A few months ago, I applied to become a U.S. citizen. If my application moves very fast, I will be looking at a portrait of Barack Obama, a man who represents so much of what I admire about America, as I take my oath of citizenship. But more likely, I will be looking at a man who makes me fear for the future of this country and the world: Donald J. Trump.
When I tell friends about this, trying to sound bemused rather than disheartened, they all ask some version of the same question: “Why would you even want to become an American citizen right now? Hasn’t Trump’s victory shown you just how messed up this country is?”
My short answer is that I love America. I love her Dionysian cities and her Apollonian fields. I love the daring grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge and the understated beauty of her oldest towns. I love her informality and her ambition, her dynamism and her depravity. In the 10 years I have lived here, I have even come to love the things that seemed most alien to me when I first arrived: Reese’s Pieces, the conspicuous friendliness of strangers, the smell of the New York City subway on a hot summer day.
But there is also a longer answer, one that has to do with who I am—and what America might become. Let me tell you a little about myself. I was born to Jewish parents in the Germany of the 1980s. In many ways, I had a happy childhood. We lived in nice enough towns, I went to decent enough schools, and my classmates were, mostly, tolerant enough. Unlike so many people who seek refuge in the United States, I have not suffered poverty or persecution.
And yet, in Germany, the simple fact that I was Jewish was enough to mark me. I had the rare brush with anti-Semitism. More often, I suffered from an excess of philo-Semitism. Deeply ashamed for their country’s past, some friends and acquaintances would try to prove to me just how much they love the Jews—telling me how beautiful they find the Hebrew language or holding unprompted speeches about the evils of the Third Reich. But even when people treated me neither especially badly nor creepily well, passing comments—like the friend who called me Israeli or the acquaintance who marveled that I don’t have an accent—revealed that they did not think of me as German. Being Jewish, I realized in those moments, was enough to make me a permanent outsider.
The children of Turkish or Vietnamese or Nigerian immigrants had it much worse. Like me, they were never considered fully German. Unlike me, they suffered a lot of discrimination to boot: According to a host of studies, they are given worse grades for the same work; are admitted to worse schools with the same record; and procure fewer job interviews even if, despite all those obstacles, they amass impressive qualifications.
In this, Germany is hardly alone. Across the world, from Japan to Sweden to Australia, most democracies have traditionally defined themselves by shared blood or a common creed. As more immigrants arrived on their shores, they have tried to adapt. Citizenship laws have grown more inclusive. Parts of the population have come to think of newcomers as compatriots. But just as many still insist, often more vociferously than 10 or 20 years ago, that a real German or Swede or Australian must descend from the same ethnic stock.
This rebellion against pluralism has only grown more furious over time. Hate crimes have increased. Far-right parties have surged. Among a large section of the population, the rejection of anybody who is different has continued to harden. All in all, I am less optimistic now than I have ever been that modern democracies in most parts of the world will manage to become truly multiethnic.
The United States is hardly immune from the temptations of tribalism. For generations, slaves were excluded from the promise that “all men are created equal” in the most brutal manner imaginable. Today, racial discrimination remains pervasive. Latinos and black Americans are more likely to be frisked, arrested, or killed. They find it more difficult to secure housing or employment, to go to a good school or to get a loan. And as recent tensions on elite college campuses show, even in the most privileged corners of the country, where the student body is diverse and the reigning ideology liberal, many people feel excluded by a host of subtle (and not so subtle) slights.
Meanwhile, Trump’s ascent has demonstrated that openly racist appeals retain much of their erstwhile power. His ire against immigrants and minorities is likely to ruin scores of lives, and to force millions more to live in fear. But when he attacks a federal judge for having Mexican ancestors or calls into doubt that Muslims can be loyal citizens, he is also imperiling a larger ideal: the very notion that all of us are equally American.
If I may at times have been guilty of the immigrant’s zeal, seeing my adopted home through rose-tinted glasses, the past months have thoroughly disabused me of my naïveté. There can be no denying that the challenge that awaits defenders of multiethnic democracy is immense here, too, or that there are millions of people who came to this country under less privileged circumstances or with a less secure legal status than I did. And yet, I still believe that this noble dream is more likely to be realized in the United States than just about anywhere else—and that its failure on these shores would bode very badly for its prospects around the world.
At its best, this country still defines itself by a set of political values, not a particular ethnic lineage. To naturalize, aspiring citizens do not have to prove that they are descended from Americans or that they share the religious beliefs of the majority; they have but to embrace the flag and the republic for which it stands.
So yes, racism remains pervasive and nativism fueled Trump’s ascent. But most Americans recognize that a true citizen is one who has a U.S. passport, not one who shares Donald Trump’s ancestors. Yes, there is a lot of discrimination. But research also shows that there is more and more love and camaraderie across racial and religious lines, with the number of interracial relationships and marriages increasing especially rapidly. And yes, tensions are rife even in the most liberal parts of the country. But parts of America do come close to fostering an environment in which the color of your skin and the form of your religious practice recede into the background.
Raised in Germany, I went to college in England and have lived in France and Italy. I first moved to America on a student visa when I was 23 years old. I will forever have a slight German twang wrapped up in the fake British accent I picked up back in college. And yet, the United States is the only country where I might, one day, be thought to belong. In the minds of an overwhelming majority of Americans, my oath of citizenship will suffice to make me their compatriot. To them, that fact may seem small, even self-evident. To me, it is an astounding gift.
This gift is now under attack—and I want to rally to its defense. With the benefit of hindsight, the election of Donald Trump, and of other far-right nationalists across the world, may mark the beginning of a historic shift away from the world we know. Perhaps the values expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence are slowly losing their hold. Perhaps we are entering an age in which strongman leaders will disregard the rights of unpopular minorities and trample upon basic democratic norms. Perhaps those of us who still believe in freedom, in equality, and in fraternity are the Don Quixotes of the 21st century, valiantly fighting windmills in a battle we are sure to lose.
But I am a fervent believer in the multiethnic democracy this country has built, fragile and imperfect as it may be. And though I am painfully aware that this great achievement is now under serious attack, I am more resolved than ever to fight for it with everything I’ve got. As long as the kind of liberal democracy that is open to us all has not perished from the earth, it is incumbent on all of us to keep it alive. And for the foreseeable future, the most important battle ground in that historic struggle will be the United States.
Up until now, I have been an admiring guest in this country—someone who offered his opinions cautiously, careful not to overstep his bounds lest he overstay his welcome. From now on, I want to be a paid-up member, to take full ownership, to do what I can to forge a better future for our common home. And I can imagine no better way to embark upon that good fight than to look Donald Trump in the eyes as I swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
This is the first installment of “The Good Fight,” a weekly column about Donald Trump, the age of populism, and the fight to save liberal democracy—here in the United States and around the world.