On November 9th, I was overwhelmed with despair, and I know I was not alone. Social media reflected the weight of our collective grief with bitter, gloomy, and disbelieving updates. Opinion editorials were thick-throated with humiliation.
The idea that Donald Trump, a man with few morals, little integrity, and a frightening propensity for hate speech now has the potential to decide the fate of my community, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and my world is nothing short of terrifying. But I must accept forthwith that this is what our democracy has yielded. What I told my beautiful, “brown” twenty-year-old twins after the elections was to be vigilant, be aware, and be engaged. For now, more than ever, our country needs people like us, women of color, who are not afraid to speak up and speak out.
This is not the first time, and nor will it be the last, that the American populace has voted in a heedlessly racist man to power. For before Donald J. Trump there was James D. Phelan. America carries the scars of previously ill-thought elections and this will be just one more to add to our injuries.
Late September 2016, I watched an experimental short film, Far East of Eden, presented by two artists Bruce Yonemoto and Karen Finley at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.
The film was performance theater. It anatomized and drew parallels between the anti-immigrant speeches of President-elect Donald Trump and Senator James Duval Phelan—a democrat and three-time mayor of San Francisco who also served in the United States Senate from 1915 to 1921.
Phelan is the man who built Villa Montalvo, a historic arts center in the Bay Area, which he bequeathed, after his death in 1930, to be used for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture. Montalvo Arts commissioned Yonemoto and Finley’s startling film, Far East of Eden, as part of its Artists’ Residency program, which brought to light the darker shades within the moral imagination of two men.
Like Donald Trump, Phelan commanded an uncomfortable appeal despite, and because of, the numerous slap-downs of people of other races and colors. He was the first to be popularly elected to the Senate from California.
Phelan wrote an essay in 1901 describing the Chinese as “patronizing neither school, library, church nor theatre; lawbreakers, addicted to vicious habits; indifferent to sanitary regulations and breeding disease; taking no holidays, respecting no traditional anniversaries, but laboring incessantly, and subsisting on practically nothing for food and clothes.”
Fast forward 115 years later as Trump asserts that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
As infantile as Trump sounds, the intent of what he says, and what Phelan once said, are disconcertingly similar. The existential threat that they felt and feel is palpable. Both Phelan and Trump are provocateurs who couched their racism in terms of economic currency. They explain away the rabidity of racism with the idea of self-preservation.
In an essay titled “The Japanese Evil in California,” Phelan extended his anti-immigrant stance to the Japanese railing against their presence in California, calling them “a masterful people, of great industry and ingenuity. They have no disposition in California to work for wages, but seek control of the soil by purchase, leasehold or a share of the crops, and, under these circumstances, become impossible competitors.” For these reasons he called for “Congress to pass an exclusion law at once.”
Phelan’s words ring remarkably similar to Trump’s call to exclude Muslims. Trump called for the litmus test of religion to be the basis for exclusion. In a speech in Phoenix he claimed that Mexicans are “taking away our jobs” and “killing us.” His choice of words instantly criminalized a community while agitating public opinion to exclude and deny a race.
Trump now, and Phelan then, give the impression that one race has a bigger stake in our economy than others. They believe that whites have more of a moral right to opportunity.
Trump has had no qualms in dismissing diversity and advancing numerous fringe ideas about minorities. Trump wants America to look and sound like him. And, appallingly, too many have bought his line of logic. The New Yorker describes this as the “Resentment of the ‘browning of America’ in the era of the first African American President.”
Early in Yonemoto and Finley’s movie, a group of white men and women put on Asian masks and costumes and slither silently at a party while a young non-white boy cuts through the party guests with a bemused look on his face. The scene is a metaphor for a fake white world.
Phelan launched a Senate re-election campaign in 1920 with the slogan “Keep California White”—a blatantly corrosive sentiment. But the people of California finally realized the illusory benefits of bigotry and bias and he was voted out of office. Let’s hope that day comes soon for our white man elected to the top.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.