Supreme Court nominations outsourced to an ideological organization and sinking into a bald power grab. Presidential disinformation, possible conspiracy and potential fraud. Congress’ inability or unwillingness to hold the executive in check. And a country torn apart by tribalism.
Faced with all this, what comes to mind is an old song. Titled “The House I Live In,” many know its first line: “What is America to me.” You can see and hear Frank Sinatra’s several versions on YouTube.
The words conjure totems — a flag I see, democracy, all races and religions — and, most important, “the right to speak your mind out.”
Composer Earl Robinson wrote the music for that song. The lyricist was Abel Meeropol, a Bronx-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants.
President Donald Trump’s slogan to “Make America great again” is a call to bring the country back to what many of his followers nostalgically think of as a better time. But history softens the past so that many forget the terror of shameful events marked by violence and government overreach.
Thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were interned during World War II. Countless thousands of African-Americans were beaten and murdered with impunity from before the Civil War to the ’60s, and many are unfairly incarcerated or face police brutality today. Hundreds of suspected Communists faced the character assassinations of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. And many forget the virulent anti-Semitism that fed that era.
We can only wonder in disbelief when Trump sees “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia, where those at the Unite the Right rally, including Ku Klux Klan members and others in Nazi regalia, shouted, “Jews will not replace us!”
What is America to me? It’s the place my Jewish grandparents came for refuge, escaping Russian pogroms. It’s my hometown, New York, where I can hear a dozen foreign languages and see people of all shades on the streets, restaurants and theaters. And America is the place where everyone, as the song says, has “the right to speak your mind out.”
Trump wants to take that right away. He attacks respected institutions and officeholders. He has taken over the once-respected Republican Party and cowed the GOP-led Congress. He is packing the courts with ideological purists. He routinely calls our free press “the enemy of the people.”
I am not one of those who believes this president should be impeached. The word treason has been mentioned. If the facts eventually lead to that conclusion, then impeachment would be the appropriate recourse. We aren’t there now.
What is America to me? It’s the place where even the president isn’t above the law. If the facts prove that Trump has committed an illegal act, then I am with those who want to see him brought to a court of law.
But this country has an additional remedy. Constitutionally, we have three coequal branches of government. Congress seems to have forgotten that. Elected leaders and others may privately be disturbed by Trump’s behavior, but they are complicit as he shreds democracy’s fabric, because he nominates judges they approve of and helped pass a huge tax cut for the wealthy.
The pundits talk about a coming blue wave in the midterm elections. But there is documentation of gerrymandering and voter suppression. What’s more, I am not confident that all the votes will be counted, given the vulnerability of our electronic voting systems.
Still, the words from the song resonate with me. What is America to me? The song says it’s especially the people. That’s what I believe. America is the place where on Nov. 6 we can vote to change course.
Leida Snow is a journalist, author and critic.