He would leave in place Obama’s regulatory structure, confirming second-class citizenship for Christians. Meaning that it would now have bipartisan approval and that we would have no mainstream political party from which to fight.

To their credit, some religious conservatives have singled out Trump’s divisive racial rhetoric for condemnation. Princeton’s Robert P. George and papal biographer George Weigel focused on Trump’s “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice” (and forthright support of torture) in their March 7, 2016, statement against Trump in the National Review. But they also took pains to observe that “there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.” What they did not say is whether—if there were grounds for such confidence—Trump’s racialized appeals would still be disqualifying.

One bright spot on the religious right has been columnist David French. In a column urging Evangelicals not to support Trump, French homed in on Trump’s racism. He noted that Trump “retweets the most vile online racists. Everywhere he goes, white supremacists follow, tormenting his online opponents with horrific images and overt threats.” I suspect it is no coincidence that French also happens to have a multiracial family, having adopted a daughter from Ethiopia.

This disjointed response to Trump from the religious right should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed presidential politics for the past few decades. The framing of our national political debate as a culture war over “intrinsic evils”—such as abortion and same-sex marriage—in which all other issues pale in importance has painted many religious conservatives into a corner. For decades, they have acquiesced in the Republican “Southern strategy.” Any candidate who will credibly defend their agenda on those points must be endorsed, no matter how odious his views on any number of other (by definition, less important) questions. As James Dobson put it, “All I can tell you is that we have only two choices, Hillary or Donald. Hillary scares me to death.” Absolutism around abortion and (more recently) same-sex marriage has left a great many Christian leaders without adequate conceptual tools to grapple with the significance of Trump’s naked racial appeals.

On July 24, I took my sons to Cooperstown, New York, to see the induction of Ken Griffey Jr. into the baseball Hall of Fame. (Having grown up in Puyallup, Washington, I am a lifelong Seattle Mariners fan, a perennially frustrating loyalty that I have succeeded in passing on to my sons.) Griffey shared the stage with the New York Mets’ Mike Piazza, who was also being inducted this year. In his induction address, Piazza spoke movingly about his father, who was the son of Italian immigrants and who was deeply proud of his Italian heritage. He said a few words in Italian that I did not understand. He also talked about being sent by the Dodgers to the Dominican Republic to learn some Spanish so he could communicate with pitchers from Latin America (gesturing to the legendary Dominican pitcher, Pedro Martinez, who was seated on the stage behind him along with the other Hall of Famers who were present that day). He told the story of receiving hitting instruction from the great Reggie Smith, who helped Piazza tighten his swing with drills Smith had learned in Japan. As I sat listening to Piazza, under a warm July sun in this small town in upstate New York, it occurred to me that the belated (and still incomplete) racial inclusion found in America’s pastime perfectly mirrors the imperfectly inclusive vision of American national identity that I hope will survive the current election.

Although I sometimes joke about fleeing with my family to Mexico if Donald Trump is elected our next president, there really is nowhere for us to go. Where else but in the United States of America would my improbably Cuban-Swiss-Indian-Hindu-Catholic-country-music-and-baseball-loving sons even exist, let alone feel at home? What else is there to call them but “American”?

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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Published in the September 9, 2016 issue: View Contents
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