Trumpeans. They’re in no way an aberration. Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist, said to Buzzfeed: “Italian heritage was a significant predictor of Trump support.” It’s an obvious trend and one that, in my opinion, will put the final nail in our community’s coffin.
The advent of the Make-America-Great-Again/White-Nationalist Remix found Italian Americans at the right historical moment, in the midst of a cultural crisis. We’ve forgotten just enough of our heritage to be accepted into the white mainstream, yet still clutch onto unbecoming stereotypes to perform as the white world’s willing clowns.
As a prime example, behold Teresa Giudice, the epitome of wit, screaming “Prostitution whore!” Marvel as she dazzles us with her adroit table flipping artistry!
When Trump came along, we were primed. One only has to look at the “Way back when” Italian American Facebook groups, meme pages, and comics recycling the same old jokes, laced with misogyny, homophobia, and racism, to see that hatred was bubbling through our ranks looking for a channel. Donald has been that conduit, giving his followers what they always wanted: greater acceptance into the white mainstream and easy scapegoats on which to pin their own lackluster success.
There was one snag in our newfound acceptance: not long ago we were the “dirty immigrants.” Our shame causes cultural schizophrenia. In our alternate reality we turn around and now do to others what in the past was done to us. Stanislao G. Pugliese, professor at Hofstra University said, “We could point out – word-for-word – that what some Italian Americans say today about recent immigrants, was said about Italian-Americans years ago. ‘They are dirty. They are criminals. They are dangerous. They refuse to speak the language. They only take advantage of the system. They will never become ‘real’ Americans.”
We argue: “but we were different, better immigrants.” Our delusions of diaspora grandeur cause us to ignore inconvenient truths. Poking through our idealized vision is the latent memory that not all of us spoke English nor had a perfect track record of patriotism. Non-English speakers and Mussolini advocates lurk in our family trees alongside our equally unrecognized anti-fascist and labor activist descendants. But in our version of the story we alighted onto Ellis Island by way of spotless angelic wings. So, while we were raving fans of the White Nationalist Mashup we were not quite at full integration.
Then the first Columbus statue fell. The moment it hit the ground and those among us rushed to defend their false idol, openly mocking the importance of the uprising — and in one instance spitting on protestors and calling them “garbage” and using racial epithets — is the moment that those same segments of the Italian American community fused with white nationalism. All of a sudden, defacing a spurious symbol of Italian American culture became the same as being “un-American.” In our deluded brains an assault on a statue became an assault on Italian Americans and in effect, on America. Finally, we are part of the white nationalist narrative!
Pathetically unbeknown to the rank and file, the outrage about Columbus iconography had nothing to do with Italian Americans. We’re the last thing on people’s minds, because as an ethnic group we’ve ceased to matter beyond select metropolitan areas, and even there barely, and not for much longer.
Our cultural insistence on stereotypes is boring to the public (see Tracy Ullman’s sketch re: scant roles available to a former cast member of The Sopranos who still tawks liiike dis) but more importantly to the younger generation of Italian Americans, who are increasingly apathetic about their heritage. I can’t blame them, as our cultural institutions and community no longer successfully inject substance into our traditions. Already the Feast of San Gennaro is as meaningful as a reenactment as Colonial Williamsburg.
If we continue to cling to stereotypes and fail to expand our cultural imagination– meanwhile aligning ourselves with a group that accepts us only because we hate–within a decade we will go out in a puff of wannabe mobster gun smoke that spells “fawgettaboutit.”
The irony is that recognizing and embracing our diversity could save us. We’re no longer a monolithic group; dare I say, we’re now largely intersectional. Being Italian American is now a complex experience. We are ‘Latinx’. We are black, we are queer. Italian Americans are also all of this and more, but we’ll never know that if we’re wearing hats that mean: “Keep America White.”
This historical moment shall pass and with it all the people who feel that Columbus gives them significance. At the dawn of that new era the scant vestiges of an identity lost will come tumbling down.