Strange bedfellows?

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 5 December 2016

The older one gets the more one realises that perception is everything.

And in every country´s elections it is perception that determines the rise and fall of a nation´s ruling elite.

Perception in American elections seems usually shaped by factors such as military records, marital status, religious adherance, place of origin, previous political experience, attractiveness, charisma….

Seal of the President of the United States.svg

Yet the last American elections seemed to defy all past certainties.

Donald Trump has no military service history, has been married three times, is religious only when it is convenient to be so, comes from New York and “new money” rather than from a well-established American dynasty, never held a single political office, is not particularly attractive nor does he possess a charisma beyond his wealth.

Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpg

Yet Mr. Trump has been chosen as America´s next President.

He convinced millions of Americans that he was the Great White Change America had been seeking, the champion of the working class.

But he fills the next Cabinet with the wealthiest folks in America, many of whom have been steadfast against the working class all their lives and some as unqualified and inexperienced in affairs of state as Mr. Trump himself.

Yet to be fair, the casual observer, seeing the trees from outside the dark menacing American forest, is not really surprised by the evolution of Mr. Trump´s decisions leading up to his Inauguration.

Convince the people you are their champion, but when push comes to shove you will hobnob with those you are most comfortable with.

Also it is no surprise that Republicans now rally around the leader many of them once claimed to despise, because they want to be present when the gravy train pulls into the station.

The world has been transformed from a state of utter shock to a cautious worldly weariness, for Mr. Trump is really nothing new under the sun.

I hesitate to draw comparisons between Mr. Trump and other historic figures, but a demagogue using fear and nationalism to seize power is something the planet has seen before.

In the lead-up to January´s Inauguration…

(And it will happen, unless a miracle occurs and the Electoral College turns against their chosen candidate, which knowing the volatile nature of America they won´t have the courage to do so.)

…not many of Mr. Trump´s Cabinet nominees really surprise me.

(Disappoint me, yes.

Surprise me, no.)

But there are two trees in Mr. Trump´s forest that catch my attention…

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney…

For Mrs. Palin to be considered by Mr. Trump for a Cabinet position is not totally a stretch of the imagination as she shares Mr. Trump´s affinity for demagoguery and the ability to get elected regardless of the lack of ability or experience.

Sarah Palin by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg

Had Republican Presidential nominee John McCain been competiting against anyone besides Senator Barack Obama in 2008 and had become President and had ill health struck him down, Sarah Palin might have become President in his stead.

Give the devil her due, Sarah Palin, like Donald Trump, knows how to survive and thrive even though Reason itself protests against her.

But Mitt Romney is a different sort of political animal.

Or is he?

Romney rose from businessman to Governor to Republican Presidential nominee, but he lost to President Barack Obama who convinced the American public that Romney cared more about getting elected than he did for the electorate.

Former Massachusetts Governor and 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney

The 2012 Presidential campaign was not Mr. Romney´s first attempt at the Presidency nor might it have been his last.

In 2008 Mr. Romney lost the Republican nomination against Senator McCain.

By early 2014, the lack of a clear mainstream Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential election led many Republicans to suggest Romney stage a third run at the Presidency.

And Romney had been tempted, but his record of losses and the lack of commitment prompted many Republicans to reject him, so on 30 January 2015, Romney announced he would not run for President in 2016.

As the Republican presidential nomination race went into the primaries season, Romney had not endorsed anyone, but he was one of the Republican establishment figures who were becoming increasingly concerned about the front-runner status of Donald Trump.

Romney publicly criticised Trump for not releasing his taxes, saying there might be a bombshell in them.

Trump, never subtle, responded by calling Romney “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics”.

On 3 March 2016, in a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Romney made a scathing attack on Trump´s personal life, his business performance, and his domestic and foreign policy stances, saying that Trump was “a phony, a fraud…playing members of the American public for suckers….If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”

Romney´s speech was an unprecedented attack by a major US party´s most recent presidential nominee against the party´s current frontrunner for the nomination.

When by 3 May 2016 Trump had defeated all his opponents, Romney then announced that he would not support Trump in the general election:

“I am dismayed at where we are now. I wish we had better choices.”

After Trump won the election, Romney congratulated him.

On 19 November Romney met with Trump at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss the position of Secretary of State.

Whether this position is an eventuality is questionable, but this does raise some interesting questions:

Would joining Team Trump be a violation of what Romney says he believes?

Could the opportunity to affect change within the Trump Administration be considered honourable, despite how odious and bleak this Administration is already beginning to look seven weeks before the Inauguration?

Romney is, like Trump, an extremely wealthy man and a shrewd businessman – as evidenced by his ability to take the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from a fiscal shortfall to a huge surplus.

2002 Winter Olympics logo.svg

So for Romney to serve in the Trump Administration is not such an unusual fit after all.

But what kind of a Secretary of State would Romney be?

Here lies the crux of the question behind this post…

Being Secretary of State means serving the Administration internationally, at a time in history where America isn´t loved worldwide.

Seal of the Secretary of State.svg

Now dealing with America means dealing with its dominant, often fundamentalist, Christian beliefs.

Principal symbol of Christianity

Trump has convinced many Americans that Islam is the enemy, despite that one out of every six humans on the planet is Muslim and many Americans practice the faith of Muhammed.

"Allah" in Arabic calligraphy

Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

In fact, Romney spent 30 months in France (1966 – 1968) as a Mormon missionary, and held several positions as a member of the Mormon clergy from 1981 to 1994.

During all of his political campaigns, Romney has avoided speaking publicly about Mormon doctrines, referring to the US Constitution´s prohibition of religious tests for public office.

