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Opinion: Forgetting What It Means to Be an American

Selective memory of president and supporters imperils the country

President Donald Trump walks from the Oval Office to speak with members of the press while departing the White House last Friday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump walks from the Oval Office to speak with members of the press while departing the White House last Friday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The 2004 romantic comedy “50 First Dates” offered a novel, though somewhat implausible, premise — and I don’t mean that Drew Barrymore would find Adam Sandler irresistible. The heroine of the tale, afflicted with short-term memory loss, woke up each morning with a clean slate, thinking it was the same day, with no recollection of anything that happened the day before.

Who knew the president of the United States, most members of a political party and White House staff would suffer from the same condition?

The top White House physician, during a detailed briefing Tuesday on Donald Trump’s health, confirmed it in his own way when he said that one reason why the president is able to shake off the stress of the world’s toughest job is because “he has the unique ability to … push the reset button.”

Would that the rest of the country and the world could do the same.

No bill of love

In the case of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard J. Durbin thought they had a deal worked out, according to a Washington Post timeline, one that would have protected about 700,000 young people brought illegally to this country as children, while offering the administration concessions on border security funding and immigration guidelines.

But the president quickly forgot his pledged willingness to compromise on a “bill of love.”

Watch: Booker Says Nielsen Is ‘Complicit’

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Counseled by his Bannon-style nationalist, right-wing right-hand man Stephen Miller and surrounded by hard-liners such as GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, Trump derailed the deal and sidetracked the conversation with vulgarities about people, countries and entire continents. (Does he know Africa is made up of 54 countries with different geographies, governments and cultures?)

For those who would say his crude remarks were about education or income, not skin color, well, they must have forgotten that immigrants from Nigeria are among the wealthiest and most educated to come to this country, with levels of education surpassing whites and Asians.

That knowledge gap proves a willful ignorance and a preference to believe something picked up from a Tarzan movie or sporadic and incomplete media coverage that is itself guilty of paying attention only when disease or disaster strikes. I wanted to discuss that thought with a Nigerian-American doctor friend, but he was busy treating a flood of patients laid low by respiratory illness, and perhaps planning his next trip to provide quality care in countries around the world.

Followers led by Cotton, Perdue and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen contorted themselves into verbal and ethical knots trying not to say what everyone knows the president believes. It is clear — from documented real estate discrimination to his birtherism crusade against President Barack Obama to attacks on the ethnicity of an American judge and more — that “White is right” could sum up Trump’s credo.

Selective memories

What this president and his supporters choose to remember is selective and troubling. When translated into policy, it imperils Americans and changes the idea and ideals of this country. If education and, as my mom would say, home training are all-American virtues, they have taken a permanent pass.

When Trump himself starts each day anew, he doesn’t have to consider the history of the United States or even his own family — Americans-come-lately, without riches, advanced degrees or language skills, but more fortunate than the folks of color who came before, those he can’t erase no matter how many torch-bearing Nazis and KKK members he judges “very fine people.”

The recent White House report on domestic terrorism incidents, questioned for misleading statistics, leaves out incidents involving white supremacist groups in the tally, letting you know the “official” meaning of domestic terrorism depends on the perpetrators and the victims.

After Trump’s maligning of so many countries, Americans who’d immigrated from those places or had parents who did, including Haitian-American GOP Rep. Mia Love of Utah, repeated their stories — of achievement, of sacrifice, of military service. Some descendants of those who found their way to America from Western European nations that were considered the “expletives” of their times did so as well.

Historians shared information about the roles Haitians played in the American Revolution, or provided links to the tough reality of outside intervention and exploitation by American and European governments that fomented the economic and political instability that is the root of challenges in those places our leaders feel so free to defame.

It was uplifting, then irritating, because no proof would ever be enough for those who prefer a sanitized U.S. narrative, people who have accepted the contributions, then dismissed the humanity. Forgotten are Native Americans, denied for years the rights of citizenship in their country, and the free labor of enslaved African-Americans, which provided America with wealth they did not share in then or in the century and limited freedom that followed.

Lessons not learned

The president could have filled in his own gaps — in knowledge and empathy — if he had chosen to spend the federal holiday honoring American hero and conscience the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in service, as his predecessors chose to do, instead of hunkering down at one of his clubs.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, a panel that day featured the man it is named for. Gantt, now 75, was a child of segregated South Carolina who integrated Clemson University, received his graduate degree at MIT, co-founded an integrated architecture firm in North Carolina, was elected Charlotte’s first black mayor, and would have been a brilliant member of the U.S. Senate if his two bids in the 1990s were not upended by the scorched-earth racist campaigns mounted by the late Sen. Jesse Helms.

Gantt, who remains active in work and political activity, in his talk championed education and spoke of his parents, who, despite the racism that sought to set limits, believed in “the promise of America.” Does he still hold on to that promise? I asked him. “Absolutely,” he said. “Because this is just a moment in time, in my thinking. We’ve reached an inflection point, but I think that after Trump we’re going to see real progress.”

Like my own dad, Gantt’s father, a hardworking man with an eighth-grade education, possessed wisdom to spare, and could teach our leaders some unforgettable lessons.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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