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Identity in a post-election America

The question of what it means to be an American has rarely been of more importance than it is following an election that has divided so many Americans. When America elects a president who blatantly disregards many of the morals and values that Americans are supposed to stand for, we are left to wonder what the common threads that unite us are.

A hundred years ago, Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote a story about a lonely, afraid, endangered Muslim in Russia. The story of Hadji Murad’s dignity, determination, and resilience in the face of real danger — at the hands of a governing body that is decidedly against him and his culture — embodies the true American spirit.

In the story, the once prominent and respected Hadji Murad is made to feel powerless and afraid at the mercy of the country’s supreme leader, the egomaniacal, adulterous, self-indulgent Emperor Nicholas.  Surrounded by enemies, Hadji Murad lives in a state of constant fear of being exploited, exiled, or even killed. It’s not difficult  to see the parallels with what a lot of minority groups might face in the aftermath of the recent election.

Over the last few days, undocumented Americans and minority groups have expressed similar fears. Many have openly expressed their sadness and fear. This has hardened into anger for some, but more than just angry tirades, the web is replete with Americans who wonder, “What might this mean for me as an undocumented immigrant?” or “I’m a practicing Muslim; should I leave this country?”

Tolstoy’s hero displays fortitude in what appear to be dark and hopeless times. He compares Hadji to a flower that has been trodden down by a chariot, “but had risen again… Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it.” Resilience in the face of difficulty, honorable responses to dishonorable treatment, courage in the face of fear, a kind word and a friendly hand at all times – that is the American spirit.

Donald Trump will now lead America. But he is not America. The millions who voted for Donald Trump are not Donald Trump. He evidently appealed to some inner frustrations and pains that made an overwhelming number of people – not all of them “uneducated” as we’d like to think – forget or at least not prioritize the suffering of millions of immigrants, refugees, and others whom Trump denounced during  his campaign. However, Trump was elected not because of the misogynistic, sexist, and racist things he’s done and said, but rather  despite them.

Our political views are no longer just a set of ideas that we adhere to. They’ve become core identifiers. Stephen Colbert laments how our political views have come to define us.  He imagines that the founders would have wanted us to be informed about politics, but certainly not so consumed or divided by them as we are now.  He says, “Politics used to be something that we talked about every four years. And it’s good that we didn’t talk about it that much because it left room for other things, other people.  But now politics is everywhere and that takes up precious brain space we could be using to remember all the things we actually have in common.”

What makes you American is not whether you voted, and not even whether you have the papers to prove that you could have. Your civic duties extend far beyond voting once every four years. What makes us good citizens is not whether we spent an hour voting, but whether we’ve spent our time pursuing the common set of ideals and values which transcend race, sex, religion, or politics. This is true regardless of whether the leadership of the country embodies that at a given time or not.

America is not made on Election Day, but in every welcoming community, every loving family, every day of every year. Policy might be what what governs America, but people are what make it. Donald Trump won’t make America great, but we just might.

Luke Gamble is an English major from Eagle, Idaho. He can be reached at ljgamble@princeton.edu.

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