By the time the court opened, there were around two dozen of us in line, nervously fiddling with our official papers. I was recovering from a brief but brutal stomach flu, which meant I hadn’t eaten in two days and had split open my lip in a mad, half-asleep rush to the bathroom two nights before. Ashen-white, I looked like I’d just been punched in the face.
They gave us all a number, handed us a packet, and instructed us not to take photographs after the judge walked in. A man in a shiny suit proceeded to entertain us intermittently for half an hour with some almost-funny jokes. And then, at long last, the judge walked in, we all stood up, and it began. Judge Mehta told us this was his favorite part of the job, and that he had immigrated to the U.S. from India as a child. A few weeks before, my naturalization interview had been with a man with an Arabic last name — and a Redskins helmet on his cabinet. Standing around me now, my fellow newbie Americans came from all over the world: Iran, Honduras, Ethiopia, and Canada, among other countries. Only two of us, as I recall, were white.
I had waited 32 years for this moment. My own immigration journey had been long and gradual and winding — and this day, I hoped, would be a day to savor, an emotional upswelling, a final untying of so many knots of feelings that had crowded my psyche since I’d first arrived here.
But it was also December 1, 2016. A few weeks before, an election had taken place that had capped more than a year of gnawing, deepening anxiety in my gut. To become a citizen now was, for me, a final act of faith; but it was also like stepping into an elevator expecting to go up and then suddenly sinking. There was joy here, shot through with nausea.
My number was called, and I found myself walking shakily up to the bench to receive my Certificate of Naturalization. It came with a little flag, which I waved at my husband and friends as I walked back to my seat. Then came the oath. Suddenly, this modern, multicultural scene reverted right back to the nation’s founding. “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen …” And then the other peculiar oath, which I’d always heard but never uttered, let alone memorized. I placed my right hand on my left lapel and recited from a card: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
There was a reception — with a promise of tequila! — but I had to get home to bed. After a little soup, I curled up under the covers and passed out.
I remember the strange moment when my infatuation with America began.
Having just turned 21 years old, I was grappling with the first weeks of graduate school in a new country, and on the subway in Boston. Simply a chaotic afternoon ride, crammed into a tram car, hurtling through a labyrinth of confusing stations. Around me was a world far away from the spires of Oxford University, from which I’d graduated a few months before. A sea of different-colored faces surrounded me amid what seemed near-tropical heat and humidity: a squalling baby, giggling schoolgirls, and a seated construction worker with concrete-dusted boots, his red, grizzled Irish face staring out the window into the brick blackness. I was on my way to buy a rug for my new dorm room and getting more than a little lost. But the lostness, it came to me, now had something of a thrill to it. No one here knew me or anything about me. Nothing had followed me from my small-town home or my provincial English high school or my grooming for the British elite at Oxford. Thrown into a crowd of old and young, black and Asian and Latin and Irish and Italian, I found myself in a new world entirely, an ocean of polyglot anonymity, with a chance to leave everything behind. My heart swelled. More, please. Take me away.
People talk about the American Dream all the time, usually as a story of increased prosperity generation after generation. But the original dream — the dream of the first generation — is often simply of an escape from the past into a country addicted to the future. Most nations, especially the England I knew, are defined by history, saturated in its remnants, places where one is never far from the echoes of those who have come before. Nostalgia is almost a national characteristic, the task of regaining previous greatness a Sisyphean ordeal. In Britain, growing up, we were constantly reminded that the supreme national moment was in the past — the “finest hour” of 1940. But here, in this new place, I felt none of that. Here, there was no going back. I saw everywhere a restlessness for what the future could bring, a jumble of crowded, jostling aspirants for a dream directed aggressively forward. And it was infectious.
