Growing up in New York, Donald Trump was a joke. He was tabloid fodder. He built big, stupid, ugly buildings and got married and divorced and said awful things about women. He was famous solely for being rich. Those things don’t sound presidential, but they do, upon closer inspection, sound American. Big, stupid, ugly, misogynist and famously rich IS America to me, and is us to the world.
Being American isn’t all bad. The first time I was forced to really identify as an American was, predictably, when I studied abroad in college. I went to England, which almost felt like it didn’t count, because it’s the same language. But I still learned something about my country.
My flatmates and I were talking one night and someone said something like, “You really are SO American, Emily.”
I took instant umbrage. I was from New York! New York City was NOT America! New York City was the whole world! New York and London and other cities like them were one country, and America was another country entirely.
Nope, said the flatmate, with typical British restraint, you’re pretty American, Emily.
And then my flatmate–I can’t remember which one it was–imitated my accent. It was a terrible imitation, almost as bad as my British one. They made me sound *Southern.* They gave me a *twang.* I realized, with horror, that to a Brit, a New Yorker and a Texan sound practically the same. Compared to their clipped vowels, we were all just one big, nasal nation.
It wasn’t just the accent, but the tone and the content of the imitation that taught me what it means to be American.
“Hiiiiiiiii,” my flatmate-as-me brayed, grinning ear-to-ear. “Ah’m Emily and ah’m from New York City! How ya doin’?”
“I don’t sound like that,” I insisted.
“Yes, you do.”
I heard, in the broad strokes, the loud, pushy, sometimes oblivious nature that is either America, New York, or the Weinstein family in particular. But I also heard some things to be proud of in the sound of the unbridled Yank. We sure are friendly. We’ve got some can-do spirit, you gotta give us that. We are awfully cheerful. Is it really so bad, I wondered, to be relentlessly optimistic? I mean, what’s the European alternative–smoking morosely while staring stoically into a cold drizzle? A moment of garish emotion won’t kill you, my friends.
One thing I think is cool about America is that a majority of us are descended from a self-selecting group of adventurers. Many of us are descended from slaves and some of us are indigenous, but if you are descended from immigrants, someone in your bloodline took a big risk to come here. You did have to be a little brave to make a break for the land of the free.
Shit like the Donald Trump candidacy can make me do weird stuff–like wax poetic about America. The prominence of that buffoon is at once so demoralizing, so disturbing, and so dangerous that my impulse is to reject ALL of America. But I can’t, because no matter what I say or do, I will always be from and part of and made of and made by this fucked-up, violent, big, stupid, ugly, misogynist, racist, capitalist nation that worships wealth at all costs, and apparently has not yet paid dearly enough for our addiction to that particular illusion.
Our presidents and candidates are more archetypes than people. If Barack Obama represented our most beautiful dream of a post-racial America, then Trump is the darkest of our lingering nightmares.
But HE isn’t US. There is no us. We contain multitudes, as Whitman said. It’s all true, or maybe none of it is.
We are the aw-shucks village idiots of the world. We are gregarious. We bring the party. We drop the bombs. We came from nothing. We are destroying everything. All of our riches are built on genocide and slavery. My ancestors were safe here. Our architecture is an abomination. We have so, so much beautiful land. Batshit crazy Puritan hypocrites are still trying to invade our wombs, and yet I can speak my own mind and wake up tomorrow and do it again. We are incarcerating more people than any society in human history, our children can barely read, and we are all in debt. Our country is built on lies, and the parts that are true are built on massacre. Our politics has always been a theater of the absurd. We call ourselves a democracy but we don’t even vote. The people who came here seeking religious freedom were seeking the freedom to be *even more repressive* than was permitted in *sixteenth-century England.* We had a black president for eight years, and black children are gunned down in the streets by people who take oaths to protect and serve them.
Anything is possible here, they say, they said. And this is true, anything is. President Obama was possible. President Trump is possible.
It feels like it must be some kind of joke, and as if it’s all happened before–an improbable, nefarious idiot rising to power. And it has. Hitler was once a weirdo ex-con, and in 1955, the idea of a President Reagan was a joke.
The Trump candidacy makes for a twisted sort of comedy. The Trump presidency would be a genuine tragedy. But most of life, and America, falls into the vast space between those extremes, and that space is as wide as a continent.