Why The Last Few Years Have Helped Me Love America More Than Ever

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Danny Schleien
Jan 21 · 7 min read
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Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Once upon a time, a 3-year-old boy watched enraged people lay siege to the city and country where he grew up. Their destruction served to terrorize and intimidate people like that 3-year-old boy. It served to tell them this place would not welcome them. It reflected a slow but steady drumbeat of escalating acts in an effort to purify the ethnic composition of the boy’s homeland and jeopardize the lives of those who did not conform.

That boy was born in 1935 in Berlin, Germany. He was a Jew and thus unwelcome in the Third Reich. He would never forget Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when angry fascists reminded Jews like him that they saw them as subhuman scoundrels to be expelled from Germany or killed if they failed to comply. A few short decades after social democracy was born in Germany, the country became the epicenter of hate.

The boy, then three years old, would never forget that night. Three months later, he and his family sought greener pastures. They left their homeland for a place they had never seen, one that had scarcely heard of when they begin a weekslong journey from the birthplace of modern social democracy to one of the world’s economically poorest countries.

The boy and his family landed in Bolivia early in 1939. They knew nary a thing about this landlocked South American country. But this country, as poor as it was economically, was rich in priceless qualities lost upon fascists and many others, like kindness and compassion.

The boy grew up in Bolivia. He lived in a city whose name translates to “the peace.” But life was hardly peaceful in this high-altitude city. Its name belied the frequent chaos on its streets. The boy lived mere blocks from buildings where governments were routinely overthrown and military forces enforced the violent transfers of power. Social democracy never felt so far.

In spite of all that, Bolivia gave the boy an opportunity. But he knew he would have a hard time supporting a family in Bolivia doing what he loved: repairing airplanes. So as a teenager, he uprooted himself once again, this time to the country that had led the victory in two wars against the country of his birth.

Once he saw America with his own eyes, he knew he’d eventually be back. After a brief yearlong experience learning the craft of repairing airplanes in America, the young man returned to Bolivia. He met the girl next door…literally (she lived next door to his parents). They quickly fell in love and got married.

A few short years later, as he pushed against the limited ceiling of opportunity Bolivia afforded him, he and his wife decided to make America their permanent home. America had rejected their families a couple of decades prior, but now, they were at least afforded a lease on opportunity in a country they all believed was the greatest to ever exist.

When they arrived for good on American shores, they had a 15-month-old baby in tow. 32 years later, that baby would become the father of a boy who has lived a life largely insulated from the struggles of his ancestors.

That boy is me. That 3-year-old boy who remembers Kristallnacht like it was yesterday is my grandfather.

Growing up, my grandfather learned the ugly truths about American history. As he likes to remind us, he didn’t receive the whitewash, glorified version of history taught in America. He had an outsider’s perspective on the red, white, and blue.

But my grandfather loved America, and his life experiences magnified that love. When you see fascists terrorize your neighborhood as a 3-year-old, lose friends and relatives to fascism, and grow up blocks away from nonstop political revolutions and hostile transfers of power, you feel differently about a country that codifies the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in its founding documents.

When you have those life experiences, you feel differently about a Capitol that houses the legislative branch of the most powerful country in world history. You understand the hard power America has as well as the people who were born and raised there. But you grow to appreciate America’s soft power in a way natural-born Americans might struggle to grasp. You’ve seen what life looks like in the absence of those ideas and also of a desire to perpetually form a more perfect Union.

So when I saw the Capitol invaded by people who shared goals similar to the Nazis who made life hell for my grandfather’s family, I couldn’t help but reflect on how similar the siege on the Capitol was to Kristallnacht.

The insurrectionists who stormed that Capitol to try overturning a free and fair election shared the same goals as the Nazis who broke the glass of Jewish synagogues, buildings, and stories in 1938. Both parties wanted to instill fear.

The Nazis wanted to reclaim their country from the supposed scourge of the Jews, who they blamed for Germany’s deteriorating living conditions and humiliation on the world stage. MAGA supporters want to reclaim their country from the supposed scourge of people who don’t look like them, who they blame for America’s deteriorating living conditions and humiliation on the world stage.

But what differed was the institutional response to these attacks. Hitler’s regime turned a blind eye to Kristallnacht, which was motivated by the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a teenage German-born Polish Jew living in Paris.

Hitler knew vom Rath’s death would enrage his base. But as his crony Joseph Goebbels stated, “the Führer has decided that… demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” Hitler didn’t directly instigate Kristallnacht, but he wanted it to happen and mobilized the Reich accordingly.

Donald Trump motivated the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s pretext was his loss in the presidential election. He knew it had enraged his base. Trump directly instigated the siege on the Capitol. Like Hitler, he wanted the attack to happen and mobilized the government accordingly.

But in spite of our democracy’s fragility, it remains strong enough to resist the urges of imperious tyrants like Trump. Fascism lurks deep in the hearts of many powerful people in the American government, but our institutions inoculate us from the full onslaught of fascist terror seen in places like Nazi Germany. The siege failed because America remains a country of laws, not of men, and because the ideas espoused by those terrorists — white supremacy and fascism among others — have decisively lost in the free marketplace of ideas we call politics.

That is why the racists tried to overthrow the government. They know their country is changing and that their vision of America is losing. They are desperate to preserve hate and anger in a country that has moved further and further away from those vile ideas.

If the racists were winning, they wouldn’t feel disheartened enough to invade the Capitol. That was an act of desperation, not one of confidence. They are throwing a Hail Mary to institutionalize hate and “make America great again.”

Hate will never find refuge in America. They will lose.

And America will be made greater. That greatness will rest upon ideals they loathe like justice, equality, fairness, and inclusivity.

You know how many options Facebook gives you to describe a relationship? Well, my relationship with America feels complicated.

Despite the hard-headed optimism of this piece, the last few years have uncovered ugly truths about America I failed to appreciate growing up. I don’t see America through rose-colored glasses the way I used to as a kid.

But you know how when you marry someone, you vow to accept them in sickness and in health? When you love someone, you love them for all of their flaws. True love is unconditional; it is fueled by a commitment to something beyond yourself. That commitment may fray at times, but it never breaks.

My commitment to America waned over the last few years. I saw trouble and now see more trouble on the horizon. Don’t mistake the tone of this piece for ignorance. There’s a lot not to love about our past, present, and future. Refer to the piece I wrote in this very publication after the election.

And yet, with Trump out of office, I find myself rejecting the pessimism I held for four years to distance myself from Trumpism. I love America more than I ever have because I know how hard it is to sustain an experiment as bold and innovative as ours. No country has ever borne out a vision of multiracial representative democracy. That quest is ugly and painful, and given its progression, many people don’t love where this country is headed. For far too long, some of those people have enjoyed privilege at the expense of others. They have reaped the vision of a country where all are created equal with certain unalienable rights, but they have oppressed and deprived others to fully realize that vision.

Charlottesville and George Floyd and the Capitol testify to the struggle for that more perfect Union. If this was easy, the rest of the world would have done it long ago.

One day, America will more fully live out the promises embedded in its founding documents. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were and still are revolutionary. I’ve seen their faded words in our nation’s capital. Lately, I’ve come to appreciate their eternal significance the way people like my grandfather have based on their life experiences.

The last few years haven’t diminished my love of America. They’ve deepened it. And if you believe in a brighter future, I hope you can find a space in your heart and in your mind to believe we are standing near the end of something ugly and at the beginning of something beautiful.

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Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

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