But persistent questions about the role of religion in Romney´s life led to his 6 December 2007 “Faith in America” speech where he declared:

“I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it.  My faith is the faith of my fathers.  I will be true to them and to my beliefs….I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law….Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.  Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

Mormons identify themselves as Christians, though many Christians don´t identify Mormons the same way as some of their beliefs differ from mainstream Christianity.

Above: Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle

Mormons believe in the Bible, as well as other books of scripture such as the Book of Mormon.

Mormon-book.jpg

Mormons believe that returning to God requires following the example of Jesus Christ and accepting his atonement through ordinances such as baptism.

Mormons believe that Christ´s church was restored through Joseph Smith and is guided by living prophets and apostles.

Portrait of Joseph Smith Jr.

Above: Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844)

They believe that God speaks to His children and answers their prayers.

Mormons have a strong sense of community and are very family-oriented with strong connections across generations, believing that families are sealed together beyond death.

Mormons have a strict health code prohibiting alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and other addictive substances.

Mormons have a strict law of chastity, requiring abstention from sex outside of heterosexual marriage and fidelity within marriage.

Upon examination of some of the tenets and practices of Islam there is some commonality between Mormons and Muslims.

But is harmonious coexistence between Mormons and Muslims possible?

Can a Mormon be true to his conscience and serve an Administration as blatantly xenophobic and anti-Islam as Trump´s?

Can a Mormon best represent America in a world where America is distrusted by many countries Muslim and non-Muslim?

Of late one reads of increased anti-Muslim violence across the United States and even in liberal-leaning Canada, where “obvious outsiders” feel threatened within their North American communities.

So, let´s look at a predominantly Mormon city and see how things are…

Welcome to Pocatello, Idaho, population just over 54,000, 75% of whom are Mormon.

Eastern Pocatello.jpg

Flag of Pacatello, Idaho

Pocatello is known for a number of things:

  • It is the 5th largest city in Idaho.
  • It is ranked #20 on the Forbes list of “Best Small Places for Business and Careers“.
  • It was founded as a stop along the route to the gold fields during the Idaho Gold Rush.
  • It is known as the “Smile Capital of America”.
    • In 1948, Pocatello Mayor George Phillips passed an ordinance making it illegal not to smile in Pocatello.  Meant as a tongue-in-cheek ordinance, it was passed as a result of an exceptionally severe winter which had dampened the spirits of city employees and citizens alike.  This ordinance was never repealed.  An event called Smile Days is held annually, including a smile contest and the “arrest” of non-smilers.
  • Its flag is considered by the North American Vexillological (flag lovers) Association as the worst city flag in North America.
  • It is home to the “Minidome” Holt Arena which hosts the Real Dairy Bowl (an annual junior college football bowl game) and the Simplot Games (America´s largest indoor high school track-and-field meet).
  • It is the birthplace of comedian actress Billie Bird (1908 – 2002), actress Gloria Dickson, lesbian librarian/author Celeste West, and vlogger Shay Carl.
  • Winters here are long and cold, summers hot and dry.

And it is in Pocatello one finds Idaho State University (ISU).

Idaho State University Seal.svg

And it is at ISU where cultures meet.

In February 2014, the Reverend Jim Jones, pastor of the Blazing Grace Church of Pocatello, approached the lectern at City Hall holding a copy of the Quran.

Jones told the Pocatello zoning panel that he felt uncomfortable with the plan of Middle East students at ISU to build a mosque within walking distance of the campus.

Jones claimed that the Quran commands followers to embrace intolerance, hate and violence.

(It doesn´t.)

“I get very fearful because I live close to this place.“, Jones told the panel.

The mosque was approved.

But Jones´ remarks and those of other opponents are evidence of the tensions that exist in Pocatello as ISU has become dependent on Saudi and Kuwati students to replace income lost from steep declines in local enrollment and state funding.

Payoff for ISU from foreign students is big:

More than $20,000 per student in annual tuition, nearly 300% more than local residents pay to attend ISU.

The first 17 Saudi students arrived in 2006 to study engineering.

Above: Flag of Saudi Arabia

Over time, the students began sending word back home about Pocatello´s attributes, particularly the low cost of living.

As more Saudi students came to ISU, Kuwati students began to arrive.

Above: Flag of Kuwait

As the number of Middle East students grew to 1,200 students, this meant an estimated $40 million for the local economy every year.

But these students have brought about a clash of cultures in this conservative Mormon town.

Critics of these students claim:

  • Free from the strict cultural mores of their home countries, some Saudi and Kuwaiti students have faced charges like drunk driving and stalking.
  • Many of these students are unfamiliar with English, are ill-prepared and frequently resort to cheating.
  • While acknowledging instances of discrimination, Pocatello officials and ISU professors say the students have done little to adapt to local customs and mores.

The students claim:

  • There are frequent episodes of discrimination on campus and in town.
  • While admitting that some Middle East students had cheated, many foreign students feel that ISU paints all of them with a broad brush.

Now some students are leaving.

For ISU, this has meant a loss of more than $2 million a year in tuition alone from 100 students who left in summer 2015.

More declines are expected. (New York Times, 22 March 2016)

For me, Pocatello is a microcosm of the planetwide problem that plagues us.

We cannot afford isolationism or xenophobia.

Assimilation is much harder work than hate, but the rewards are far greater.

Foreigners do need to be taught to follow the rules of the society in which they live, but they also need to be respected for the uniqueness they in turn offer to their adopted society.

Until we learn that there is unity in diversity and that this diversity of beliefs and cultures strengthens all of us, humanity will continue in its inevitable self-destruction.

Maybe the next stage in evolution might be smarter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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