“Would you still have voted for Trump if you found out he acted unlawfully?”

“Yes, I would”

This is how my conversation with my uncle ended about the election of Donald Trump.

My uncle and my parents are first generation immigrants from India and it was surprising to see them passionately support a person that constantly disparages immigrants. They are well-educated wealthy doctors who are unlikely to be impacted by slow economic growth, trade policy, stagnant wages or immigrants taking their jobs;  they did not need to “Make America great again” as America has already been great to them as they all drive Mercedes and maintain vacation homes in Florida.  But their dissatisfaction, cynicism and, yes, unapologetic “hate” was clear.

When our conversation started, their reasons for voting for trump were well sanitized: Obamacare was increasing cost of premiums, taxes are going to go up as we increase social spending, loss of manufacturing jobs due to bad trade deals etc. As we exhausted those policy discussions, the conversation turned to the real reason they voted for Trump. It was because, according to them,

  • Muslims are not trustworthy and someone needs to take the fight to them
  • Illegal immigration is not fair to people who go through the legal process
  • Trump is a strong leader who will shake up a corrupt system

My uncle talked about how Muslims fanatically follow their religion with a practice that requires them to inflict pain on themselves to show their religiosity. My Dad shared a story of how one of his Muslim friends callously said that 911 happened because of US involvement in the Middle East. My mother told me how all the recent terrorist attacks are by Muslims. I then asked them,

“Would you maintain a registry of Muslims, ban their travel, do door to door raids, and jail them without warrants?

The answer was an unconditional “Yes”

My uncle added,

“Not all Muslims are bad. I have many Muslim friends. But you cannot trust them and few of them are fanatical”

It was chilling to hear this but it also helped me understand how the US could put its Japanese citizens in internment camps or how Germany was okay rounding its Jewish citizens to make sure it was safe from the “few bad Jews”. Decent people who are mistrustful and fearful value their safety over the rights of their fellow citizens. Fear can make people demonize and scapegoat a religious community of 1.6 Billion people representing 23% of global population. Fear can make them turn a blind eye to the actions of their own nation that have contributed to the crisis.

FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

Where did this fear come from?

The media deserve a good measure of the blame. Most of these racist views about Muslims are held by people who have never come in contact with a Muslim and have formed their views about the Muslim community only through the media.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s quote: “Racism does not survive personal contact”

But my family is different. My parents for many years served Muslim communities back in India. They are compassionate and committed to social service.

To understand their fears we need to look into India’s history with its Muslim community. They are the largest minority representing 13.4% of the population. Conflict between Muslims and Hindus have existed even before British rule, but it spilled over into open conflict with the formation of Pakistan. India’s independence movement, with its emphasis on non-violence, secularism and brotherhood, brought people together in a spirit of nationalism, but the underlying mistrust has never been extinguished.

India recently has seen a rise of Hindu nationalism.  BJP, the ruling party in India, beyond its commitment to economic progress has also pandered to religious fears. Attitudes have continued to deteriorate as even younger modern well-educated Indians, some in my own circle, hold negative views about Muslims.

Through this lens, my families’ mistrust of Muslims make sense. Their misgivings are impervious to statistics and analysis. They believe “Radical Islam” and the Muslim community as a whole represent an existential threat to civilization. And like many Trump supporters, they interpret a complex geo-political issue in terms of a simplistic world view of “good” vs. “evil”.

How do you build trust among communities when the easiest way to gain political power is to scapegoat minorities and divide communities?

My conversation with my family then moved to immigration. I asked them,

“Do you think it is okay to remove 12 Million illegals even if that involves tearing families apart?”

“Yes. Why not? This is a country of laws and borders that we have to enforce.”

“What about refugees in conflict zones. Should we accept them?”

“No. It is not our problem”

“But isn’t this country built on immigration?”

“But now that we are a nation we get to decide who comes in next. It has got to be Legal”

“Don’t we decide what is legal and what is not? Shouldn’t our laws be compassionate?”

“Yes. But ours laws are meant to serve us not illegals”

“Is it okay if we violate the human rights of non-citizens?”

“They are illegal aren’t they? They are committing a crime and shouldn’t be here in the first place”

This was unapologetic nationalism, isolationism, protectionism, legalism and self-interest. This is one of the pillars of Trumps’ world view and a growing trend in the West.

