Bloomberg View (Opinion)
By Leonid Bershidsky
February 24, 2016
Now that Donald Trump has a path to the Republican nomination, there's a story I really want to hear from him at one of his raucous rallies, maybe at all of them. It might actually help him get crossover voters from Bernie Sanders -- a group of angry voters that could help him as much as the Republican party's traditionalist base.
The story is laid out in Gwenda Blair's 2001 book "The Trumps," which is better known in Germany than in the U.S. I learned about the painstakingly researched family history from the Suddeutsche Zeitung and Deutsche Welle. The book tells how the presidential candidate's grandfather, Friedrich Trump, immigrated to the U.S. from the Palatinate winemaking town of Kallstadt -- and of why his son, Frederick Trump, started telling people he was Swedish, a misrepresentation Donald Trump repeated in his bestseller, "The Art of the Deal."
Other candidates happily share their families' immigration histories. Marco Rubio's message about the American dream is based on his Cuban parents' story of arriving penniless in Florida and working menial jobs to help him move forward in "the best country in the world." Like Rubio's parents, Sanders's father didn't speak English when he came to the U.S. His birthplace was the village of Slopnice in southern Poland.
Rubio and Sanders talk about this to show that they understand the hardship of integration. Most people in the U.S. -- well, not Native Americans and the descendants of early settlers or slaves -- could tell similar stories about their families, stories of courage and strife. Trump could, too.
According to Blair's book, Friedrich Trump, the fourth of six children in a wine grower's family, couldn't count on enough of an inheritance to be anything but poor. So he trained as a barber and, at 16, made his way to New York, where some Kallstadt relatives had already settled. He plied his trade in Manhattan, then moved to Seattle to open a restaurant, then followed the gold rush to a boomtown in Washington state and finally to the Yukon. He saved up some money running a restaurant (and brothel) in Canada; the Trump family fortune originated there, too. (Now the grandson hounds Ted Cruz about his Canadian birth.)
Friedrich -- whose ancestors' name was Drumpf until they changed it to Trump in the 17th century during the 30 Years' War -- was very much a German. With his nest egg, he went back to Kallstadt to seek a wife. After marrying a neighbor of his mother's, he took her to the U.S. But Elizabeth Trump didn't like it there, so the family returned to Germany, intending to settle there for good.
With his American money, Friedrich Trump was a gift to his German community, but the German bureaucracy under Kaiser Wilhelm II kicked him out. Despite repeated appeals for German citizenship (Trump had become an American so he could vote in the presidential election after Washington became a state in 1889), he was suspected of having fled Germany to dodge the draft and returning only when he was no longer eligible.
So, Wilhelmian bureaucrats bear the ultimate responsibility for the emergence of presidential candidate Trump. That, however, is not the part of the family story I really want to hear from him.
During World War I, when hamburgers were called Wilsonburgers and sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," President Woodrow Wilson banned German men from planes and boats and ordered 600,000 German aliens to register with the police. Many German immigrants changed their names because they felt -- and often were -- threatened. The Trumps didn't, according to Blair: They "hunkered down to avoid suspicion," but remained a German-speaking household. Their children, second-generation Americans, grew up speaking German, too, "but the bitter experience of having been tarred by their German ancestry had left scars on the Trump children."
What German immigrants endured during World War I was just a warning to Frederick Trump, the candidate's father and the man who made the family rich. World War II taught him he had to forget his heritage. Blair wrote:
As the children searched the skies for Messerschmidt planes, Fred Trump was silent about his own German background. Although he had spoken German when he had visited Kallstadt just before the Depression, in America only his parents' generation spoke the language in public. He began to deny that he knew German and didn't teach it to his children. Eventually, he started telling people that he was of Swedish ancestry. Mindful of the growing prominence of Jews in the real estate industry and local politics, he became so active in Jewish philanthropies that people often assumed he belonged to that faith.
Donald Trump picked up the Swedish lie and stressed his mother's Scottish heritage, especially as he promoted his golf courses in Scotland. More recently, he has had to acknowledge his German roots, but the people of Kallstadt don't root for him the way Slopnice roots for Sanders, who has visited the town. I suspect it's not only because Trump defies fact-checking, and truthfulness is an important virtue in Germany.
The similarity between the way the U.S. treated Germans during the world wars and the way Trump wants it to treat Muslims is striking. And if, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. had as restrictive an immigration policy as Trump proposes, his grandfather couldn't have come in the first place -- or returned when Germany rejected him.
I have been getting many e-mails from Trump supporters who tell me they are not xenophobes and that Trump's potential for shaking up a moribund system is more important to them than his anti-immigrant message. If that's true, Trump would lose nothing by acknowledging that attitudes like the ones he has propagated once forced his father to give up his heritage and forget his first language. That wouldn't be his first turnaround, and he'd certainly gain my respect. As someone who lives outside my native country, I want my children to speak the language I grew up with and be proud of their ancestry.
I doubt that Trump will do it, though. It is the xenophobic pronouncements that get him the loudest cheers at rallies. Those who applaud him ought to know, though, that he's something like a Jewish anti-Semite: Someone whose family was scarred by the kind of hatred he's trying to ignite.
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