Let me start with a story.
In the early twentieth century, my Great-Grandma Sarah immigrated the US from what today would be Ukraine. She came from a Jewish ghetto outside of Kiev. Her community endured all the miseries of minority communities in the Russian Empire at the time—shut out from opportunities, forced to live in ghettos, and subject to violent raids sanctioned by the government (the pogroms).
Great-Grandma Sarah was smuggled out of this place by the “coyotes” of her day. She and her group traveled from the Kiev area to Bremerhaven, Germany—a trip over 1,000 miles—on foot, enduring exposure to the elements, mistreatment, and horrible privations. Greeting her group in Bremerhaven was a cargo ship. She and her fellow migrants traveled as stowaways to the new land.
Upon completing the journey across the North Atlantic, she landed in America to be medically evaluated, barked at in English—a language she didn’t speak at the time—and finally processed by immigration authorities.
She boarded a train to Chicago, the location of her sponsor aunt. In Indiana, so close to her final destination, the train caught fire. A good samaritan bravely tossed her out of a window moments before the train car exploded in flames.
She somehow managed to catch the next train and arrived in Chicago hours later, after nearly a year of travel. She got a good night’s sleep and then went to work the next morning rolling cigarettes at a factory.
She did all of this as a 12-year-old girl—although we never knew her true age.
She wasn’t the warmest person—I’m sure she had acute PTSD—but she went on to live a good life, free from state-sanctioned terror and physical hardship. She also got to see her family grow up in peace and prosperity. I met her a handful of times before her passing.
She was able to accomplish these amazing feats because of two things: 1) personal courage and 2) the American system—both of which had fallen off my radar as an American citizen.
Trump helped wake me up and realize my obligations to this country. His perverse message of bigotry and despotism forced me to confront my own attitudinal complacency.
Compared to many, I’m not too lazy. I always vote. I pay attention to national issues and many local ones. I volunteer for a non-profit organization. I donate money to several causes. I even send my daughter to a school that’s racially and ethnically diverse so that she can participate in a dual-language immersion program.
But the reality is, I’ve effectively checked out of politics. Feeling disillusioned with the status quo, I’ve become a perpetually-frustrated independent voter, who just sort of leaves it up to others to set the agenda. Much of my volunteer work is for resume-building purposes. The donations are a solid tax write-off. And at our school, we rarely take the time to meet new people.
My commitment to citizenship has been mainly style over substance. Then came “The Donald.”
At first, I was amused by the whole thing. “Here’s this loud-mouthed self-promoter pretending to be a presidential candidate,” I thought. Then he started polling well. “This won’t last past Iowa and New Hampshire,” I reassured myself. Second place in Iowa and first in New Hampshire. “WTF?” was my next reaction. Then came the moment I realized the entire American political process was off the rails: Governor Christie endorsed him.
“No, no, no, no…” I couldn’t even muster a clear reaction, as I sat shell-shocked at the San Jose airport.
We all know the rest of the story to date, including the hideous language, unprecedented violence, and convulsive reactions by established politicians. Trump has behaved like a guest on a tawdry daytime talk show, not a dignified leader seeking the highest office in the most powerful country on the planet.
I’ve heard a steady stream of people support Trump’s message—some I expected (Senator Sessions) and some I didn’t (Mayor Giuliani). They’ve talked about taking America back and restoring the country we knew.
Then something in me snapped. I started saying to myself, “This is my country, too!” It doesn’t belong to any one group or constituency, certainly not the ignorant, mean-spirited goons driving the Trump campaign.
It struck me, then, like a bolt of lightning: Trump’s movement was trying to turn the country into a modern version of the Czarist-Russia-hellhole that my Great-Grandma Sarah escaped.
So what would be my legacy? Would I take all of the benefits and luxuries that she afforded me and passively watch a strongman rise to power and dismantle the very system that has allowed my family—and millions of others—the chance to live a good life? It would be easy to do so. What could I do? I’m one person.
My personal courage was being tested.
Hell no! I won’t abdicate my citizenship responsibilities to anyone, let alone these folks!
It was time for me to wake up and get to work. American democracy needed to be restored, but not by a fear-mongering, reactionary demagogue. And although there may be one or two concepts that I sort of, kind of, maybe-in-a-pinch understand about Trump’s message (like the criticism of America’s foreign policy and insider economics), there’s no way in hell I’m going to turn over the responsibility for addressing these issues to a reality TV star who smarmily compels me to trust him.
No longer would I leave it to others to define American democracy.
Not everyone can take action the same way. I understand. Some are limited by time or other resources. But I do believe that everyone needs to offer what they can.
Here’s my report:
- I got more actively involved in an organization called No Labels (www.nolabels.org), whose mission it is to move the political system beyond vitriolic partisan wrangling and into actual solutions that work for the American people. It’s a group that is as practical as Trump is vague.
- I joined a group whose sole focus is stopping Trump’s electoral success. It’s a bipartisan group of likeminded folks who see him as a dangerous threat to the American system. We’re writing and getting the word out.
- I decided to engage with a local Muslim community in my area. I’ve attended weekend picnics and a Friday prayer service. It’s a bit awkward and uncomfortable to do these things. I’m not used to socializing with women wearing hijabs or hearing people talk about Allah in normal conversation. But it’s helping me see through so many of the stereotypes in the mainstream culture. It’s also helping me feel compassion for what it’s like to come to this country and not understand the customs, to feel like a confused outsider.
What made my Great-Grandma Sarah’s experience possible was not just her bravery; it was also the America that, while flawed in many ways, opened the door to her and allowed her to come in and seize opportunity.
So, what are your three actions? What can you do to demonstrate personal courage and contribute positively to the American system?
There is no cruise-control setting for American democracy. It won’t just keep going because of a strong track record of success.
And as much as I struggle to understand Donald Trump and his motivations for all of this political thrashing around, I don’t think he poses the greatest threat to America’s future.
The greatest threat we face is apathy. When we take for granted freedom, we lose it. When we give up on aspirations of greatness, we become mediocre. When we collectively forget that most people came to this country with little more than guile and determination, we abandon our roots as a nation of determined pioneers.
Remember, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. America is as much an idea as it is a country. When we quit believing, the journey ends, and we wind up stuck in a backwater of lost dreams, missed opportunities, and vengeful jealousy.
I won’t let it happen.
Thanks, Trump, For Waking Me Up