I am white. I am Jewish. I am an immigrant. I am a Russian American. But until recently I haven’t focused so much on those parts of my identity. I’ve always thought of myself simply as a normal, unhyphenated American.
Ever since I arrived here, along with my mother and grandmother, from Russia in 1976 at age 7, I have been eager to assimilate. And I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I don’t have any accent, and I haven’t written much about my origins — which, at any rate, don’t have much to do with my job, which is writing about military history and American national security policy. So people are often surprised to find out that I wasn’t born in the United States. When I tell them where I’m from, they often ask, “Were your parents diplomats?” Nope. My parents were Russian Jews who fled the oppression of the Soviet Union and found a haven in the Land of Opportunity.
But that didn’t seem to matter much. Until Donald Trump came along.
Last year I experienced the first sustained anti-Semitism I have ever encountered in the United States. Like many other anti-Trump commentators, I was deluged with neo-Nazi propaganda on social media, including a picture of me in a gas chamber, with Herr Trump in a Nazi uniform pulling the lever to kill me. This was accompanied by predictable demands that I leave this country to “real” Americans and go back to where I came from — or, alternatively, to Israel.
At one time it was easy to dismiss such sentiments as the ravings of a handful of marginal losers. That’s harder to do now that the president of the United States has embraced the far-right agenda. Trump came to office vilifying Mexicans and Muslims. As president, he has praised the protesters who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and come out against taking down Confederate monuments, symbols of white supremacy. He has pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who became a symbol of racism and lawlessness for locking up Latinos, in defiance of a court order, simply on the suspicion that they might be undocumented immigrants. And now Trump has set in motionthe end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which prevents 800,000 law-abiding people from being deported because their parents brought them to the United States illegally.
The announced end of DACA hit me particularly hard, because almost half of those affected arrived in the United States before their sixth birthday. In other words, they were about the same age I was when I came here. My family’s case was somewhat different in that we received legal status as refugees after arriving here, and in time we became citizens. Not even Trump and his nativist attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have yet figured out a way to strip naturalized American citizens of their legal status — although they’ve explicitly stated that they want to reduce legal immigration by 50 percent.
But I think about those who are affected and I wonder what will happen to them. I wonder what would happen to me if I were one of them, as I so easily could be. What would I do now, at age 48, if I were deported to a country that I have not seen in more than 40 years and whose language I no longer speak? How would I work? How would I survive? In my case it would be a particularly pressing problem, given how critical I have been of Russia’s current president. The risk of political persecution would be all too real for me — as it is for “dreamers” who might be deported to repressive countries. And what would happen to my family — to my partner, to my children, to my stepchildren? None of them are Russian. A move would be even more jarring for them than for me.
If I were a dreamer, I’d be in despair. I could not take much comfort in the possibility that Congress would legislate a reprieve, as Trump suggested — not when Republicans in Congress have been blocking all attempts to legalize undocumented immigrants for years. The same nativism that Trump exploited to get into the White House is all too powerful on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The result of all this hate-mongering is that for the first time, I no longer feel like a “real” American. I now feel like an outcast, a minority. I’m already a person without a party, having left the GOP after 30 years because of my opposition to Trump and all that he stands for. Increasingly I feel like a Jew, an immigrant, a Russian — anything but a normal, mainstream American.
That may be precisely what Trump and his most fervent supporters intend. They are redefining what it means to be an American. The old idea that anyone who embraces America’s ideals can become an American is out. A White House aide has even repudiated the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Instead, American-ness is being redefined in blood-and-soil terms. I find myself increasingly forced to think of my ethnic identity instead of the national identity I adopted as a boy in 1976. That is discomfiting for me, and a tragedy for America.