A few days ago, I found myself in a classroom with a millennial student of intentionally ambiguous gender, who said, “If Donald Trump becomes president, I’m leaving the country.”
Others I’ve talked to have made similar statements. Sometimes joking. Sometimes not.
Two of these were African-American women under forty. A third was a first-generation Hispanic-American whose parents emigrated from Central America fewer than twenty years ago. If I keep my ear to the ground, no doubt I will find the same sentiment echoed in other demographics. For example, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Rev. Al Sharpton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cher. But it’s mostly these younger folks I’m thinking about now.
The last time you were likely to run into young people who talked about leaving the country was during the Vietnam War. Back then it was to escape the possibility of death in a conflict that claimed the lives of 58 thousand Americans, a disproportionately high percentage of whom (about 25 percent) were African-American.
But in 2016, the statement is a reaction to the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose campaign has tapped into an unpredictable anger among his supporters and attracted white supremacists worried about extinction. Let’s assume for a moment that the psychologists are right—and anger is a secondary emotion that covers the primary emotion of fear. This would mean Trump’s supporters are afraid, not angry. If they manage to parlay their dread into a White House victory, anyone fleeing the country would be buying into that anxiety. Fear only generates more fear. And that is why, 75 years after Franklin Roosevelt told us so, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
To act out of fear is to flee an intangible. The monster in the corner, which turns out to be only a coat rack. The desire to escape this “monster” is not the same as Vietnam-era Americans who escaped to Canada because they did not want to be drafted into a war they did not believe in, forced to kill people they did not know, and possibly wind up among the 300 thousand who were wounded. Running from a Trump presidency would be equivalent to fleeing the boogie man, the scary nothingness behind all those angry votes, which talk about making America great but would only make America small-minded.
To say that you will leave the country if your man or woman is not elected is to admit you have no idea what the United States is or what it means to be American. It is not something you click on or download from the App Store. It’s not a channel you can change if you don’t like what’s on the screen. It’s not a set of options to select or deselect online. Not a T-shirt you can return to Amazon if you don’t like the fit.
Forget the obvious point for a second—namely, that the president heads only one of our three branches of government. And consider the moment.
The election of 2016 is taking place within a zeitgeist that includes a highly successful hip-hop Broadway musical about the immigrant Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, whose authorship of the Federalist Papers (to say nothing of his role as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury) helped to shape and define the nation we live in today. Aside from everything else, the success of that Broadway sensation–it’s practically impossible to get tickets–means people are thinking about what it means to be American again.
They’re thinking about Thomas Jefferson’s rap for a weak central government, states rights, low taxes and strict construction of the Constitution. They’re snapping their fingers to Hamilton’s lyric for a strong central government and a liberal interpretation of the Constitution. Tapping their feet to his vision for a country with large cities, stock markets, manufacturing and banks. Sound familiar? It’s the past eavesdropping on the present and vice versa.
Alexander Hamilton is a history book that took Ron Chernow five years to write and Lin-Manuel Miranda another six years to turn into a smash hit musical. In this meeting-place between art and history, the debate between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans of the 18th century sounds a lot like the political campaigns of today. Every time Hillary and Bernie or The Donald, Kasich and Cruz open their mouths at a rally or debate, they’re repeating the classic conflict between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson back when they were trying to work out what America ought to be. Only this time, we get to be part of the discussion.
The same zeitgeist is broad enough to include a televised reconsideration of the most racially divisive courtroom case in recent history–the People versus O. J. Simpson, which if nothing else, proved beyond all doubt that the conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorder was accurate. America is divided into two societies–one black, the other white–which despite all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, remain separate and unequal.
How else explain the chasm separating white and black reactions to the not-guilty verdict in that closely watched criminal trial? Why else would there be a need for Black Lives Matter twenty years after the original Simpson case? Or demonstrations in Ferguson? Or the need for a National Task Force following George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. That Task Force concluded that defendants asserting a Stand Your Ground defense are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. That 70 percent of those invoking Stand Your Ground receive no punishment. And basically, you are a fool if you are black and believe Stand Your Ground will work as a defense for you.
