Donald Trump and the melting pot

memorial-day-2016One of the most profound cultural changes in the United States during my lifetime is the ongoing shift in the governing metaphor from a melting pot to a multicultural tapestry. Immigrant populations are generally grouped by marketing demographic lingo or self-identify as hyphenated residents. White people are thought to be the only “group” that still identifies with the term “American.” In the tapestry metaphor, perhaps whites are a common thread that holds the others in place. Nevertheless, the cloth is constantly morphing in color and pattern, and perhaps that’s one of its beauties – a freshness that’s determined by its ever-evolving threads.

The Washington Post studied this in 1998, and I’ve kept one of those articles in my bookmarks for reference. Let’s just say that almost twenty years later, the prophecies contained here are coming to pass, including the reality of dual economies. This was a profoundly important newspaper series, and I wish they would repeat it, for it’s at the very heart of the Trump phenomenon that everyone is clamoring to understand.

”The Ozzies and Harriets of the 1990s are skipping the suburbs of the big cities and moving to more homogeneous, mostly white smaller towns and smaller cities and rural areas,” (University of Michigan demographer William) Frey said…

…Frey sees in this pattern “the emergence of separate Americas, one white and middle-aged, less urban and another intensely urban, young, multicultural and multiethnic. One America will care deeply about English as the official language and about preserving Social Security. The other will care about things like retaining affirmative action and bilingual education.”

…the persistance (sic) of ethnic enclaves and identification does not appear to be going away, and may not in a country that is now home to not a few distinct ethnic groups, but to dozens…

…For the affluent, which includes a disproportionate number of whites, the large labor pool provides them with a ready supply of gardeners, maids and nannies. For businesses in need of cheap manpower, the same is true. Yet there are fewer “transitional” jobs – the blue-collar work that helped Italian and Irish immigrants move up the economic ladder – to help newcomers or their children on their way to the jobs requiring advanced technical or professional skills that now dominate the upper tier of the economy…

…Though there are calls to revive efforts to encourage “Americanization” of the newcomers, many researchers now express doubt that the old assimilation model works…

…Many immigrant parents say that while they want their children to advance economically in their new country, they do not want them to become “too American.”

Donald Trump’s followers are clamoring for a return to the days when the melting pot was the governing metaphor. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is a signal to anybody listening that the tapestry hasn’t worked, isn’t working, and won’t ever work. In this sense, Donald Trump is a very mainstream candidate for President, because this message resonates so clearly with those who long for a country that promised equality through assimilation. American media, however – who long ago crossed the bridge into multiculturalism – keep badly missing it in trying to figure out what drives Trump loyalists. While it may be correct that the vast majority of Trump supporters are white, this conclusion distorts reality by moving it into a racial discussion. The melting pot, to the press, is by now a deviant thought in today’s culture and therefore is not to be considered for coverage except within Daniel Hallin’s outermost sphere. This is the fault and problem of the press and not of concern whatsoever to Mr. Trump, who keeps speaking past their filters (something pioneered by Ronald Reagan) and directly to those who self-identify as “Americans.”

trumptacobowlTake the case of his tweeted picture on Cinco de Mayo. It featured Mr. Trump eating a taco bowl and proclaiming his love for Hispanic people due to their food. This was greeted as tasteless, crude, and racist from the press but is a perfectly logical proclamation from the “American” perspective, because the melting pot is viewed as better for having Mexican food added to it. This perspective is not necessarily dismissive, for the same could be said of foods from Italy, Ireland, or China. Assimilation is what’s on trial with Donald Trump. It seems ignorant to most, because we crossed the bridge to the tapestry metaphor long ago.

Let’s think about this on Memorial Day, because the flag with which we decorate the graves of brave men and women who gave their lives for our freedom is symbolic to plain “Americans” in a way that’s different than those who identify as a hyphenated minority. No single view has to be right or wrong here; just different, and that’s all right. For all the criticism the melting pot has received, we simply cannot ignore the history of its great strength, for those very soldiers we celebrate today sacrificed everything for it, and we could not have survived two world wars without it. It makes me wonder how well we’d do with such today.

Melting pot or tapestry, we’re still individual parts of a whole, and we need to move that to the front burner as our cultural civil war rages on. If Donald Trump forces us to consider it and talk about it, then the madness that is our presidential campaign in 2016 will have been worth it.

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