Could a nativist villain like Bill the Butcher from "Gangs of New York" be used to silence dissent in the all-important debate over national sovereignty and Americans controlling their own borders?
Yes, it could happen.
In fact it happened the other day, when the president of the United States became Bill the Butcher.
President Donald Trump, with his hateful, racist comments bemoaning immigrants from "s——-" nations in Africa, Central America and Haiti — while longing for white immigrants from Norway — did something extraordinary.
He performed a miracle for Democrats. He gave them exactly what they wanted.
Trump slipped easily into Bill the Butcher's skin.
And the Democrats quickly sewed him up inside of it, and there they will keep him, as a gruesome totem to be used against anyone who dares challenge them in the immigration debate.
The short-term consequences are profound and to the Democrats'advantage.
There is legitimate anger and legitimate outrage at Trump's comments, and those who don't see a problem with the president complaining about minority immigrants, while seeking blond, blue-eyed ones, are blind.
But only a willful fool could miss the thrill of victory in some Democratic eyes. You can read it in the beat of newspaper stories, and hear it tremble in the voices of the pundits on television.
It is the sound of triumph; a triumph not only over Trump, but of the tens of millions of Americans who spurned Hillary Clinton and voted for him.
And who wants to be on Trump's side of things and be branded a racist?
Yet, there are long-term consequences too. And I don't think we've considered them.
What happens to a nation when tens of millions of Americans feel as if they will have little, if anything, to say about their borders, and who stays and who goes, and who becomes a citizen and who votes?
I understand why they're hated by many in the media. They voted for Trump. For this sin, they won't be forgiven.
But if dissent against Democratic immigration policy — meaning protection and citizenship and government benefits for those who came here illegally — is silenced and dismissed as Trumpian racism, what is the long-term effect for America? What happens to those American who have been shamed into silence?
Exile? Re-education camps? Sensitivity sessions?
Trump obviously hasn't considered it. Like Bill the Butcher, he's not a long-term planner.
Bill's favorite tools were his knives and his hatchet. He had an odd, dark and brutal sense of humor, and was played to perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese's 2002 film, but there was something about Bill.
He was a hater.
Bill hated the Irish, who in New York were bought by the Tammany Hall Democratic Machine and became its servants in a raw exercise of political power that muscled Bill and his friends out of the way.
I suppose Bill hated Italians and even Greeks, if he even noticed them, Poles and Hungarians, Jews and Chinese, Africans and Indians and just about everybody else.
Yet as long as Bill the Butcher was a fictional character, an archetype, he couldn't do much in our world.
He couldn't affect the supremely vital discussion we've been having in this country for years now.
Namely, what is it to be an American? And can Americans decide who enters their country? And should tax-subsidized benefits be exchanged for votes?
But all that's changed now with Trump's remarks.
Is using the word "shithole" in and of itself a racist comment? Not necessarily. But context is everything, and dismissing racial minorities yearning for a chance at a better life in America while pining for Norwegians, all blonde and pale and white, makes it so.
And those who defend the president on this do themselves and the nation a great disservice.
Typical of Trump, a vulgar braggart, he tweeted out that he never said it. Others who were at the meeting have a different view.
One is Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, an oily politico who would never let an enemy's rhetorical slip go to waste. He said Trump's denials were not truth.
It pains me to take Durbin's side. It's like grabbing a slimy bullhead while fishing on a Saturday afternoon, only to have the spine stick through your thumb down to the bone. But I believe Durbin on this one. And I do not believe Trump.
There were two reasons Trump was elected president.
One reason was that Trump voters wanted him to go to Washingtonand kick the political establishment — both the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment — in the groin.
But the main reason was immigration, largely unfettered illegal immigration from Mexico and points south, with Democrats tying immigrants to welfare and other benefit programs to buy their votes, just as Tammany Hall had bought the Irish in Bill's day.
And establishment Republicans, representing business, weren't all that excited about stemming the massive flow of illegal immigration.
Agribusiness wanted its fruit picked and meat processed, and these and other large interests wanted cheap labor to undercut wages. It's something Bernie Sanders worried about once.
With their jobs gone and the economy in shambles, tens of millions of Americans were angry, and they brushed off the establishment GOP and chose Trump.
They wanted him to kick crotches and build that wall. But a president should do more than that.
A president should inspire the nation. And Trump seems incapable of that.
Inspiration isn't in his skill set. It wasn't in Bill's toolbox either.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His Twitter handle is @john_kass.
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