What came first: the onslaught of intolerance playing out in our daily lives, or the Donald Trump candidacy?
It’s a circular phenomenon these days. But here’s a sliver of what Trump’s already “Great America” looks like before there’s even a presidential election and two nominees in place.
“Get off the stage!” a woman in the crowd hollered at one of the best-known and influential Latinas in this country.
“Trash!” hollered another.
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What was María Elena Salina’s crime to deserve that and other catcalls during a commencement speech last Sunday before journalism graduates in California?
The co-anchor of Univision Network News and the national news show Aquí y Ahora (Here and Now) mentioned Donald Trump — the media is being blamed for the rise of his candidacy, she said — and toward the end of her speech she said a few words of encouragement in Spanish to parents and students planning to work in Spanish-language media.
“You are the ones who are going to build bridges, not walls,” she said.
None of what she said was a surprise — nor inappropriate in the context of the event.
In the audience at California State University, Fullerton, were graduating students and their parents celebrating one of the proudest moments of their lives. Forty percent of the student body is Hispanic, and administrators had asked her to say a few words in Spanish as a sign of inclusiveness. The university also conferred on the Mexican-American journalist, born and raised in California and a long-time Miami resident, an honorary doctorate.
“If you allow me to say a few words in Spanish,” Salinas said, and someone called out, “No!”
“English only, please!” one man yelled.
What is most troubling about the heckling is that the setting for the disrespect was an American university, where freedom of speech is one of the most prized values, a place where youths come to elevate their lives, to forge a future.
If universities aren’t a safe space for elevating discourse, then what is anymore?
“It’s really sad,” Salinas told The Washington Post. “And it’s a testament to what has happened in our country. Our country is really divided.”
As if the live heckling wasn’t spectacle enough, Salinas was then abused in a rampage of tweets with the hashtag #MakeAmericaGreatAgain on that favorite playground of internet trolls, Twitter.
Trump’s vulgar candidacy and the age of social media are the perfect storm. The New York billionaire (allegedly, given that he won’t show his tax returns) launched his campaign with an ethnic tirade against Mexicans. He called Mexicans “drug dealers” and rapists and threw out of an Iowa press conference Salinas’ Univision co-anchor, Jorge Ramos, for questioning his derogatory remarks. Trump’s incendiary, damaging falsehoods have traveled fast and far. The crazier and more damaging they have become — rants against women, Muslims, his opponents — the stronger his following.
Trump has reached the majority of delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination as his most likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, remains in a primary race with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate who captured the imagination of the other end of the political spectrum with a style somewhat similar to Trump’s — simplistic and without pragmatic plans, though not bigoted or offensive.
Those qualities remain only Trumpian.
Trump’s victorious press conference Thursday was terrifying in the way he fed the prejudices of Americans who are struggling, fear the future, and the world beyond our borders. I’m afraid to even say it, but Trump can win, no matter what journalists say, no matter how many fact-checks show him to be the biggest liar in the presidential race.
“American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” reads an open letter of opposition to the Trump candidacy and petition from a who’s who of American authors launched this week.
Will Stephen King, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz and the rest of the acclaimed authors experience what Salinas did? Will their presentations and book signings, in Trump World, get booed, too?
Before Trump, intolerance festered in the closet.
Post-Trump, intolerance has becoming a staple of the American diet — and even the season’s graduations, the most inspiring of milestones, are infested by the ugly energy it breeds.