My reaction shocked me. Growing up, I’d never been entranced by America and had long been a romantic about Britain. I was a young Tory, a conservative dedicated to the upholding of tradition and orthodoxy. I harbored every single prejudice a European could have about the place: that it was vulgar and brash, uncouth and anti-intellectual, a country where you were always at risk of being randomly shot and where people died on the street because they had no access to health care. My previous idea of “escape” was from my home to college, a medieval and Georgian version of Hogwarts, with cloisters and a sublime tower from the top of which, each May Day, the summer would be sung in as the entire town gathered at dawn below, as had happened for centuries. I applied for a place at an American graduate school simply because it was one of those things the most ambitious British students used to beef up their résumés. Like the Rhodes Scholarship in reverse, it was a step up the careerist ladder in the British Establishment. It was only for two years. What did I have to lose?
I never expected to fall in love with the place, to find its newness so intoxicating. It didn’t hurt that I arrived after the Los Angeles Olympics and before Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” — a moment of peak, and slightly frenetic, optimism, a heady time of economic growth when the country was about to give its incumbent president a 49-state landslide in his reelection. Not that it was easy to adjust at first. Among my first surprises, for example, was everyone’s persistent solicitude about my mood. It took a while before I realized that “How are you doing?” didn’t actually demand any answer but “Great! How about you?” For the first few months, by the time I’d begun to unpack my particular mixture of emotions that day, I’d find that my new acquaintance had already walked past me halfway down the street.
I marveled, for that matter, at a habitual American response to a simple request: “Sure!” There really was no equivalent in England. An “Okay” or an “All right” or “Why would you want to do that?” was the best you’d usually pry out of some miserable punter. But in this new world, the tempo had quickened and the future filled with a sudden, if intermittently delusional, conviction that whatever I was asking was going to be welcomed — even embraced. What strange new superficial joy was this?
And then the real liberation: No one asked the loaded questions that had bedeviled me at college in England. “What high school are you from?” “What does your father do?” All of these were not-so-subtle inquiries into your past, which is to say, into class. Most of the time, of course, my privileged, privately educated peers didn’t even have to ask about my origins because my accent gave me away with the pinpoint accuracy of a socioeconomic GPS.
Yet, in America, none of that mattered at all! Where you had come from was nowhere near as interesting as where you were going. The only accent I had was English — and no one had the slightest clue if it was from the East End or minor royalty. In time, the accent became an irritating distraction, and I found myself lengthening the vowels ever so slowly, softening the consonants, bringing words out of the back of my mouth — if only to be understood more easily. Then I realized I was half-consciously, even deliberately, unwinding the way I spoke. I didn’t want to become that fixture of the culture: the Brit in America. I wanted to be fully part of an American world.
This is probably partially why I came to find identity politics so hard to grasp — that concern with what makes Americans different from each other, what separates them, what oppresses or privileges them because of their fixed membership in a group. I didn’t want to separate; I wanted to join. Identity politics is now the overpowering obsession of much of American higher education and the dominant ideology of the American left. But it reminded me of the way Europeans defined themselves by what they were rather than what they could become. When you come here from elsewhere, you are not, of course, immune to all the isms oppression can impose. You encounter prejudice, as you do in all human society. But your difficulties can be powerfully eclipsed, especially in the first generation, by the psychic thrill of the freshness of a new nation, especially one as diverse as America. I wanted no group identity. I wanted — and I was utterly unconflicted and unembarrassed about this — assimilation. This was not a rejection of my homeland, which I loved and still do, with passion. But there was an exhilaration in knowing that, in this unforgivingly individualistic culture, I’d have to earn my unique Americanness, to blend in as best I could, to lose my old self in search of a new one.
My mother, worried that I would be overwhelmed, wrote me a long letter encouraging me not to give up. It was still a time when real distance separated the two continents, when telephone calls were impossibly expensive luxuries and when the only contact you had with the old country was perusing the days-old newspapers that piled up in a few boutique kiosks. So I wrote my reply in ink, in cursive, as I was only beginning to master this new thing called a word processor. I know it’s an odd thing to say, I recall writing back. And I know it’s only been a few weeks. But I really feel as if I have finally found my home.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was part of a massive new wave of immigrants who would transform the country — and eventually its politics — over the next few decades. A little over 14 million immigrants lived in the U.S. in 1980; by 2014, that number had grown to more than 42 million. There is simply no precedent in history for the sheer number of human beings who have recently come, legally and illegally, into America. As a percentage of the entire population, immigrants are now very close to the peak of 14.8 percent set in 1890.