This callous disregard for the humanity of others is the great tragedy of nationalism. Political revolutions through the years have granted more and more rights to citizen in a Nation. But the “The World Wars”, with its massive dislocation of people and crimes against humanity, awakened the world to the perils of nationalism that does not recognize the dignity of human life. World today is more connected economically and culturally, and organizations like the UN and EU have been formed to promote human rights, peace and global cooperation. But nationalistic zeal continues to define how people see their place in the world.

America is no exception but its dynamics are different as it is a nation that is built on immigration and continues to see massive amounts of both legal and illegal immigration. It has also benefited immensely from the global order it helped create with an aggressive foreign policy intended to promote capitalism, democracy and human rights– in that order. But this has not stopped the resurgence of a nationalism that is focused on unapologetic self-interest.

My conversation with my family reminded me that nationalism does not have to be underpinned by ethnic, racial, cultural, religious and ideological identities.  While the trump message appeals to white supremacist, it can also appeal to first generation immigrants who not too long where citizens of another country. Both have in common a fearful desire to hold on to the privileges that they feel are slipping away from them. While we can take comfort that America is a country that integrate its immigrants effectively, it is concerning that it then promotes a myopic form of nationalism.

This reminds me of the Standford prison experiment on group dynamics where students were randomly selected to role-play as cops and criminals. It didn’t take long before the “cops” started mistreating the “criminals”. We human have an innate desire to be part of a group and those group dynamics can easily distort our moral judgement.  Authoritarian states are built by incrementally normalizing inhuman treatment and through willful ignorance and hypocrisy of decent people.

How do you develop a national identity that is compassionate, cooperative and humanistic?

Finally our discussion turned to the candidates themselves. Beyond their dislike of Clinton, my family was enamored with Trump’s personality. I asked them,

“How can you vote for someone who says such outrageous things and who is unscrupulous in his business practices?”

“Sometime you need a person like that who will do whatever it takes to shake things up”

“What if he abuses his power?”

“As long as he gets result I can tolerate it”

“But why do you hold Trump to such low standards of civility and decency?”

“These politicians might be polished but they are all corrupt too. They have killed people through the wars they have gotten us into”

Societies have always been comfortable giving individuals extraordinary power and have been forgiving of their shortcomings if they bring them hope of change. But this attitude of condoning corruption and despotism to promote progress creaks of fascism.

We should be concerned.

Presidential powers have continued to increase while presidential elections have become less and less about policy and more about the cult of personality. Two-party system that panders to its base has created a divided country that has paralyzed the democratic process.  Democratic politics has always incremental and consensus driven but our desire for change is immediate and narrow. When the gap between our desires for change and democratic realities widens, fascism becomes a viable alternative.

Regardless, I do think we should be critical of our current political establishment. US political process has been tainted by special interests and US has lost its moral standing through its hawkish foreign policy. If the US for its protection is comfortable waging a war on terror that violates human rights and destabilizes an entire region, resulting in loss of millions of lives, how can we expect its citizens to be compassionate towards treatment of their illegal immigrant population? Should we be surprised when people draw moral equivalence between Trump, with his hateful rhetoric, and the political establishment that has authorized flippant use of US military power?

How do we bring back civility, decency and trust-worthiness to US politics?

Exhausted, we ended our discussion agreeing to disagree. I don’t think I will ever change the views of my family. But I remain hopeful as it is unlikely their attitudes are going to spill over into the next generation and over time such hardline attitudes are bound to moderate. And I also know that not all Trump supporters are like my family; motivated by fear of Muslims and a tribal nationalism. Most voted for Trump because of the promise of economic growth and if he does not deliver on it would not give him a second-term.

I recently stumbled upon politics again with my parents, and I asked them,

“If Trump did forcibly deport millions of immigrants and Muslims would you still vote for him?”

They answered “No.”

It gives me comfort that behind their fear and cynicism is still a basic decency. They voted for an approach but when confronted with the realities of action they might be repulsed by its inhumanity. I can only hope that my family over time are as tolerant with illegal immigrants and Muslims as they are with Trump. And I hope Trump himself recognizes the basic decency of Americans who can tolerate tough rhetoric but have shown the capacity to embrace the better angels of their nature in reality.