Fear is the most powerful weapon dictators have to seize and maintain their power. Fear preys on the most basic psychological needs of human beings to be free from physical harm, to be economically secure, to protect and care for our children and families. Autocrats generate fear through capitalizing on ignorance and spreading lies — particularly widespread ignorance of other peoples and cultures and lies about their ability to commit violence and take away jobs.
We Americans study the history of tyranny and exclaim, “That’s terrible, but it would not happen here!” as we congratulate ourselves on the robust state of our democracy. The experience of the last few months now exposes this once-confident boast as terribly naive and perhaps even dangerous as a new administration indulges in a remarkable torrent of false and misleading statements as a basis for policy and action.
The gravest lie we are grappling with at the present moment is the Trump Administration’s cruel and unreasonable war on immigrants — mostly people who are black and brown, and Muslim — Mexicans and refugees from central America, Syrian refugees, people from certain countries in the Middle East and Africa including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. Trump’s “travel ban” for people from the latter 7 nations is currently stayed by federal court order, but the executive order imposing the ban has spread fear and uncertainty among many people in the United States and worldwide. Outrageously, President Trump subsequently attacked the judges who ruled against him, and has his surrogates proclaiming that, “The powers of the president…will not be questioned.” THAT, my friends, is an invitation to rise in vigorous defense of the balance of powers!
Meanwhile, the Administration’s war on immigration across our southern border is proceeding with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in cities across the U.S., leading to hundreds of deportations.
President Trump claims this is all about stopping terrorism, but in fact, the evidence is clear that the people being banned and deported are not terrorists (see this excellent Nick Kristof column on terrorists and guns in the US), and the claim that there is widespread crime and unlawful behavior in immigrant communities is just not true. But stoking fear about “the other” and waving the flag of national security were major themes in Trump’s election, and, now, “…the keeping of my campaign promise…” to keep his voter base enthralled and thus the next campaign is already underway.
The Trump Administration’s lies and fearmongering about immigrants are also a theme in the president’s outrageous claims of voter fraud in the election that he won. The evidence refuting this claim is overwhelming, and yet, as recently as the Sunday talk shows, the president’s surrogates continue to make this outrageous claim — but understand, the administration is not really trying to prove anything, just repeating the accusation over and over again is destabilizing enough in the way it sows doubt about our elections and reinforces presidential power.
Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989, has played a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump Administration’s war on immigrants among many other issues. She is one of President Trump’s primary spokespersons, an almost daily figure on cable news shows. Some people admire her staunch advocacy for her client’s positions, and others applaud the fact that she was the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign. But in fact, as is true of many of President Trump’s statements, her advocacy on his behalf is often at variance with the truth. Ms. Conway invented the now-infamous phrase “alternative facts” to defend Trump’s claims about the size of crowds at his inauguration, a thinly-veiled autocratic scheme to try to claim that the Trump inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history when, in fact, it was on the smaller side. Ms. Conway has been part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power. Perhaps the “Bowling Green Massacre” comment was truly a mistake, as she claims, but she repeated that canard on three different occasions as an explanation for why the travel ban, an executive order that clearly discriminates against Muslims, was necessary.
These issues have real consequences for Trinity students, faculty and staff. In a recent conversation with some Trinity students, I was horrified and saddened to learn that some of our students who have DACA status have been hassled, frisked and interrogated at airports for domestic travel during the Christmas holidays, and others are now fearful of traveling within the U.S. to go home to other states to see families and friends, or for summer jobs. The climate for all immigrants has become treacherous. I wonder if other members of our Trinity community who are immigrants, regardless of status, have similar experiences or fears, and would welcome comments about this (email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org).
As I thought about our students and the whole ugly mess that the new administration has made of life in the U.S. in such a short period of time, I could not help but think of Trinity’s Honor Code and our commitment to social justice.
The Honor Code says we must not look away from lies, that we must confront them and tell the truth as a matter of justice for the community. The truth of the present moment in our country is that the authoritarian impulse will prevail unless people of courage and integrity confront the outright lies and shady manipulation of facts. Social Justice says that our first and most important duty is to be of service to those who are suffering and in need, to be our sister’s keeper, to stand in solidarity with all those who need our support and capacity to stand up to injustice. Justice demands that we be advocates for the truth.
As I write about truth and justice, I recall the heroic example of the great Sister of Notre Dame, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered 11 years ago today in the Amazon rainforest by ranchers who wanted to silence her advocacy for justice for the indigenous people she worked with. Sr. Dorothy did not hesitate to speak the truth on behalf of the people she served. Her ability to tell the truth, to be an advocate for people on the margins. She paid the ultimate price for her courage. While none of us can hope to have nearly that much courage, we should pray for at least enough backbone to speak out about what we see that is unjust, to raise our voices for those who cannot speak.
I will write more about this in the days to come. I welcome your thoughts in the comment section below or email me at any time and let me know if I can publish your comments.
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