At the same time, the composition of the wave has shifted profoundly. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished the system of national-origin quotas in force since the 1920s and opened the country up to immigrants from many more countries around the world. The result was a stunning demographic and cultural shift. In 1960, 84 percent of immigrants came from Europe or Canada; by 2014, that had declined to 13.6 percent. In 1960, 6 percent came from Mexico; by 2014, that had risen to 27.7 percent, along with 23.9 percent from other Latin American countries. More than a quarter of new immigrants also came from South and East Asia.
I was entering an America on the verge of a demographic revolution, as a white-majority country began its transition to becoming a white-minority one. Anyone surprised that immigration has become one of the defining political questions of our time should reflect on the numbers and the cultural change. It’s hard to imagine an instance when any other country in human history accepted and then integrated such a massive group of new immigrants from such a spectacular array of cultures in such a short span of time. To see today’s reaction to this as purely a function of crude nativism and foul racism is to miss the much more obvious fact: how well the country has managed to absorb these new immigrants, especially during a period when the easy growth of the postwar years receded to the levels of the past few decades. No other country does this so consistently. No other country could.
My sudden sense of coming “home” was partly because my own temperament — independent, pushy, outspoken — seemed no longer an impediment, as it sometimes had in Britain, but an asset. But this sense was also deepened by the extraordinary embrace most Americans extended to me. I had, of course, a big advantage in this respect. I was white and English and embedded in one of the finest and most tolerant universities on the planet. But what I never witnessed there or throughout America over the coming decades was what any immigrant to, say, a European country or Japan or China would at some point encounter — a lingering nativist suspicion, a sense among those I met that I was somehow interloping, an alien, a threat. I recognize not every immigrant here feels as welcomed, but I suspect they would be greeted with more hostility nearly anywhere else. In a country created by immigrants, my foreignness didn’t define me; it formed an introduction. An immigrant, in some way, was more American than the native-born, our experience a replica of how this country came to be in the first place.
I duly progressed from visa to visa — and applied for and, to my surprise, won an internship and then a junior editorial position at The New Republic, the one magazine in America that, in its humor and quirkiness, reminded me of English ones. And so before too long I was immersed in the kind of institution no one had ever prepared me for: overwhelmingly Jewish, staggeringly smart, immensely funny and yet deadly serious. The magazine was not without its petty rivalries and feuds (indeed, it was famous for them), but it also shone with the American Enlightenment conviction that ideas matter, that robust, even occasionally bitter debate was not about winning the audience with a British quip or witty put-down but a way to flush out something Americans still believed in: the truth. The First Amendment, I came to realize, was first for a reason. And in the fight over the American idea, my colleagues saw the future of humankind. I was offered the job of editor when I was 28. The trust in me — the sheer American recklessness of it — beggared belief.
Like many love affairs, my own with America began with the usual inclination to see only what I wanted to see and to ignore the gigantic contradictions that have always defined it. I was, for example, struck that when I first entered the U.S. as a student, I was asked whether I was either a “communist” or a “homosexual.” The former was an easy call; the latter somewhat more complicated. I entered America a virgin and would remain so for some time. I certainly didn’t identify myself as gay, even as my welling needs were pushing me inexorably in that direction. But what a question for a government to ask! I thought as I swiftly moved on. I later learned that the ban on “aliens afflicted with … sexual deviation” had been formally put in place by that same 1965 immigration act, and that it had been in force under different language since 1917. It would remain in the law until 1990, when Representative Barney Frank successfully fought to remove it.
