Robert Azzi: ‘The veneer of civilization is paper thin’

For the Monitor
Sunday, February 04, 2018

I was one of the many millions of Americans who tuned in to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union – the fourth most widely watched SOTU speech in history.

While his base, I’m sure, heard in the speech what they wished, to the rest of his audience, domestic and international, it was exclusivist, mean-spirited, and lacked vision and inspiration.

What I heard was a divisive and nativist assault on American values, a speech designed not to unite but to divide, to narrow the definition of what it means to be American.

What I heard was a speech belligerent toward North Korea and silent on Russia, the one nation that actually continues to attack America. In his silence I heard his refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, his refusal to confront authoritarians and oligarchs.

I listened to his silence on the genocide in Myanmar, to the plight of one-third of the Americans residents in Puerto Rico who still lack electricity, to his conflation of immigration to America with terror and violence.

I listened to Republicans cheer as Trump celebrated signing an executive order to keep Guantánamo open without regard for the sordid history that infects its presence, the cheering for torture and human rights abuses – its ineffectiveness at achieving prosecutions.

Reflecting the magical thinking that so infects his ego and administration – and contrary to what everyone else in the world thinks – I heard Trump claim that America’s standing in the world is actually improving.

I thought, as I listened, of all the nations where we are unrepresented by ambassadors, of career foreign service officers who are leaving government service in droves, of intelligence analysts and government employees who diligently work to keep us safe and free from threats foreign and domestic.

Of friends of mine with whom I’ve worked whose primary concern is our well-being.

Of the more than 6,000 American troops deployed in Africa – of the four Americans lost in Niger under still unknown circumstances.

Without shame, in a petty, selfish act of exploitation – and in yet another attack on black athletes – Trump diminished the inspired contribution of 12-year-old Preston Sharp, who helped place 40,000 flags at veterans’ graves, by claiming that it was an example of “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

I cringed, too, not at the pain of two families and the tragic loss of daughters murdered by criminals, but at the way their loss was crassly exploited.

Teleprompter Trump falsely implied that family-unification-based immigration is responsible for acts of terrorism and that immigrants can bring in “virtually unlimited” numbers of relatives. Indeed, family members waiting to be unified often wait well over a decade for applications to be processed and approved.

The Democrats disappointed me: I think they should have stood as the president entered the chamber out of respect for the office. I think they were right to sit on their hands as they listened to his address.

I was disappointed, too, in the Democratic response to the address. When you have five responses it means you have no message. Further, I don’t want to hear from anyone named Sanders, Clinton or Kennedy – their days have passed, all of them. I don’t want to hear from anyone who reads Tom Friedman or David Brooks – or who believes that NPR is the authoritative last word.

I don’t want to hear from anyone, of any persuasion, who believes that Teleprompter Trump trumps Twitter Trump – Twitter Trump who today is engaged in a full-frontal attack, through his surrogate Rep. Devin Nunes, on America’s justice system in order to protect his corrupt administration.

Nunes has produced a controversial memo – although he reportedly hasn’t read the intel that underlies the memo – that suggests that the FBI illegitimately acquired a wiretap extension on Trump advisor Carter Page without fully telling a judge about their sources.

In response the FBI argued: “We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

Ignoring the FBI, ignoring the fact that the initial FISA warrant on Carter Page was issued in 2015 and that all FISA judges (who are appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and who are, it’s reported, 80 percent Republican) have to follow a rigorous protocol to approve a warrant – or its extension – Republicans have seized upon the memo as though it’s the Lost Ark that will redeem their savior, once he releases the memo.

The savior whose SOTU address embraced elements favored by authoritarians, pretending to support the welfare of the masses while in fact acting on behalf of corporations, kleptocrats, himself – and his Republican enablers.

Trump’s speech, a combination of self-congratulatory back-slaps, dog-whistles and digs at previous administrations, was an artful dodge.

At one point he said: “For decades open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

The truth is that of the 17,250 Americans murdered in the first year of his administration, almost none were by an undocumented, that immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-born Americans and that most immigrants do not compete with low-wage American workers.

The world I know and experience is one diminished by Trump’s erratic behavior, unnerved by his ignorance and vagaries, destabilized by America leaving the voluntary Paris climate accords, from global refugee assistance, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At what price?

When I get tired, as I am at this moment, I remember the words of the late Congressman, Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”

I know Trump and his enablers are counting on wearing us down, hoping there will be a day where it no longer seems worth refuting his lies, inaccuracies and bigotry.

If that day passes they will have won – and Democracy lost.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)