This is not the America I signed up for, and I literally signed up for America.
I arrived in God’s heaven on earth six years ago, with two suitcases, no money, and a letter of acceptance to Arizona State University. I had a handful of distant relatives far away from Arizona, but I didn’t come here for them.
I didn’t come here because I wanted to “succeed” in life, either, or make an impact on the world.
I came to America because I wanted to breathe. Because I had never lived a life of liberty and equality of rights. I came here because the hopelessness of life in the country I grew up in had led me to attempt suicide, twice. I came here, literally, because of the words of Abraham Lincoln, who convinced me that America was the last, best hope of earth—and the only hope for me. Because America is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. I came here because I was done being inferior to my rulers, just as I was done being superior for being an ethnic majority in Iran.
Ever since that day, I have known that Lincoln was right.
Upon arriving at ASU, I joined the College Republicans. I was not a conservative. I was Mr. Conservative. I adored conservatism. I had grown up in an Islamist country and been raised by loving Marxist-Leninist parents. I rebelled against both strains of illiberalism and fell deep down the rabbit hole not of Republican politics, but conservative thought. I pored over the Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Affairs, National Review. I was one of those weird college kids who thought that embarking on a pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of the American Enterprise Institute would be way more fun than Cancun on spring break. While other freshmen were joining fraternities, I founded chapters for AEI and the Alexander Hamilton Society at ASU.
Yeah, I know.
The draw of the conservative movement for me was George W. Bush.
My parents are former political prisoners from Iran’s Islamist regime. Literally the only thing they ever agreed with the mullahs about was that Bush was Satan.
But, as a kid, when I listened to President Bush speak, he didn’t sound anything like the Great Satan. I was a teenager in Iran following 9/11, and George W. Bush declared that I was as much a child of God as anybody else. He didn’t tell the world—rather, he told me, personally, from his heart to mine—that the brown Middle Eastern teenager deserved as much liberty and equality as any white kid in America.
Unless you are a refugee from an oppressive regime, you cannot understand how powerful this message, from that man, was.
I fell in love with America then, and this love increases every day that I’m blessed to live in this greatest nation.
And, in return, I feel like it’s my duty to help make America more American. It breaks my heart to see young black men murdered for no reason. It disgusts me to see peaceful protesters treated the same way that the Iranian regime treated me when I marched on the streets in 2009.
I was struck this week when President Trump had the peaceful protesters forcibly removed from the area near Lafayette Square so that he could stage a photo op in which he used the Christian religion as a political weapon the way the mullahs have exploited Islam for four decades.
Contrast this moment with President Bush, who, after 9/11, took off his shoes and walked into a mosque to remind us that Americans of all religions were the victims of that great tragedy and not perpetrators or sympathizers.
One of these men was trying to make America more American. And one of them is trying to turn it into something different.
Something that I recognize. Remember: I grew up in Iran.
The violation of Americans’ constitutional right to assembly disgusts me like nothing in my life. Sure, I have seen worse in Iran—much, much worse. But I expected that. In fact, I expected nothing but police brutality, discrimination, and oppression in Iran. Because that’s the natural state of an illiberal regime.
To see anything similar in America, even if a fraction of it? It’s not natural; it’s disgusting. And it is disgusting not because America has suddenly become evil, but because the government of the United States is betraying Americanism—its ideals, its beauty, its generosity, its kindness.
Republicans, conservatives, those of you who spent the 2000s parroting President Bush’s sincere call for liberty, equality, and compassion, where are you? This betrayal of America’s Founding principles is not patriotism. Tax cuts, deregulation, and judges may be nice things, but they aren’t what makes America, America.
America was never about any of those things. It was about liberty and equality of rights.
Like all human projects, America has always been—and always will be—imperfect. Our Constitution opens with:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
A more perfect Union! Just because our ideals haven’t been fully met doesn’t mean we stop seeking them. The Framers knew we would never reach perfection. All they asked was that each generation endeavor to inch closer toward it, always uncovering the flaws, and always trying to fix them.
We owe it to the Founding Fathers, to those who came before us and made it better for us. We owe it to Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to Teddy Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony, to Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, to Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan. And we owe it to those who will come after us, too.
President Trump’s apologists and enablers are not inching us closer to perfection. They are encouraging a fast and accelerating retreat in the opposite direction.
Lincoln is my first love, but let me close with the words of George Washington, in his beautiful Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.