Susan Dalgety: The fault line that runs through the big heart of the US

Southern hospitality is a classic stereotype, just like Gone with the Wind, mint juleps on the porch and hillbillies strumming their banjos long into the night.
A protester holds a sign outside a closed gate at the Port of Entry facility in Fabens, Texas, where tent shelters are being used to house separated family members. Picture: APA protester holds a sign outside a closed gate at the Port of Entry facility in Fabens, Texas, where tent shelters are being used to house separated family members. Picture: AP
A protester holds a sign outside a closed gate at the Port of Entry facility in Fabens, Texas, where tent shelters are being used to house separated family members. Picture: AP

But I do declare, that like most clichés, there is more than a ring of truth to it. Right now, we are criss-crossing the Southern states, from West Virginia to the Carolinas, Virginia to Tennessee, then down to Georgia and Alabama.

Everywhere we go we are greeted with a warmth, which if it is not genuine, is fake enough to fool even the most cynical of strangers.

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Stopping to look at the recently renovated railway station in Bristol, whose main street is divided by the Virginia/Tennessee state line, I heard a woman call out, with a cadence straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.

“Are you interested in our railway station?” asked a most elegant lady, looking ridiculously cool in the 90-degree heat.

“And do I detect an accent?” she asked, when I answered yes.

“You mean you have come all the way from Scotland to visit our little town, and our railway station? Then let me show you around. I am a Mary Beth, and this,” pointing to the silent southern gentleman in a pale blue suit, “is my husband Charles”.

Then Mary Beth took time out of her Fathers’ Day celebrations to show us round the station, telling us the story of how the Bristol community had rescued it from disrepair and restored it to its 1902 glory.

It no longer serves as a passenger terminal. Instead it is a glorious event space, but Mary Beth is positive the good people of Bristol can convince Amtrak to reconnect their station to the rest of the country. I have no reason to doubt her.

In the Civil War museum in Richmond, one of the guides Wendy, told us, total strangers, of her doomed love affair with a bloke from Paisley. We laughed together as she recounted her first experience of a Glasgow wedding.

In Salem, Virginia, Renee, a mother of three boys, who had worked an eight-hour shift on her family’s small farm before her evening shift as a waitress, was more worried about whether we had had enough to eat than her aching back and sore feet.

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Taxi drivers, shop assistants, campground attendants look you in the eye when they meet you, smile, and ask “y’all having a good day”, then wait for an answer.

It is against this backdrop of warmth and courtesy that the surreal horror of the last few days has unfolded.

As details of the 2,300 children stolen from their parents as they sought refuge in the United States emerged, America’s schizophrenia was laid bare in the most terrible way.

This is the most open, friendly country in the world to travel through. It is a country built on immigration. It exists only because strangers from across the world came together to create the world’s greatest democracy, and its biggest economy.

It is a nation whose constitution was crafted so that “we, the people” can enjoy justice, peace, and the benefits of freedom.

Its founding document states that all men are created equal.

And yet it is a country that, in 2018, can cage toddlers in a prison and call it a “tender years” facility.

A nation whose President can lie, with impunity, on prime-time television, blaming Obama for the policy of tearing families apart, when he knows, we all know, that it was his – Donald John Trump’s – decision to lock up babies.

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God-fearing Americans dismiss the revelations of their state’s cruelty as “a big fat lie” or blame the parents for putting their children in danger.

Or worse, use scripture to defend their inhumanity, as Attorney General Jeff Beauregard Sessions did recently.

“I would cite you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” he said.

As a good ole’ Southern boy, Sessions knew that in the 1850s, Romans 13 was invoked by defenders of slavery in a futile attempt to ward off abolitionists.

America, the land of the free. And the land where babies are locked up, screaming “Papi, Papi”.

As a senior political journalist said on television earlier this week, “good nations sometimes go bad”.

This is not the first time that America has “gone bad”. There is a fault line running straight through this country’s big heart – race.

The bloody Civil War was fought, primarily, about slavery, and when the southern states lost, they poisoned America for generations with segregation. In the 1920s, one third of Congress were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Trump is, at heart, a white nationalist. He describes people from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum as an “infestation”, as less than human.

He has exploited poor, rural white Americans by lying to them that non-white immigrants have stolen their jobs and their future. He has bribed traditional Republicans and evangelicals with tax cuts and pro-life policies.

And he has convinced the GOP cowards in Congress, that while he may be a bit rough round the edges, he gets things done.

America’s saving grace is that, just as it seems about to tumble headlong into full-blown fascism, its better angels take wing.

Martin Luther King’s memorial now stands alongside Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s as a father of this great nation.

Barack Obama’s election as President ten years ago was a clear signal that the majority are proud of their country’s diversity.

And this week’s outcry against Trump’s imprisonment of children, when even the President’s wife felt moved to express her anger, shows that the real America is not the nasty, brutish, empire that Trump dreams of; but “the home for all the pilgrims from all the lost places” that Ronald Reagan spoke of in his 1989 farewell address.

On Tuesday, Presidential historian Jon Meacham compared Donald Trump to President Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat who took office after the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

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Johnson issued what Meacham describes as, “the most racist state paper in American history,” where he wrote that African Americans were incapable of being part of government and civil society. Johnson was becoming an important architect of white supremacy,” said Meacham. “He believed he had a kind of inchoate connection to the common man. He gave slightly disjointed speeches about how the world was against him.

“Any of this sound familiar?” Meacham then asked of his television host, in a clear reference to Trump.

What he didn’t go on to mention was that, in 1868, Andrew Johnson was the first President to be impeached, largely because of his approach to reconstruction after the Civil War.

A year later his Presidency ended in ignominious failure. Is history about to repeat itself?