But if America theoretically barred sexually deviant immigrants, it was in practice a place, at least in a few enclaves, of extraordinary liberation for gay people, unlike almost anywhere else on the planet. Many gay men from small towns venture into cities to find a new environment and the courage to be themselves. I came from a small town in a small country to a continent 4,000 miles away. And as I began to date and fall in love and explore my own body for the first time as something more than a mere vessel for my brain, America also began to become associated in my psyche and my soul with a deeper freedom. So many fears and embedded stereotypes began to fall away, and the sense emerged, at long last, of a future that wasn’t simply destined for a lonely and empty old age or consigned to an isolated marginalization of shame and fear. This too became my America, vivid and unafraid and pioneering and gay.
It provoked an adrenaline-fueled faith that allowed me to write, in 1989, an article that imagined a future in which gay couples could get married, just as straight people did. As I look back, it was a shockingly naïve argument, one that was blind to the deeply homophobic attitudes that had defined so much of the country. It was also written as the plague of AIDS was darkening every prospect for gay advancement. I wonder now whether I’d ever have been so bold as to make such a case if I hadn’t been a new immigrant, besotted with my own new beginning; if I’d grown up in an America that had so often bullied and terrified gay men and boys. The boldness rested on a new immigrant’s near-blind faith that an argument could be heard in its own right and for its own sake, as if prejudice could somehow be magically spirited away by reason alone. This proud Tory had suddenly found the stirrings of Jefferson within.
And what I came to learn about the American democracy Jefferson had helped craft was a revelation. Britain was pretty close to an elected dictatorship, where prime ministers (Thatcher among them) could easily enforce their will through solid parliamentary majorities, with little expectation of pushback. In America, by contrast, the dispersal of power was almost pathological — at least from a European point of view. Budgets took forever to be passed (and sometimes weren’t); the Supreme Court routinely checked the other branches and its nominees might be rejected in return — sometimes, as with the nomination of Robert Bork, brutally so; the mainstream press was far more high-minded and tedious but just as adversarial as in Britain; the states retained huge authority — and the smaller, rural ones were given absurdly disproportionate power in the Senate and Electoral College. Filibusters stymied simple legislative functions; excruciating compromises — so much rarer in Britain — were hashed out in public and private; and a majority of the popular vote, bizarrely, did not necessarily win you the presidency, thanks to the elaborate compromise of the Electoral College.
At the same time, the system that seemed designed to get nothing done was constantly jolted by radical elements, such as the mobilization of the religious right or the supercharged activism of ACT-UP in the 1980s and ’90s. Politically conservative by design, America was at the same time culturally rebellious and remarkably open to drastic change. And I began to see how these two things interacted, how the constantly shifting balance kept the ship on a relatively even keel: The stability and conservatism of its Constitution allowed cultural experimentation to flourish without the threat of sudden destabilization. American government could even try out new ideas in the states before elevating them to the federal level — something close to impossible in England. This country was deeply conservative and yet equally radical. And I found myself increasingly entranced by the synthesis.
The politics were chaotic to a European, but, after a while, you learned to see the fractured wisdom. The system was built on contempt for the idea that a supreme leader alone could fix everything, on a suspicion of concentrated power, and on a deference to nothing that smacked of the royal prerogatives that America had been founded to resist. One simple thing stands out in my mind: On the Mall, that sacred place of American iconography, there were no signs telling you not to walk on the grass; no fences or orderly lines as in the royal parks of London; no perfect lawn. In fact, Americans walked casually all over the place, played Frisbee where Europeans would fear to tread, set down picnics, rubbed the grass raw with their games, and generally acted as if it were their front yard. I saw people clamber up onto the lap of Lincoln in the Memorial! And slowly it dawned on me that this was indeed what democracy meant: A monument belonged, quite simply, to the people. And no one else.
