I want my country back. I want a country that’s better than the one we have now, and at least as good as the one we had two years ago. I don’t expect perfection and permanent peace in a country of 325 million. But how can anyone say, after a week of attempted political assassinations and anti-Semitic mass murder, that this is the America we want?
American citizens should be engaged and vigilant, productive, proud and in pursuit of happiness. We should not be despondent. And yet, I’m certain despondent describes a large swath of the country today.
“I want my country back” is a phrase fraught with anger and anxiety. It went viral in 2009, the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a woman who doubted Obama’s citizenship stood up at a Delaware town hall and released a torrent of conspiracy theories at a member of Congress. Will Bunch, a Philadelphia-based journalist, traced the phrase to that moment in his 2010 book, “Backlash,” about the birthers, the tea party and the conservative anger that followed Obama’s election.
So, I come to this plea, and appropriate it today, knowing full well its origins and recognizing the irony: I am using a phrase coined by haters to ask that we get to a place where hate is not an accepted, tolerated or exploited ideology.
I mourn what happened to a frighteningly large segment of our country in response to Obama’s election. There was way too much talk about America being post-racial. Nearly 60 million Americans voted for someone other than Obama in 2008. The anger and hatred we see in social media, the rise of white nationalism and the daily diet of crazy that passes for political commentary in the right-wing echo chamber -- all of that has been there for years, but it started to boil in reaction to Obama’s ascent.
After eight years of super-partisanship that marked Obama’s time in the White House, Donald J. Trump, once the nation’s leading birther, came along. He cynically pushed the hottest buttons he could find. His dark rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims, the mainstream news media and his political opponents heated the pot past boiling and released the backlash fully. Where politicians before him made people comfortable with their prejudices, Trump weaponized them.
He has tried to undo the Obama presidency, obsessively rolling back policy in an attempt to erase the nation’s first black president, and, in that regard, he’s doing exactly what many of his supporters wanted.
Now, in the second year of his presidency, Trump continues to practice what got him elected, offering lies and exaggerations, engaging in juvenile name-calling, exploiting his supporters’ prejudices and fears. And, if you think his cynicism and harsh words did not contribute to what happened this past week -- pipe bombs mailed to Trump’s critics, murder in a Pittsburgh synagogue -- then you underestimate his powers, his skill at pushing hot buttons, striking chords with some of our country’s most troubled, most hate-filled people. He is not just some talk-radio loudmouth. He is the president.
We sneered at Trump’s pledge to “make American great again,” another fraught phrase, bristling with the jagged edges of our history. While it summoned memories of the country’s post-World War II stature, it also brought to mind racial discrimination and violence, and the Vietnam War. Trump’s pledge really was to make the White House white again and to allay anxieties about the nation’s changing demographics. It was a call to nationalism, and that’s another thing that happened this past week: Trump declared himself a nationalist, affirming a desire to transform the U.S. into an isolated, selfish country.
America could be a great country, but not the way Trump is taking us, and it’s not what we are today.
The phrase, “I want my country back,” also suggests a reversion to an America of the past. But I don’t use it that way today. In my appropriation of the phrase, I use it to suggest what America could be, and I can start with some basics:
I want a place where people of all races and religions feel safe; where there are no mass killings; where we do not spend our days feeling despondent; where we elect political leaders who are principled, knowledgeable, empathetic and open-minded; where science and education are highly valued; where we yearn for truth and separate facts from fiction; where health care is a right, not a privilege; where our fellow citizens with anger issues or mental illness can easily get help; where refugees and other people seeking safe harbor find generosity and acceptance; where we have strong alliances with other liberal democracies; where we defy dictators; where the welfare of children is paramount, and our common goal is to leave them a better country than the one we have now.