Donald Trump wants to make America great again, but his election proves America is still “great,” as he defines it.
Our president’s hostility to Mexican immigrants, his travel ban on seven countries, his religious preferences toward refugees fleeing the same butchery, and the chaos he has inflicted upon legal residents are often cast as un-American and not who we are as a people. The Declaration of Independence eloquently affirms “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Surely, many opine, a nation with such a founding creed has no room for a president like Trump.
Consider our history. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to forcibly relocate and incarcerate more than 100,000 law-abiding Japanese-Americans. Japan had just attacked the United States, and Roosevelt, justifiably, declared war in return. But the people he locked behind barbed wires had earned their right to live in this country, two-thirds of whom by birth. Their relation to Imperial Japan was nonexistent. Nonetheless, these men, women, and children endured suspicion and hatred from their fellow Americans and from their own government. When the war ended and they finally regained freedom, many returned home only to find that their property had been vandalized and decimated.
Before that time, a series of anti-immigration laws endeavored to maintain the nation’s predominantly white homogeneity. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prohibited all immigration from China and was not overturned until 1943. This act addressed the growing resentment against Chinese immigrants, who competed with low-wage white workers in the west. From 1917 through 1924, the United States passed additional restrictions based on political views, mental capacity, and ethnic origin. Asians, Arabs, Jews, Italians, and Eastern Europeans were deemed unwelcome and turned away. In this nationalistic environment, ethnic minorities living in the country faced harm as well. President Woodrow Wilson dehumanized so-called hyphenated Americans, asserting that they “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life” and that “such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed out.” After World War I, he heeded his own call, arresting and detaining thousands of people his administration suspected to be radicals.
Of course, oppression in the United States has not been limited to immigrants. Our white immigrant forebears nearly exterminated Native Americans. Perhaps the most shameful chapter since the country’s founding was President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Seeking to gain new territory for southern slaveholders, Jackson forced tribes to leave their ancestral homelands in a perilous march known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands died from disease and starvation during this ethnic cleansing, at the behest of a president to whom Trump has favorably compared himself.
The history of African-Americans echoes in the present. Centuries of slavery, prolonged by a notion of white superiority, only ended after a brutal civil war. Institutional segregation, KKK terrorism, lynchings, and blatant voting restrictions did not end for another hundred years. Discriminatory lending practices, sanctioned by federal laws, concentrated and exacerbated black poverty in the inner cities. Since the 1980s, our government has cracked down especially hard on black Americans for minor drug offenses. The policy has imprisoned millions, torn families apart, and perpetuates a tragic cycle of mistrust between their communities and the police.
This is not to suggest that the United States is entirely bad or the only developed country with such issues. On the contrary, the United States has made extraordinary contributions to its citizens and to the world. The Declaration of Independence still shines as an inspiration to those seeking liberty. We broke barriers and extended civil rights to African-Americans, women, disabled Americans, and LGBT Americans. We provided security for our elderly, invested in education for our children, and expanded health insurance. We helped rebuild Europe after World War II, took in hundreds of thousands of southeast Asian refugees fleeing oppression, and saved millions of lives fighting AIDS in Africa. Our space program is the most marvelous the world has ever known, advancing science with innovation and discovery.
But Donald Trump, as callous as he is, follows a long tradition of racism and xenophobia. His actions are American because we have failed, so many times, to fulfill the ideals upon which America was founded. It is our task to make sure we do not fail this time.