It was for me a moment in time that I shall not forget. I had to choose between what was right and what was convenient.
I had no intention of joining a brother and a nephew eager to go to a rally in Chicago for a TV celebrity turned politician. The man had started his campaign with a rant that denigrated people of Latin origin noting that when they send their brothers and sisters here to our land, they’re not sending their best; they’re sending rapists and murderers. It was so over the top that the very next day, prominent members of the party whose nomination he was seeking made it very clear that they did not want the man to continue a quest that many ridiculed as nothing less than a joke.
A fortnight later, I was at my sister’s place while having a glass of Port when the nephew and the brother dropped by to share their excitement. They found the man’s lack of diplomacy in his speeches and rhetoric as nothing one need worry about. Their new-found hero was “telling it like it is.” I had to ask myself as a HISTORY professor, where had I heard that kind of talk before. Ah yes, in European capitals of Italy, Spain, and Germany in the third decade of the twentieth century.
What I found even more remarkable was that it didn’t seem to bother them that upon their exit from the rally they had gotten trapped in a parking garage by opponents of the man’s hate speech. The opponents were trying to tip over the van literally in front of them as the gate had failed to raise for egress to a boulevard, a mere mile west of Chicago’s Loop.
Experiencing that rush of FEAR was the price of admission since there actually had been no price to get in and hear the man babble about how Mexico would pay for some damn wall. But the charismatic figure had somehow captured the souls of my nephew and his father, my very smart brother who had been valedictorian of his high school graduating class. My sis was not impressed by the guy everyone was talking about and was sure he’d never win the nomination. Her favorite was a bible thumping guy out of Texas who she liked because he was such a wonderful follower of Jesus Christ. Although neither of their choices seemed reasonable to me, I did appreciate that my sis could smell a conman a mile away.
That was some time ago and what I truly find disappointing is that my sis, now has become an ardent supporter of the man she first thought of as a joke, a clown, a misfit. But that all changed when the guy won the nomination of a party that he changed from one that promoted fiscal responsibility and advocated state’s rights. In less than four years, both of those tenets would never see the light of day as America’s debt exploded and state’s rights were cast aside until someone reminded the man of the tenth amendment which guarantees: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
While in Venice last fall before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, I traveled with my siblings seeing the wonders of Italian geniuses and artists. While on a water taxi on the Grand Canal, we found ourselves with a couple from Sweden who asked if we were Americans? When we affirmed our homeland, they wanted to know what we thought of our president. My siblings went on and on about the wonders of the stable genius. Following the testimonials about our president’s extraordinary acuity, the Swedes looked at me and the man said, “Well, c’mon, what do you have to say?” His English was amazingly good without even a trace of an accent.
I shook my head and replied, “I make it a point of not discussing politics in the presence of my siblings.”
“Why is that?” Asked the more attractive member of the Swedish couple.
“Because my take on the man is 180 degrees opposite. I have problems with the man that have more to do with his style than his politics. I find it hard to trust a man who would lie about where his father was born…which was Brooklyn, New York – not Germany. If he’s going to lie about something that basic, that elementary, about a detail that he has to know, I frankly find it hard to believe anything he has to say.”
For the next few moments, you could have heard a pin drop on the floor of that water taxi had it not been for the screeching of those big white birds that I would describe as gulls flying overhead. In the water taxi, I noticed two diametrically opposite reactions. My siblings were aghast that I had been so deliberative about a characteristic flaw and so unimpressed by the bluster and bravado of American exceptionalism that they had made about America’s leader. I didn’t need some politician’s affirmation to be proud of a country I loved enough to be critical of its flaws while appreciating its brilliance. The Swedes replied with laughter. It was shallow at first and then became quite guttural from surprisingly both the man and the woman. Silence slid over the faces of my siblings embarrassed by my remarks that had stolen the exceptionalism that had eluded our country, frankly for quite some time. The Swedes did not miss the opportunity to say how they really felt.
“We wake up every morning asking, what did the Mad Tweeter tweet today? And I must say, if I’m being honest, he tweets out some very goofy stuff!” At which point the wife then chimed in, “Oh, yeah, and it’s obvious he can’t spell. How does a guy like that,” she giggled joyously, “become your president?”
Fortunately for all, the water taxi arrived at our destination and what I can only call a détente enveloped over us as we said our adieu.
In hindsight, what I remember most was the silence of my siblings and the displeasure of having Europeans laugh at the foolishness of America. They had to have asked themselves indeed, “Why would someone lie about something that was so integral to one’s own history, the birthplace of a parent?” That thought eventually ignited Swedish laughter but it also, I believe, triggered something in the minds of my siblings. Even that one they couldn’t answer with their usual, “Oh, he’s just being you know…” — because even that was a bridge too far to be whisked away.
And yet, I know that both will go to the polls this November and vote for a guy who can’t even honestly tell you where his father was born. They’ll block that Venetian memory when they do cast that ballot, because even they know I struck a nerve.
William Natale is the author of Woolly Wurm, (a children’s book); 1968 – A Story As Relative Today As It Was Then, (about the Chicago race riots of 1968); and his latest, The Resurrection of Boraichee, (which deals with the reincarnation of a literary professor who returns to life as a dog assigned to live with an American family caught in the opioid crisis).