My first summer, a British friend of mine joined me for an epic journey across the country. We kicked off in Miami and for several weeks drove all the way through the Deep South to Southern California and then up the coast to Seattle, via San Francisco, then back through Glacier National Park and the Dakotas to Chicago and, ultimately, Boston. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was on the radio, along with Wham!’s “Freedom,” and both songs still immediately evoke the electronic energy of that era in pop and the mind-blowing scale of the place as we traveled through it. This was not like a European country. It was a world. And what you realized by physically traversing from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back was that the freedom of America was intensely related to its sheer size; that if you failed in one part you could simply move somewhere else. Escape was ever available, not only to America from the Old World but from one America to another. Parts of my English family had lived and died in the same small village for centuries, and everyone in my immediate family still lives within an hour of where I grew up. But this country, if you could really call it that, had abolished that sense of settlement. It was a great, unfolding drama of unsettlement. Every room had an emergency exit.
There was, you couldn’t help but notice, a flip side to this. To a Brit, so many places had an unfinished, impermanent feel, stripped of the coherence and distinct charm of European settlements that had had centuries to mature and marinate and cohere. The strip malls, the fast-food joints, the Motel 6’s we often stayed in gave off the soul-sedating sameness of a capitalist culture that never rested and mended but forged on and simply built again. So much of this throwaway landscape seemed not to care for us — or anyone — at all.
Over the years, I came to accept and appreciate much of its unbounded strangeness. The obsession with gun ownership, for example, especially in southern and rural America. I could see the point of being armed in this vast and once-lawless place. I could grasp the inheritance of a revolutionary suspicion of a government’s monopoly on violence. I valued the tradition behind it. But the frenzied obsession with it, the way in which it defined many people’s worldview, despite a constitutional amendment the Supreme Court only strengthened in the years I lived here, confused me. It was a freedom Americans cherished as constitutive of their culture even as they somehow also believed, against all evidence, that it was always on the brink of being taken away. You could no more take the love of guns out of America, I eventually came to understand, than you could excise the passion for gardening among the English.
As the years passed, other paradoxes emerged. Take marijuana. It seemed a rite of passage for so many American college students, and in popular culture it was always the occasion for giggling, for an easy gag about the munchies or a Cheech & Chong reference. I smelled it all over the country, from the South to the Northwest. And yet this humorous, harmless pastime for some young whites remained a target of extraordinary police zeal when it came to African-Americans, with arrests and incarceration soaring as my time in America passed by. It was part of the War on Drugs that increased the number of human beings in jails and prisons tenfold. In some instances — such as the massive disparity between sentences for cocaine and crack — it seemed literally designed to target black America. The land of the free, I began to understand, was also the world leader in imprisonment, just as the first country to embed inalienable human freedom in its Constitution was also founded on the brutal enslavement of an entire race.
America was, I realized, an idea, but it was also, in many ways, a contradiction that was somehow compelled to try to resolve itself again and again. This was a country of profound newness, and yet it has repeatedly failed to replace the dollar bill with a coin. It was a place of staggering wealth, yet it contained scenes of public destitution and poverty and decrepitude I’d never seen in Europe. It pioneered space travel, but its trains seemed relics of the early-20th century. It was a country made possible by the automobile, yet it could barely tax gas. In the cradle of modernity, it was still common to hear the phrases “Yes, sir!” or “Yes, ma’am!” — which sound, to a modern Brit, like something from the 19th century. It had a Congress, but no one seemed actually to debate there. It had a capital city, but its inhabitants had no voting power in Congress. Its founding, murderous racism — encoded in its very DNA — still segregated and marginalized so many, but it had also paradoxically created some of the most sublime moral movements in human history.
Prejudices, I found, went both ways. There were dinner parties in Manhattan where I heard people who would never consider themselves bigots casually dismiss vast, generalized swaths of humanity living between the coasts. And the baldly racist sentiments I occasionally encountered over the years also brought me up short. It’s hard to forget the time I heard a stranger mutter the phrase worthless niggers in front of me. Yet so many white Southerners I met were among the warmest and most generous people I’d ever encountered, and the Evangelicals I often did rhetorical battle with on gay issues almost always treated me with respect and even affection — at the same time as some gay activists viewed me with increasingly personal contempt. This was a country of individualism, but also of tribes.
