Essay from America: New Yorker of Cork origin uses swastika to repel Trump

Brian Donoghue, the owner of the Inquiring Minds bookstore, Saugerties, New York State.

Brian Donoghue thought long and hard before putting a swastika in his shop window and even after critics wished cancer on his family and ruination on his business, he believes he did the right thing, writes Caroline O'Doherty

Officials in the town of Saugerties in upstate New York where Brian has his bookstore think otherwise and have started enforcement proceedings that, in theory at least, could put him in jail for a year.

“I don’t see that happening,” says the soft-spoken father of six whose great-grandparents came from Cork.

“But then if Trump gets in, I might have to close the bookstore, I might be exiled, so one window won’t be a problem,” he adds with a half smile.

It was Donald Trump who prompted his swastika protest. He got a banner made up with Trump’s name against the Nazi symbol and the words Make America Hate Again underneath.

Accompanying it are a collection of books chronicling the rise of Nazism, the “First they came” poem by anti-Nazi theologian Pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote of the dangers of not speaking out against the hate movement, and a selection of the messages Brian has received since which show hate is alive and kicking.

Piece of garbage, KKK, stupid hippy liberals (Brian rejects the stupid part) are just some of the things he’s been called by people vowing never to set foot in his store again.

And then there’s the: “F**k you. I hope your family gets cancer. You’ll be out of business soon. We don’t need you in Saugerties.”

Brian Donoghue, owner of the Inquiring Minds bookstore.
Brian Donoghue, owner of the Inquiring Minds bookstore.

The language and sentiments seem out of place in this pretty town in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains where the rich gold and reds of the autumn leaves gleam against a clear blue sky.

Squirrels scamper across leaf carpeted lawns of colonial style homes where swing seats and rocking chairs creak gently on timber verandas as the breeze jangles the windchimes.

Brian’s Inquiring Minds bookstore fits neatly into the townscape, its wooden floors and panelled ceilings cradling a warren of tall bookcases stocking every kind of reading material from psychoanalysis and environmental ethics to the history of farting.

Chess boards sit ready to play in cosy corners and his cafe at the far end serves up all manner of locally sourced fare, washed down with pumpkin spice coffees or eggnog lattes.  

The underbelly of ugliness that the presidential election campaign has exposed unsettles him.

“As a businessman there’s a fine line between alienating your community and educating them so I was debating with myself what to do.

“And then one of the local shopkeepers who happens to be Muslim came up to me and asked me did I really think Donald Trump had a chance of winning.

“I said I don’t know and he said, I think I should just sell my business now because if Trump gets elected, they’re going to take it away from me just like they did the Jews in Germany.

“I just thought, wow, this is the fear these people are operating under and it startled me into facing a reality that I needed to do something.

“So we put up the display showing the correlation about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the rise of the Trump campaign because I think there are very strong parallels.”

The influential Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism, has strongly condemned the use of the swastika, as have Trump supporters, the local Conservative Party and Saugerties Town Hall.

A protest was held outside the shop but the American Booksellers Association, strong advocates of the first amendment protecting free speech, are supporting Brian and have organised a lawyer to represent him.

His ‘crime’ is breaching the village code of Saugerties which contains a never-used provision stating that everything in a window is supposed to have a ‘certificate of appropriateness’.

“It’s bizarre. My wife is Jewish so I have family that was lost in the Holocaust and I’m very aware of the power of the image I used. I used it for that reason.”

Brian has caused controversy before, once when he put up a display lampooning local politicians over spending on a new jail that spiralled out of control and another time when he hosted an art exhibition featuring male nudes.

“They were abstract male nudes, very abstract, you really had to use your imagination to see anything,” he says. “But we got bricks through the windows both those times.”

It hasn’t made him regret giving up his job as an ironworker and welder in New York city to open his store.

“For me this is a dream come true. Ever since I was a child I wanted a bookstore. It was always a safe space for me. I grew up in a broken family and not very well to do and libraries were the place where I found solace.

“We’re a bookstore, we’re supposed to challenge people, to present different thoughts. My only fear is that, even if Clinton wins, there’s a certain level of hate that’s been released.

“People feel like they have licence now to spew their hatred and that’s a very dangerous place to be. Can’t we have a civil dialogue?”

Trump supporter Joan Grant joined a militia to keep out illegal immigrants
Trump supporter Joan Grant joined a militia to keep out illegal immigrants

Up the street at the Hudson Valley Dessert Company bakery, one such discussion is under way, albeit peppered with gentle jibes.

“So nobody’s taken your Trump sign from your yard?” Suzanne VanderSandan, a Democrat, asks Joan Grant,  a die-hard Republican and Trump supporter.

“If they do, I’ll know who it was,” replies Joan. “I’m watching you.”

Joan, 83, made news ten years ago when she joined the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a volunteer militia, to patrol the border between Canada and New York state looking for illegal migrants who made the incredible journey from Mexico, up through California, into Canada and along the border before dropping down again on the east coast.

“We spent two weeks up there, all at our own expense. We had a retired college professor, a retired doctor, a principal from one of the schools. We didn’t catch anyone but it was kinda fun.”

When Trump talks immigration, Joan nods firmly in approval. “I like his outspokeness. I believe what he says and we sure don’t have that from the Democratic side. You have to admit that,” she glances at Suzanne.

“We’re real good friends but I’m trying very hard to like you right now,” says Suzanne.

Suzanne’s partner and political ally, Maria Cabigas, puts the situation into context. “We moved from the city four years ago and we love it here. It’s Trump country but the people are really friendly and very helpful. You can’t judge people purely on their politics.”

And yet Suzanne says there is a noticeable unwillingness to bring up politics with friends and neighbours during this campaign.

“It’s really alarming in our country that civil discourse about differences has really deteriorated. I think people are wary of bringing it up so either you just don’t discuss it or everyone says screw you, it’s my way or the highway. There’s nothing in between.”

She thinks Brian Donoghue is brave to keep up his window display. Joan pulls a face that requires no words.

“Trump’s going to win, sorry buddy,” she says. Suzanne grimaces: “Eat your lunch,” she says.

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