To have O. J. Simpson’s trial for the heinous murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman trotted out to high ratings during this election year is to throw a red herring into a national debate that should be focused not on the perverse life of a celebrity football player but on the attractiveness of a hate-mongering candidate to white Americans who just don’t get it and never will. Like the decline and fall of another erstwhile hero, Bill Cosby, it uses an extreme case to promote a narrative of the black man as beast. Unfortunately, gangsta hip-hop impresarios have contributed to this narrative by successfully marketing sex and violence to a white middle-class that wants to participate in the low-down and dirty, especially when it comes to sex, without having to leave the comfort and security of their suburban homes.
Within this prevailing zeitgeist, one can find an op-ed piece in the New York Times, which encourages educated African-Americans to consider emigrating to France where your race, the author alleges, is outplayed by your possession of an American passport. At a time when antisemitism appears to be on the rise in France, African-Americans concerned about the alarming number of blacks killed by white police, might find comfort living where they can finally experience what it’s like to be American first and black second.
This sounds appealing to a degree. After all, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American whose embittered, seductively written meditation on race (Between the World and Me) won the National Book Award and earned him a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, moved to Paris, as did Native Son author Richard Wright and other black artists, musicians, and intellectuals before him. But I do not find it comforting to know that my race might be tolerated while that of another is not. As James Baldwin (who also emigrated to France) once wrote, “If they come for you in the morning, they’ll be coming for me that night.”
The same zeitgeist has called us to witness the sad, appalling narrative surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis in the UK, which abounds with questions about how all this might be handled if those refugees were just a little bit whiter.
The defining spirit of this time is freighted with contradictions and polarities. On the one hand, we are asked to consider the difference between American blacks and non-American blacks in the brilliantly perceptive novel, Americanah, by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (another MacArthur Fellow). Her withering analysis of race (set within a transcontinental love story) will soon be coming to the big screen starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.
On the other hand, we get innocent black folks mowed down by a still-wet-behind-the-ears white supremacist whom they have invited into their Charleston church for Bible study. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the state legislature enacted a “religious freedom” law that would have made it legal to refuse service to LGBT individuals if doing so violated their religious beliefs regarding sexual orientation. Although Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the measure (after hearing from Apple, Disney, Marvel and other big businesses that they would exit the state if the bill became law), Mississippi and North Carolina have passed similar anti-gay laws.
So it’s easy to understand, given the configuration of the moment, why a gender-neutral student, middle-class African-Americans, or the children of Latino emigres might want to escape a United States made intolerant by demagoguery and fear.
But I don’t believe it’s a good idea to hand the country over to the haters by leaving it. The present moment is a reflection of the ongoing intention behind the experiment that is the United States of America. Whether a nation of, by and for the people can long endure.
If you have considered leaving the United States, ask yourself where else on the planet you can speak your mind as you do here. Forget about Hillary and Donald for a moment, and click on the Hip-Hop lyrics to the political debates in Hamilton. Or listen to It Must Be Nice (to have Washington on your side). Or better yet, read Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton, the inspiration behind Miranda’s hit musical. Be like the play’s sassy Schuyler Sisters and tell Thomas Jefferson you want him to include women in the sequel to “all men are created equal.”
Pay attention to history. We have been here before. Our strength as a nation lies in our resilience. It is in the very nature of the American experiment to question and debate. From day one, this is how we have defined ourselves. It is not a discussion to walk away from. Even if the opposing sides seem loud, or even crude, at least they don’t shoot you down by the thousands for protesting peacefully in a public square. “No,” the counter argument says, “they get you one by one for wearing a hoodie or driving while black. Then they lock you up in the greatest incarceration of black men since the time of slavery.” To this, one can only say we expected too much of Barack Obama and his call for Change. We thought electing a black president would be enough to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. But all it did was show us how much work there is still left to do. Far more than any one man could ever accomplish on his own.
Which leads right back to the rest of us. If celebrities threaten to give up on the democracy by jumping ship, ask yourself whether fame and money qualify them to be role models for the responsibilities of citizenship.
If you are black, understand what it took to get the vote, and use it. All politics is local. Don’t wait for another Obama. Look at the city council, the county commissioners, the state legislators. Vote for the candidate who supports your interests whether he or she is in your party or not. Democracy means work.
If you are young, do not delude yourself by thinking the country will get better if you leave it. Stay. Don’t worry about making America great or even whole. Stay here. Be who you are. Give America your vision, your strength, and your imagination. Give her your diversity, your tolerance and your integrity. Stay. In the words of poet Langston Hughes, who was black, white, Mexican, and possibly gay, Let America Be America Again.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be
. . .
Oh yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!