Its religious freedom, diversity, and energy also enthralled. I’d grown up as an English Catholic, a member of a minority whose defeat and persecution for centuries had helped define the national identity as Protestant. The stigma still endured — even as modernity had blanketed so much English faith with a soft, secular suffocation. In America, by contrast, being Catholic, especially in Boston, needed no excuse, and I breathed freely. My faith finally seemed fully welcome here. And it remained a kind of universal home for me. In time, I saw the extraordinary paradox that the largely secular Constitution, a product of the Enlightenment, had enshrined religious freedom; that a group of Founders who barely believed in God started a country of constant religious revival and fervor. There was no established church here to support social order, and yet I discovered a more vibrant, primary-colored religious landscape than any I had seen before.
Behind all of these contradictions was the convulsive consequence of a nation constantly remaking itself, immigrant by immigrant, representing so many different colors and nationalities, religions, and cultures. How else to account for why a vast country, surrounded by the two greatest oceans on the planet, with no neighboring enemies, would be seized from time to time with the kind of crippling paranoia one would expect from a small European nation? America’s history featured not only massive surges of immigration but ugly backlashes of nativist panic. In the 1920s, after the last immigration boom, new laws were enacted specifically to restrict Jews and newcomers from Southern Europe, along with existing bans on immigration from Asia. In the 1950s, the infamous Operation Wetback deported more than a million illegal Mexican immigrants. The home of the brave could also be a cauldron of crippling fear.
Sure enough, as I found my own sense of community in the burgeoning gay enclaves in the major metropolitan cities, the arrival of AIDS seemed to tap into this deep strain of xenophobic and homophobic panic. I began to get a deeper sense of what lay beneath the liberal-democratic veneer: visceral racial and sexual terror, spasms of moral puritanism in the face of changing mores, outbursts of violence and presidential assassinations of a kind much, much rarer in the Old World, and a deepening, darkening divide between that part of America at ease with multicultural modernity and the part that felt increasingly besieged and even mocked by it.
As my first work visa was due to expire, my lawyer recommended an indefinitely renewable “O” visa — for which I qualified — as long as I retained, year by year, a record of “outstanding or extraordinary” achievement in my line of work. That pressure to perform or lose status was an incentive to keep working hard and also a classic immigrant tale. I began to understand in my bones just how strained the lives of so many immigrants can be and how invisible that strain can be to everyone else.
As an immigrant with no permanent status, you are often cherished by employers or communities, you live in a state of apparent normality, you keep your head down, and yet you also know that one mistake on a complicated form can mean a sudden, unexpected detour abroad or, in the worst cases, the end of everything. I had so many more resources than most — the best lawyers, a prominent job, a great education. But that only opened my eyes more widely to the experience that others confront as they try to navigate an impenetrable thicket of rules and laws and forms. I had publicly declared my HIV status, which caused considerable complications. If Americans welcomed me warmly, their government was often a contrast. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to become a legal immigrant in America has never tried to become one.
This is a reason undocumented immigrants are less likely to be criminals: The last thing on earth they want is contact with the law. Legal or illegal, you become aware that you have nothing like the rights of a citizen, no solid legal defenses against a random bureaucratic judgment (or a simple lapse in judgment). And so you live from day to day, week to week, year to year, proving yourself, working harder than those in more secure situations, but with a particular psychological twist: The longer you stay, the deeper your roots … the more intense the fear of one day losing it all. If you came here to escape, the thought of being sent back home can be psychologically traumatizing. And as the years passed, and the 1996 immigration act stripped immigrants of more rights, and as 9/11 made entrance and exit from the United States an even more fraught experience for everyone, that trauma increased.
I found myself responding by doubling down on the promise of America. I left The New Republic and became a nearly full-time advocate for marriage equality. In 1995, I wrote a book that made the best case I could, and I joined forces with Evan Wolfson to try to convince a highly skeptical gay Establishment that this was the cause of our time. I testified before Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 — only to lose badly, because in a democracy the majority rules and we didn’t yet have popular opinion on our side. But we also won, because a liberal democracy gives a minority the chance to make its case, and for the first time in history, abetted by an unwitting Republican Congress, what had until then been regarded as a utopian joke now had some shade of mainstream legitimacy. We had a foot in the door, and I could feel it opening.
