With countries as with people, I guess sometimes you have to be reminded that it’s actually possible to lose them, before you can appreciate just how much you need them. That’s why the first week of the Trump presidency has reminded me of how deeply I love this country. I love our universal franchise – on the occasions when it is allowed to function; I love the Fourteenth Amendment; I love the Refugee Program; I love the fact that, as much as this country has always failed to live up to its ideals, the awareness we all feel that it ought to be different – that we can and should one day be a democracy, rather than a caste society – is part of this country’s story too. That’s American, wrote Langston Hughes.
We have a president now who is the enemy of all those things. We have a president who shut down the entire refugee admissions process for 120 days, with the intention of discriminating against specific countries on the basis of religion. (May we never forget that he passed this order – so reminiscent of the U.S.’s failure to shelter Jewish refugees in the 1930s – on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.) We have a president who derides the free press, who spreads brazen falsehoods, who wants mass deportations that will tear parents from their children, who condones the use of torture, who gives comfort to tin-pot dictators the world over.
It makes me realize that I took it for granted that this country would always be a liberal democracy. It makes me realize how much we all depend on a thousand tiny good-faith decisions, by a thousand actors, to keep it all afloat. It makes me look hard at the ways we have allowed our democratic institutions to be gradually eroded, such that the Trump presidency became possible. For decades now, we have seen voting rights chipped away, human rights undermined in the name of perpetual war, autocrats empowered by a U.S. foreign policy that favored dictators over democracy so long as they towed a certain line on the “War on Terror.” And now we have a Putin-esque strong man of our own in the Oval Office. To quote Edna St. Vincent Millay: Ease has demoralized us, nearly so [...] All will be well, we say, it is a bit, like the rising of the sun,/ For our country to prosper; [...] but the boards of its floor are rotting, [...] The moles have built their palace beneath us, we have/ not far to fall.
Yet, all this wouldn’t make us feel so soul-sick if we didn’t know in our hearts that we are meant to be something better. Donald Trump wants to distract us from remembering that. He doesn’t want it to be so. He wants to wave his arms and do something obscene and cruel every week, so that none of us can think about anything besides him. He is the ultimate megalomaniac and solipsist – he wants to be everywhere, to be everything.
We know, however, that’s it’s not going to work. It won’t work because we don’t want to be Donald Trump. In fact, amidst all the pain and fear of the last days, I have at odd moments felt almost giddy with joy at the thought of just how great it is to not be Donald Trump. How wonderful to live life with people who have some actual substance to them – to be surrounded every day by people who don’t always get it right, but who basically are trying to do the right thing. That is such a fantastically better thing to be than Donald Trump! I’m fully confident that it is people like that who will remain, now and always, the heroes of our American story.