When I was traveling during the 2016 primary season, one person whose Airbnb I was staying in told me her neighbor was voting for Donald Trump because “he just wants to break things.” Actually the word wasn’t really “things.” You can use your imagination.
Two-plus years later, what Trump has damaged is our national creed, sullying our soul and undermining our institutions. As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July with picnics and parades, it’s worth remembering what we said we stand for.
In our current crisis involving taking children from border-crossing parents, the most harmful crime is not asylum seekers’ purported misdemeanors but felony damage to a vision of America as one that is diverse, inclusive and welcoming.
Among the makers of that vision was Ronald Reagan, who until lately was the greatest influence on the modern Republican Party. I had plenty of problems with Reagan’s policies although I admired some, but one thing to know about him is that he (like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan’s political icon as a young man), was an optimist with a warm smile, a booster of America.
Reagan’s most common metaphor for the United States was “a shining city set on a hill,” a phrase borrowed from Puritan John Winthrop although Reagan did not use it like Winthrop. What did it mean, then?
In his farewell address Reagan explained he saw the shining city as a place that was open to all and was fueled by entrepreneurs and immigrants. He said, “[I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Besides calling for a nation defined by open doors over walls, Reagan was proud the United States was a “beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Regarding people fleeing horrible circumstances, Reagan, always a great storyteller, told the tale of a boat person rescued by an American ship. “As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’”
That was the America we said we were, a country that helped desperate people who wanted freedom, that was open to the world and its strivers who wanted to come here. A country that didn’t build walls.
Now, it is true that the United States has not lived up to its values in many circumstances and the recent horribleness of separating children from their parents has historical resonances in how enslaved people’s families were torn apart as well as the great damage done to native people by removing children and putting them into boarding schools. And, yes, Reagan used racialized dog whistles as a candidate and president.
But, and this is a big but, there is something important in defining America in terms of inclusivity and freedom, in rejecting fear of others.
After World War II we didn’t pull up a drawbridge but stood for promoting international codes and institutions. Those were not crafted to make us weak but to make the world safer, freer and more prosperous. Smashing them doesn’t make us greater.
Now we are spending money that could go to health care or education to jail families. Immigrants have lower crime rates than those born in this country but Trump portrays criminality and rejected an administration study that found “refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost.” Private prison companies are making out quite well, but what we are losing collectively is profound.
Because of this, along with Trump’s authoritarianism and corruption, some Republicans have joined others and said enough is enough. As George Will put it last week, “the family shredding policy. . . clarified something … The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced” because they will not hold Trump accountable.
Indeed, fixing our brokenness cannot happen until this president is checked. Then, if we work to repair the damage, the United States can again become a beacon of freedom, a shining city on a hill.