Friday, January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day on which Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Just like his predecessors, he used the occasion to give an inauguration speech (the full text of which can be found in many places, for example here, provided by The Washington Post [retrieved Jan 21, 2017]). Over the coming days, weeks, months, and years, much will be talked and written about the contents of this speech and its consequences for life in America and beyond. As always, history will take its course, and only in hindsight will we know which parts of what was said in the speech were announcement of things to come, which parts were exaggerations or bluffs, and which parts were misjudgments of realities and possibilities. As a historian, I look forward to hopefully one day being able to look back and better understand what was going on at the time that for us, now, feels more like a random assortment of apparitions than a logical set of ideas, plans, or actions.
Today, I’m writing as a listener. As a listener, I heard one sentence in the speech that stood out to me – not because of outrageousness or unheard-of-ness, but because of its irritating mix of apparent comprehensibility and bedazzling phrase-mongering. The sentence I’m talking about comes up about half-way through the speech, after the already proverbial “America First”, after the paragraphs on national and international politics and terrorism, and right before the first explicit reference to religious ideas. It reads:
“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice”.
There could be a relatively harmless reading of what is being said. The sentence right before reads: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other”. Ignoring the context of the looming “America First” from a few paragraphs back, and overlooking the stale taste of “total” in almost all political circumstances, the cited sentence could be nothing but a more abstract rendering of the idea that a common cause binds people together and strengthens the group. Nothing surprising here, nothing disturbing, nothing frightening at all.
However, there is context, so I doubt it’s as innocuous as this. Quite to the contrary: This sentence, I believe, is on of the most worrying undercover messengers of totalitarian ideology in the whole of the speech from beginning to end.
If my interpretation is right, what is being said here is that, in the future world summoned up by the speaker (or those responsible for his thoughts and words), any disagreement, contradiction, or protest is going to be seen (and by consequence treated) as a sacrilegious breech of all-encompassing ideological beliefs defined by those in power.
Let me take apart why I say so in seven steps:
Firstly, the sentence – although phrased as a temporal correlation – contains an implicit causal connection. The “when” is just a loosely disguised “if”, and the sentence could just as well have read: “If you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice”. The use of the temporal instead of the causal connection makes it feel less theoretical, more “down to earth”, which most likely increases its appeal to many listeners. At the same time, the implicit causal connection invites the reverse argument, namely: “If you (still) have prejudice, you have not (yet) opened your heart to patriotism”.
This, secondly, and even more than the original phrasing, makes it clear that “prejudice” here is casted as something unwanted, something to overcome, something to get rid of. Which probably, at first glance, many would agree with. Who likes prejudice? Especially when it’s directed towards ourselves, our families, our friends? Noone. Right. So better get rid of it, nothing wrong with that. It’s kind of nice and reassuring to know that a powerful political leader comes up with ideas to overcome prejudice, isn’t it? So let’s read again with this comforting thought in mind: What, then, do I have to do to overcome prejudice?
So, thirdly, the recommendation is to “open our hearts”. What a lovely phrase. It rings of love and care, invokes thoughts of compassion and kindness – and builds up the expectation that what follows is some kind of wonderful, shared, common good that we open our hearts to: Let’s open our hearts to listening to each other! Let’s open our hearts to forgiveness! Let’s open our hearts to peace! Which, in addition, indicates that there’s a religious undertone here (explicitly picked up in the next paragraph with its reference to the Bible and God’s people living together in harmony). We open our hearts to some divine force that will then infuse our being with light, lightness, and endless bliss. So the phrase quite openly conjures up a religious experience.
Appealing to religious experience in combination with the temporal/causal connection, fourthly, points towards salvation: When the trumpets sound, when the deceased rise again, when the eternal light shines on us. Which indicates that we’ll be swept away by the experience – so that, fifthly, any attempt to not join it is stubborn, foolish, rebellious, sinful (you name it). Those who do not open their hearts bear the full responsibility of doing so, because they refuse to merge with the universal experience of ecstasy and therefore fall from grace: “You don’t open your heart? Try harder! You’re blocked! You need to overcome this resistance! You’re getting in your own way! You’re sabotaging your own liberation!”.
Then, sixthly, the religious experience we’re expected to join by opening our hearts is – “patriotism”. Wait a moment? Patriotism as a religious experience? This is most likely not the friendly kind of patriotism of being proud of one’s home town, dialect, regional dish, or local brew of beer. It’s more likely that a religiously loaded patriotism smacks of nationalism, protectionism, imperialism, totalitarianism, and all other -isms that have already in the past shown their ability to ruin people’s homes, health, and happiness. We’re cajoled into believing that not succumbing to patriotism means deliberately denying our hopes for salvation – and (as per the previous argument) this is our own fault, because we’re unwilling (or unable) to open our hearts.
Seventhly, going back to the second part of the sentence after disassembling the first part, and looking closely, suddenly the ring of getting rid of prejudice seems less appealing. Verbatim, it actually says: “There is no room for prejudice”, not: “We’ll get rid of all prejudice”, or: “We’ll overcome all prejudice”. “No room” means this sacred place where all have opened their hearts to patriotism is suddenly so crowded (or so pure?) that prejudice needs to be chased out of the country, pushed across the border, thrown into exile. So “prejudice” unveils itself as anything that contradicts the sacredness of patriotism as it has been mysteriously actualised by those who opened their hearts. Which, for a patriotism that manifests as one of the -isms cited above (or sofar unknown future variations on those) is always defined as anything that doubts, questions, or contradicts those in power within the specific -ism.
Deconstructed like this, the sentence clearly reveals the general truth that any submission to ideology kills our ability to look at things from a distance, investigate pros and cons, weigh interpretations, or – in the broadest sense – apply critical judgment at all. At the same time, given that it’s not formulated in the context of a theoretical treatise on ideologies and their consequences, the sentence also points to a political attitude that asks for conformity, obeisance, toadyism, and subservience. And it contains a palpable threat towards those who do not conform, obey, grovel, or serve with blind faith. In essence, it says: “Be one of us – or we’ll throw you out”.
Having said all this, I open my heart and mind as much as I can towards the slim prospect that my reading of this sentence is prejudiced, overly critical, and fundamentally wrong. In which case, I’m more than happy for my prejudice, criticism, and erroneous beliefs to be exposed and expelled. If, however, my reading is correct, I vow to hold up my prejudice, criticism, and beliefs to whoever tries to impose their ideology onto others until the last trumpet sounds.