And yet I could also feel, subtly at first and then unmistakably, the door closing on the bright, open America I fell for three decades earlier. When I had arrived, a thriving American conservatism embraced not only free markets and a free society but also, as Reagan had once called for, open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants — a rebuke to the barbed wire and restricted travel of the communist East. It was an era when conservatives believed in tearing down walls rather than building them. To me, America truly represented the free-market, free-trade, international-interventionist, and small-government ideology I had adopted in my youth. My convictions had deepened as the American economy rebounded and, more remarkably, the Soviet Union imploded. To witness in the 1990s the spread of this market conservatism to the entire globe — to see Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and India become embedded in a global capitalist economy, and to see it co-opted by the left in the era of Clinton and Blair — was so mesmerizing I didn’t recognize how this success was actually laying the groundwork for its failure. Many American conservatives didn’t see this: They embraced the virtues of this global, hypercapitalist churning without recognizing its social and cultural costs, especially its brutal impact on working-class jobs and on the very stability of the American middle class.
Conservatives also came to assume that intervening abroad was almost always a triumph. What greater victory than Reagan’s in the Cold War? The first Bush’s liberation of Kuwait and Clinton’s successful Balkan intervention only confirmed the consensus. And so neoconservative arguments began to calcify into a hubristic ideology as rigid as the left’s had once been — and as blind to its own consequences. Hence the rush to war in Afghanistan and Iraq (which I supported), places where the limits of ideology became impossible to ignore. Even worse, the moral stature of the U.S. was stained by government-sanctioned torture of prisoners — a practice Reagan had viewed as the key marker of the evil he sought to defeat.
This was a very different America from the one I had first entered. Perhaps something changed deep in its soul on that sunny day in September 2001 when outsiders, fueled with religious zeal, violated this once-safe harbor from the darkness of the Old World. As an immigrant, my sense of this place as an eternal escape from danger disappeared that day. And in the convulsions that followed, this country first united and then split apart. The fear that had always haunted it gained new potency.
The country responded in time with the astonishing emergence of Barack Obama, a reminder that America can surprise as much by its hope as by its bouts of ugliness. The tragedy is that Obama’s promise of a pragmatic, centrist liberalism to get past the deep divide in America was eviscerated by a Republican partisanship that by the end of his two terms had become a pernicious pathology tinged by racism. He was a graceful moderate president deemed an unreconstructed radical, managing the fallout of conservatism’s devastating success but ultimately foiled in his hope of transformation beyond it. But the same could have been said of the Republican Party. Still addicted to the Reaganite template, it could not grapple with the catastrophe of Iraq or the causes of the Great Recession, it still promised tax cuts and deregulation as panaceas, and it had no real response to the heartland’s heartache apart from exploiting it with cultural warfare or cable-news propaganda. Both parties were unwittingly making possible the emergence of a dangerous populism, one that would turn America’s embrace of immigrants into something much darker and that would come, almost out of the blue, to threaten the existence of liberal democracy itself.
There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” Bill Clinton once said. It’s a good line, but when he first said it, I remember feeling that it was too glib, too pat, for the real world. In the years since, I’ve learned its complicated truth. As the country palpably darkened in the new millennium, it also, in many places, flickered with promise. An elite that had precipitated an economic collapse was able, after glimpsing the abyss, to draw slowly back from it. Unemployment dropped by more than half from its previous peak, manufacturing rebounded, the stock market doubled, millions gained affordable health insurance and coverage for the first time, and marijuana became fully legal in several states. Countless white Americans helped elect and then reelect an African-American president. More amazingly, the cause I had committed to, marriage equality, slowly won over a majority of Americans. State by state, debate by debate, vote by vote, a once-quixotic idea became reality. And so, in 2007, I was able to marry the man I had fallen in love with, on the beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A year later, President Bush signed legislation that removed the ban on HIV-positive immigrants. In 2013, my marriage was recognized by the federal government. In 2015, the freedom to marry was guaranteed in all 50 states.
