A United America No More: How Donald Trump Killed Ronald Reagan's Hope

Berlin wall
A piece of the Berlin Wall, which has been on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum since 1990, is seen in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2014. That the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s speech comes during the age of President Donald Trump seems to be the kind of cruel irony at which history is expert, writes the author of this piece. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

This morning, I asked my mother about Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech, which he delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin 30 years ago today.

"Huge," she said. "We wouldn't be here without Reagan."

(Important note: I do not live with my mother. She was over to help with the kids.)

We were Soviet refugees, and we came to the United States in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall finally came down, though how much Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the target of Reagan's speech, had to do with that is a matter of debate. For most Russian Americans, there is no debate: Reagan was great, and America is great. That may seem simplistic, but only because gratitude tends to erase nuance.

"We believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace," Reagan said in his speech,

For Russian Jews, the boat people of Vietnam, the political dissidents of Cuba, the United States was not so much a better life as a new one. That isn't to say all immigrant stories are success stories, or that all immigrants are monolithically, unerringly grateful to be Americans. I mean only that the promise of American citizenship was so great it burnished even the uglier realities of life in the United States, of which, let's be honest here, there were and are plenty.

That the 30th anniversary of Reagan's speech comes during the age of President Donald Trump seems to be the kind of cruel irony at which history is expert. His Muslim ban has likely been killed by his own tweets, while the wall with Mexico was always more metaphor than actual. A metaphor for what? A closed-off America that turns away people and turns away from the world. The withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was not just an attack on former President Barack Obama's achievement but also on Reagan's conviction that the United States had to lead by moral force (even if, yes, that moral force was absent from much of our domestic policy).

Presidents are like parents, frequently angering or embarrassing those who live under their rule. Trump, though, isn't your dad doing Pilates in the front yard; he is putting up a fence, closing the blinds and locking the door. "Beware of the Dog," says a sign on the front yard. "No Trespassing," says another.

Some 50,000 refugees from Haiti await their fate, with signs suggesting that Trump could eventually send them back. Visas for highly skilled refugees are also facing counterproductive scrutiny. What is the point of this? There isn't one, I fear, except to nurture the maliciousness and paranoia of some right-wing fringe that helped elect Trump.

"Donald Trump is the new Reagan," wrote Jeet Heer for The New Republic a year ago. That certainly wasn't true then. It's even less true now. No immigrant from any place would want to willingly enter the landscape of "American carnage" Trump depicted in his dark inauguration address. His nation lacks Reagan's fundamental ingredient that was so attractive to my family three decades ago: hope.

"America is not turned inward but outward," Reagan said right before his victory in the 1980 presidential contest. "America is still united, still strong, still compassionate, still clinging fast to the dream of peace and freedom, still willing to stand by those who are persecuted or alone."

That's the America we came to, not the "crippled" nation envisioned by Trump.