#TrumpSacrifices: how Ghazala and Khizr Khan owned the word

With politicians like Modi and Trump wooing voters, no one asks for sacrifices. Maybe that’s why we’ve forgotten the meaning of the word

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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An American election usually throws up more or less the same clutch of catchphrases. Economy. Taxes. Healthcare. War.  National security. Immigration. Jobs. Social Security. Outsourcing. Military. Abortion. Guns. Supreme Court. Gay marriage. Patriotism.

But this time there’s an unusual new entrant to the word cloud: sacrifice.

It was triggered by a grave middle-aged Pakistani-American lawyer named Khizr Khan. Khan who lost his son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan in the Iraq War, rocked the Democratic National Convention by putting his hand over his heart and telling Donald Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”

As the stinging words reverberated outside the convention hall, the irrepressible Trump was left sputtering.

Of course he’d sacrificed, Trump told George Stephanopolous on ABC. Lots.

TRUMP: I think I have made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve work(ed) very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve done — I’ve had tremendous success.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Those are sacrifices?

TRUMP: Oh, sure. I think they’re sacrifices.

Within minutes, Twitter had gifted him a new hashtag — #TrumpSacrifices.

Actor Don Cheadle chortled, “#TrumpSacrifices ‘I had to do my own hair today. No one else. Me! Just think about that for a second…’”

CNN commentator and Hillary Clinton’s advisor Paul Begala quipped, “Once survived an entire weekend at Mar-a-Lago with just one can of hairspray. #TrumpSacrifices.”

Even Trump’s supporters were left flailing. One cited death threats against the tycoon and his daughter as an example of sacrifice. Ivanka Trump told the Republican National Convention her father made great sacrifices to enter the presidential race as a political outsider against 16 competitors.

Here for the record — and Trump’s reference — is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of sacrifice:

  1. an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially:  the killing of a victim on an altar
  2. something offered in sacrifice
  3. destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.

But why blame Trump? Sacrifice is an idea that’s long fallen out of favour in the political lexicon. John F Kennedy did famously tell Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But that was in 1961.  These days nobody really wants to talk about sacrifice, at least during an election campaign. Perhaps that’s why it left Trump gobsmacked when, of all people, a middle-aged man of Pakistani origin hurled the S-word at him.

This discomfort with sacrifice is not unique to Trump’s America. Politicians the world over are schooled to sell all gain, no pain. And that is what we have learned to expect as voters. Standing in line to vote is about the extent of sacrifice we are willing to offer.

When Narendra Modi addressed his mammoth rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York, he used the word balidaan (or sacrifice) in that speech. But the sacrifice was all in the past. “If you look at India’s history, so many great leaders have sacrificed their lives,” he told the crowd. There was always a mahapurush who sacrificed for the country.  He reminded the audience sacrifice was in our national psyche.

Then he quickly reassured the entitled Non Resident Indian that they didn’t need to sacrifice anything at all. They would not even have to tighten their belts in an India that went to Mars at the first go for less than the budget of a Hollywood film. He promised them a red carpet in India instead of red tape. Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards. No police verification hassles. Visas on arrival. His jan andolan (movement for the people) would ask nothing more from them than persuading at least five non-Indian families to visit India. And there would be a visa on arrival waiting for them along with a complimentary welcome drink. Ok, no welcome drink, but that’s about all the sacrifice that was required.

It’s interesting that just as Trump is selling the slogan “Make America Great Again”, Modi was selling “Make India Great Again”. A Make in India initiative.  A Swachh Bharat by 2019. A roof over everyone’s head by 2022. Toilets for all. A MyGov website. Just like that Trump wants to make America great again, but he demands nothing of the voter except that they elect him President. The Brexit-ers wanted to make Britain great again by exiting the European Union, but many of their supporters complained they didn’t realise they would have to make sacrifices as a result of leaving the EU. The Brexit-ers did not tell them that. It was only after the polls closed that Google noted a 250% spike in searching for “What happens if we leave the EU?”. As Terry Connelly wrote in Huffington Post,  “aging working class voters in depressed areas somehow were led to cast votes against an EU that was both a prime source of budget subsidies for their region and of jobs with manufacturing concerns that located in the UK precisely to gain access to EU markets!”

The notion of sacrifice is such political anathema these days that no politician who wants to get elected will breathe the word in front of voters unless it is to talk about something safely in the past – Rani Lakshmibai or Mahatma Gandhi. Or the never-ending story of the sacrifice of the other Gandhis recited ad nauseam by Rahul who has had power handed to him on a silver platter. Sacrifice might have had more currency in a socialist India but it’s a khadi word now in a polyester nation. Modi, unlike Rahul, realises the new India does not want to be spoon-fed teary stories of old sacrifice. He tells his tea-selling story, not as a saga of sacrifice but as a journey of aspiration. He sells success and himself as its prototype — not unlike Trump in his gilded tower.

Thus sacrifice, which once had such power in political parlance, is now reduced to its most banal, if invoked at all. We have Sheila Dikshit telling an aggrieved electorate that she too felt their pain about the rising prices of onions. She too, had to do without onions with her bhindi for weeks.

Narendra Modi is India’s first prime minister born after Independence and he brings a different mindset to politics. He does not harken back to sacrifice in quite the same way as his predecessors. He stands on the shoulders of those who sacrificed so that he and countless Indians like him would not have to. And he is not apologetic about that.

His goal is vikas (progress). Thousands and thousands of jobs. Building great structures like that Sardar Patel statue. That is what the electorate understands. That is, if you think about it, the Donald Trump ABC redefinition of sacrifice.

“Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices,” wrote Humayun Khan’s grieving mother Ghazala in The Washington Post. “He doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.”

In reminding him, Ghazala and Khizr Khan reminded us all.  And for a moment in the midst of all the mudslinging and braggadocio all of us had to ponder our debt to that weary, bloodstained, half-forgotten word.


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