A mature patriotism is different from a blind infatuation. I now loved this country not despite but because of its flaws, and I saw how inextricable they were from its virtues. I applied for a green card in 2010, and I remember vividly the day the approval came through. I happened to be in Los Angeles, and when I saw the email from my lawyer with the words “Congrats!” in the content line, I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I read another, trivial email first. But then, as the news hit me like a sonic wave, I rode a bicycle on the beach path from Santa Monica to Venice Beach, where I stopped at the skate park. It remains one of my favorite places in America — because it never stops flowing with skaters of all races and colors, and they somehow, through subtle, mainly wordless communication, rarely collide. I love it for its spontaneous order, its sense of expansive, unpredictable freedom as the Pacific shimmers in the background.
Five years later, last spring — the mandatory waiting period for a green-card holder — I applied for citizenship. I did so with even fewer illusions and far deeper fears. I saw in Donald Trump’s candidacy a unique threat to the America I loved, a dangerous turn in the tumultuous history of this experiment in self-government. There was a reason for his arrival, of course: a sense of desperation, often understandable, in the face of modernity’s ruthless dislocation of much of America, a profound unease at bewildering social and economic change that the elites of neither party saw clearly.
But there was also unmistakably the American paranoia that had always unnerved me: a suspicion of immigrants, a longing for a strongman, rhetoric that scapegoated minorities, xenophobia that saw outsiders as a threat, and a religious bigotry that tried to tar an entire faith with the murderous misdeeds of a few. For good measure, Trump threw in a celebration of torture, an affinity for foreign despots over democratic allies, and an abiding hatred of Jefferson’s beloved free press. This was not the America I cherished; it was that part of America that I had learned to fear the most, poised to be empowered by an extremely talented demagogue, with every branch of government at his party’s disposal. If I were to fight against what I feared would unfold, I had to be all-in.
It took months for my citizenship interview to take place — too long to allow me to vote, as I had hoped — but I passed the test. Later that same day, like some omen, FBI director James Comey informed Congress that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was being renewed. By the time I’d been naturalized, there was a new president-elect. It became a constant refrain from everyone: “Congratulations. Great timing, though! You sure you wanna do this now?” They were joking, of course. But beneath the joke, I heard something else. And as I said the Oath of Allegiance in that lofty courtroom, I found the following words more than a little poignant: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
Foreign and domestic. There are times when becoming a citizen of this country means simply finding a final home. And there are times when it demands, even commands, something more. We may be about to enter one of the darkest periods in American history, when an unstable and often unhinged leader tests the fabric of liberal democracy and the very idea of self-government in America. And in the weeks after my naturalization, I found myself sinking into a deep and crippling depression — even despair — about the fate of what is now my country, delivered as it’s been into the hands of someone who uses the word freedom so rarely it seems like a concept alien to his very soul.
I can only remember, as some kind of reassurance, what I learned in my own pilgrimage to this moment: that America, a model of constitutional caution, is also capable of great recklessness. It takes remarkable chances — like the one on an untested young black senator only eight years ago. And it makes terrible mistakes, as I fear it has just done. It is a place of radicalism and of equally potent reaction, and it has never quite resolved that abiding contradiction.
America, in other words, is the country of both Obama and Trump, of the very best and the very worst, and its future is never settled but constantly remade, in often shocking and terrifying ways.
What has saved it so far is what created it: a Constitution that was prepared for the worst and yet still managed to hope for the best. It’s still there. Liberals might see that this conservative document is their first line of defense against populist excess. And this, of course, is what a new citizen swears to support and defend: not a president but a Constitution designed to protect us from tyranny. Even as I now find myself racked with dread, I therefore have no mixed feelings. I took the oath, as it asks, with no “mental reservations.” I’m here now, like everyone else. And the defense of this country’s persistent greatness and the defeat of its eternal demons lies, as it always has, with us.
*This article appears in the January 23, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.