Donald Trump is famously ignorant with regard to American history, but you would have thought that he would at least get the basics of Thanksgiving.
Trump greeted a holiday that celebrates the story of men, women, and children seeking refuge from harsh conditions in their native land by announcing that he was ending a humanitarian program that allowed entry to this country to men, women, and children seeking refuge from harsh conditions in their native land.
Since 2010, roughly 60,000 Haitians who fled an island nation ravaged by earthquakes and poverty have been afforded Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to live and work in the United States. On Monday, around the same time that the president was walking through the motions of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey named Drumstick, Trump’s White House announced that the refugees must leave the United States by July 2019 or face deportation.
“The decision set off immediate dismay among Haitian communities in South Florida, New York, and beyond, and was a signal to other foreigners with temporary protections that they, too, could soon be asked to leave,” noted The New York Times, which went on to point out that “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is still struggling to recover from the earthquake and relies heavily on money its expatriates send to relatives back home. The Haitian government had asked the Trump administration to extend the protected status.”
The White House response to that request for compassion was “no”—as it has been for so many pleas on behalf of refugees, migrants, and immigrants during Trump’s first year in office.
We have come to expect the worst from Donald Trump. But when he mixes his worst with the symbolism of a holiday that is supposed to bring out the best in people, the president’s cruelty seems all the more stark and unrelenting.
Trump has given America a presidency in which refugees and immigrants are demonized and a harsh disregard for religious and cultural diversity warps our politics. He shows little or no regard for the fact that America is a nation of immigrants—and that many of those immigrants came seeking religious freedom. As such, he distinguishes himself in the worst of ways from his predecessors in the Oval Office, and from the values they embraced.
We should be conscious of this at all times.
But it is especially valid to note Trump’s breaking of the faith at Thanksgiving because, of course, the Pilgrims were migrants seeking refuge from intolerance, violence, and hardship. They were welcomed by indigenous peoples. And they shaped an American story of what President Barack Obama referred to as “inherent selflessness and common goodness.”
“In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country’s story,” Obama said in one of the last of his Thanksgiving proclamations. “Each of us brings our own traditions, cultures and recipes to this quintessential American holiday—whether around dinner tables, in soup kitchens or at home cheering on our favorite sports teams—but we are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our nation. Let us express our gratitude by welcoming others to our celebrations and recognize those who volunteer today to ensure a dinner is possible for those who might have gone without. Together, we can secure our founding ideals as the birthright of all future generations of Americans.”
For such statements, Obama was attacked by conservatives for infusing his proclamations with “multicultural pieties.”
What the proto-Trumpian Obama critics failed to recognize was that Thanksgiving is a holiday for “multicultural pieties”—for embracing diversity, for sharing our prosperity, for recalling the history of welcoming the stranger. And for carrying those legacies forward in what President George W. Bush once described as “a free, faithful, and fair-minded land.”
Forty years ago, President Gerald Ford proclaimed, “Let us join in giving thanks for our cultural pluralism. Let us celebrate our diversity and the great strengths that have come from sharing our traditions, our ideas, our resources, our hopes and our dreams. Let us be grateful that for 200 years our people have been dedicated to fulfilling the democratic ideal—dedicated to securing ‘liberty and justice for all.’” Ford’s sometime rival Ronald Reagan would use one of his Thanksgiving proclamations to observe that “people from every race, culture, and creed on the face of the Earth now inhabit this land. Their presence illuminates the basic yearning for freedom, peace, and prosperity that has always been the spirit of the New World.”
Eighty years ago, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt crafted the finest of the many presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving. FDR highlighted connections between Americans of differing backgrounds, as well as a global responsibility to “by example and practice help to bind the wounds of others.”
In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by a growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other Nations continues through recognition of our own peaceful purpose.
But in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the Pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather, must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples and advance peaceful trade and friendship.
FDR would, as the years went on, add some “multicultural pieties” of his own. In his last Thanksgiving proclamation, issued in November 1944, Roosevelt wrote, “Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”
It is surely true that presidents and citizens do not always rise to the challenges of our times. But the 45th president really is the worst of the lot. His inability to recognize the cruel irony of attacking refugees at Thanksgiving time illustrates just how disconnected Trumpism is from the arc of American history that bends toward justice.
Our best values, our best ideals, are constant. We are descended from migrants and refugees and immigrants—and from those who welcomed migrants, refugees, and immigrants. This is who we are as Americans. And the best measures of our greatness are found in a history of respecting diversity as a source of strength, and in an inclination to “encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples.”