A core element of the brand image that the United States has built for itself is that it is supposedly the one nation that people from everywhere will sell their possessions and endure long queues and cross perilous rivers and thoroughly remake their lives to move to. While conveniently neglecting to let its Native population have any say on the matter, the United States has sold the world a simple proposition: that it is the place you would want to live in too, if only you could afford it.
I will admit that it is a country with points in its favor. Having the right to criticize your government without being punished is a luxury that humankind only very recently gained, and one that is easy to take for granted once made part of ordinary life. The never-ending explosion of creativity in books and television and cinema make keeping up impossible. Just the fact that breaking with tradition and seeking your way is socially acceptable makes all the difference. Being the nation of NASA and IBM and Google and Pixar and Netflix and SpaceX give it an aura of je ne sais quoi, a sense that there’s something in the air or in the drinking water that—if you are willing to believe the pitch—makes greatness grow on trees.
That greatness does not at all resemble the one alluded to in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. His temperament is not inclined to celebrating openness or diversity; his vision of the country is drastically less colorful than the one you learn from civics textbooks. The problem is that reading Trump is hard: his speeches are not terribly clear as to the nature of the greatness he professes to believe in; at the least, debate moderators ought to have asked him exactly when he supposes the greatness was lost.
As a rule of thumb, I like to call the United States’ bluff of defining itself as a nation of immigrants by mentally following the direction each of its politicians points to and asking one question of that image: does it describe a country where people would want to move? That needs to be the central question for a country that is no longer able to unlearn the compulsive need to position itself as the greatest, prettiest, friendliest, shiniest, richest, loudest, coolest, strongest, smartest, trendiest, proudest, happiest collection of people to ever live. Take a serious look at what you have to offer, United States, and tell me whether it is what the world would rather have.
Take the vision offered by the leaders of your Republican Party, now hostages to Trump’s whim and forced to assent to whatever falls from his mouth or lose their voters’ favor. Can you consider the prospect of a national culture that understands the world in terms of zero-sum games? Where reasoned compromise makes you a weakling? Where you risk losing the respect of onlookers if you once fail to hit back harder? Where you have to keep making ever bigger boasts to maintain whatever you think is your reputation, and call that greatness?
The country promised by Trump, and his followers is not one where the rest of the world would want to live, and that should make them worry. The United States suffers heavily if it allows itself to be defined as a particular ethnic origin or language or political philosophy or religion. The United States is supposed to be above accidents of birth. More than a nation, the United States is a promise. That no matter what language you speak, or how you pray. What you look like, or whom you love. How old you are, where you come from, or why you chose to relocate, it should not suck to be you. That is the message at the center of what used to be called the American Dream. Now appended by Trump’s victory with an asterisk that points us to a warning in small print that says limitations and restrictions apply.
The obvious question that arises is. If the country that Trump is about to create will not be appealing to potential newcomers, does that force its current inhabitants to consider a similar choice? The big challenge facing any third-world leader is to some day give the people a place nice enough that they will no longer want to leave. The degradation of civil liberties, economic advantages and international reputation that is sure to come under a Trump presidency necessarily puts the same problem before his citizens. Why bother keeping your membership in a club that is looking less fashionable by the minute and will soon adopt as its official policy to discourage outsiders from joining?
This obsession with keeping immigration in check can backfire badly for the Trump faction: the surest way to keep people from wanting to leave their countries for yours is to turn yours into the lesser option. The tired threat to move to Canada will stop being a joke now that all branches of government have fallen in Republican hands. Now unimpeded to enact their full agenda. Like banning gay marriage, limiting reproductive rights, restricting the movements of non-Christians, adding exceptions to freedom of speech, ignoring global warming, weakening trade unions, reducing healthcare coverage, bulletproofing the glass ceiling, reversing decades of civil rights gains, worsening every axis of inequality. In a nutshell, removing the entire reason why people want to live in the United States in the first place.
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