If you ask someone who lives in another country what the Idea of America is, you’ll get an answer more impassioned than you might be ready for. This is something special to America, a place founded on a philosophy and ambitious for itself and humanity as a whole. To me, the Idea of America is that this is a place where every individual has dignity. America places fundamental value on human life, and believes in finding ways to make life better for its citizens and those of other countries. Where the downtrodden and persecuted can find a safe haven, where children laugh and people can fall in love without fear. Where we can live under the benign influence of the good laws, under a free government accountable only to us. We haven’t always lived up to those ideals — not even close — but Americans have a vision to strive towards in a way that most countries do not. It’s a vision so compelling that it inspires hope and admiration the world over. In countries where there is seemingly no justice, it is a beacon of hope to know that the most powerful country in the world is a fundamentally good place.
They say there’s no zealot like a convert. That’s certainly true in my case. I’m too young to remember immigrating, but I grew up in an immigrant household. As a result, I tend to get somewhat emotional around Independence Day, and this year it held extra significance.
The past few weeks have been difficult for anyone who counts themselves a liberal, or a conservative with a soul. While the abstract horror of children being kidnapped to punish their parents was bad enough, I think I could’ve compartmentalized it if not for the blasé reaction of most Republicans. It is one thing to encounter evil. It is another to see people who know better be indifferent, or conciliatory. I typically try to ignore the most strident voices in any argument, but if otherwise good people are prepared to defend child separation perhaps we really are sliding towards dystopia. Putting children in cages is not compatible with the Idea of America.
The retirement of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy was the gut punch I just wasn’t ready for. I think I intellectually knew that President Donald Trump could nominate another justice to the Supreme Court, but I doubt that I had internalized it. And I want to be clear — I’m not in favor of obstructionism. The President of the United States is clearly vested with the authority to nominate any person they see fit to the Supreme Court. The Senate should grade the person nominated on their merits. There should be a clear up or down vote.
What has me so down these days, and has me mulling about the Idea of America, is that Donald Trump is not an average President. He won the election, but in my estimation he lacks the character, the intellectual capacity, or the necessary reverence for the powers vested in him. I remember when my family panicked after he was elected. My family is Muslim, and were afraid of what a Trump Presidency might mean for our safety. Donald Trump is a racist, and his rhetoric against Muslims was and is too hot to ignore. I talked them down, and placed my argument on a two legged stool.
The first leg was Trump’s victory speech. Every once in a while I’ll encourage friends to watch it. Everyone should. It was amazing.
This is a speech that was never supposed to see the light of day. It was never supposed to be read out loud. Donald Trump promised his wife that he would lose, and that their lives would go back to normal. Fortunately, someone on that campaign had the presence of mind to write a speech that was humble, conciliatory, and unifying. It was delivered with a sense of awe that Trump didn’t have before, and has not mustered since. It could’ve been one of the great American speeches. There was, in that moment, a man who I would’ve been proud to call my President. Someone who recognized the importance of real national unity after fomenting such poison during the campaign. Who congratulated his opponent. Someone who recognized that he had very little idea of what he was getting himself into, and was just hoping not to mess it up. It was presidential.
In that speech, Donald Trump set the stage for himself to be the second independent president. Someone not tied to party or ideology, who simply wanted to hear the best ideas, receive the best advice and act in the best interest of all Americans. It could’ve been the end of partisan warfare, the end of legislative gridlock, the end of the culture wars. Donald Trump, in the moments after his acceptance speech was given, could’ve been the greatest president since George Washington himself.
Alas, it was not to be. Real President Trump is too vain, too eager to have his ego stroked, and too concerned with his own glorification.
The monopod remaining to calm my family was the Idea of America. That even if Donald Trump turned out to be Caligula, the ship of state is a large and complex, requiring skill to control. That even with the worst intentions, it takes a great deal of nitty-gritty policy implementation to round up all the Muslims and put them in internment camps. That would require the work of lots of federal employees, good people who swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. People with whom we shared common ideals, who would stand up with principle and protect us and other vulnerable people from the worst possible kinds of abuses.
When the Muslim ban first was announced and protesters flooded international airports, my heart swelled with pride, and I felt such great patriotism that I wept. I was moved by the unflinching, dedicated support of people motivated by an understanding of what America stands for and love of neighbors they’d never met. Everyone can express support on social media — it takes something else to show up, carry signs, and provide witness. It seemed that my faith in the Idea of America was being rewarded. It was one of those days that I was truly proud to be an American.
In the months since, I have come to realize that not everyone shares my vision of America. The extent to which congressional Republicans have settled for dissembling and obfuscation is depressing. There is an America I believe in. It is welcoming, it is generous. It speaks with moral clarity and is capable of acting with unstoppable force. There are few Republicans I know of who stand for the America I believe in. I would like to place my faith in the fundamental goodness of the American people. And yet I know that in the bowels of the Department of Homeland Security are people who built prisons for children.
I am too proud and too protective of my home to give up all hope. I spent my Independence Day thinking about the one part of the American Idea which hasn’t been torn to shreds before my eyes in the past 2 years. That this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That if those who share my American vision work hard, speak persuasively, and win elections, we can restore dignity to our country. That we can convince people to use their voice and their vote to advocate for the kind of country they want to live in. And maybe based on that, we can build back to my American Idea.
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