PLAYING WITH FIRE

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An open letter to President Trump

My name is Salim Matt Gras, and I live in the small town of Hamilton, MT, about an hour south of Missoula. Yesterday evening I attended the rally you held at our airport. I went online and obtained a ticket, then waited many hours in line to get in. The sun was setting by the time Air Force One rolled slowly up the tarmac, positioning itself photogenically behind the podium where you spoke. I know from news reports that this was not accidental – apparently your team vetoed an adjacent site because it wouldn’t have as easily lent itself to good photo ops. Seems that appearances mean a lot to you, Mr. Trump. My experience teaches me that things are often not as they appear.

Let me be forthright about who, and what, I am. You might guess from my name that my identity is not mainstream Christian; fact is I identify as an American Sufi, a faith that has as its emblem a wingéd heart and that embraces people of all colors, all faiths, all gender identities, all walks of life. I grew up Jewish in New York, so in some respects you and I have a great deal in common. I love that rough and tumble city; gruff on its outside, tender hearted and compassionate at its core. I wonder sometimes how you could have been born and raised there without some of that loving compassion rubbing off on you.

I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Trump: it wasn’t easy for me to attend your rally yesterday. I was scared. In many ways it felt like going behind ‘enemy lines.’ Though I do not believe in enemies – my faith teaches me that all of us are one, and that there are no ‘others’ – it felt like a risky thing to do to immerse myself into a crowd of people who were likely to – and did – roar “lock her up! Lock her up!” when you predictably mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name. Still, it felt important to me to be there. You chose to come to my home town, a community known for its liberal embrace of people and ideas. I wanted to experience one of your many, many rallies for myself, and to bear witness to whatever there occurred.

The event, and you, didn’t disappoint. Waiting in the long lines I had ample opportunity to chitchat with the people around me. I found, as I expected, that they seemed ordinary people, people who could be my neighbors. Montana, for all its identification as a ‘red’ state, is a place where most of us put politics aside while living our day-to-day lives. We know the importance of being able to rely on our communities in this glorious state where winters have historically been harsh, often brutally so. You never know when you’ll need the help of a stranger pulling your car from a ditch, say, or evacuating your stock when a wildfire threatens. And so my fears were calmed a bit while slowly shuffling forward in the line that took hours, making small talk with the people behind and in front of me, taking refuge in ordinary things.

That all changed, though, when we came to the hangar where your event was staged.

Maybe it was the music – and I’ve got to say, I was quite surprised when the loudspeakers (at unspeakably loud volumes!) blared Mick Jagger’s Sympathy for the Devil. That song’s ominous implications took on particular significance as the evening wound on. I don’t know who chose that song, Mr. Trump, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the message was that we should have sympathy for _you_. But, music aside, the energy in that hangar was ugly, and frightening. It was as if this crowd of otherwise ordinary people had been given permission to morph into something very dark and very menacing. And it was the glee they showed, when you spoke approvingly of our Republican Congressional Representative body slamming a reporter, say, or badmouthing Clinton, or building a wall to keep out people suffering abuse seeking refuge, that was the most troubling.

I didn’t vote for you, Mr. Trump; but you are still my president. That rally you held in Missoula was paid for by my tax dollars – as are all the other very many rallies you’ve been staging across the country. My tax dollars pay for Air Force One, and for the Secret Service agents who protect you at these events. I had every right as an American citizen to attend that rally. And I had every right as a citizen, protected by the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, to express my sentiments while there. When I and my Quaker colleague raised our simple banner expressing support for Montana’s Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester (whom you go out of your way to vilify and attack, simply because he fulfills his obligation to his constituents by representing our interests), I fully anticipated what would happen next. But that doesn’t make it right, Mr. Trump. Nor does it make it legal.

As soon as my companion and I raised that banner, the crowd around us began seething with ugliness. People started snatching at the banner, attempting to pull it out of our hands. A burly man dressed all in black grabbed me and began shouting at me to leave. When I didn’t hustle along fast enough for his satisfaction, he threatened to have me arrested. When I asked what law I’d broken, he said he didn’t have to tell me. He shouted at me that your rally was a private event, and that I was not welcome (this in spite of the fact that the Missoula rally, and all your political rallies, are paid for with public dollars). He roughhoused me out the gate and came very close to throwing me to the ground.

I’m glad I attended your rally, Mr. Trump – glad I experienced your venom and your hatred and your lying firsthand. I needed to see that; I needed to bear witness to the ways in which you are rallying your base and inciting violence. I needed to see firsthand the ways in which you are laying the foundation for things unspeakable yet to come. Before now, I didn’t quite believe those who say that what we are witnessing in your presidency is akin to what happened in Germany when Hitler was ascendant. But now I do – and I am horrified and afraid.

But I am also committed – committed with all loving and compassionate Americans to standing up to you and your hatred. I do not know what happens next; nor do I know whether you will succeed in completely destroying the country so many of us love. I am not brave, Mr. Trump, and I am no hero. But I promise you that I and everyone I know will find whatever courage we need to resist you.

Go in peace and be well, Mr. Trump. I pray for our country – and I pray for your soul.
Salim Chisti Matt Sean Gras