Why I Left America When Trump Won

My threats to leave during the campaign probably sounded more like ambivalent teasing than hard-edge pronouncement.
02/08/2017 10:04 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2017

“I’m telling you, if Donald Trump is elected president, I’m leaving the country,” I told anybody who would listen, and even a few who didn’t want to hear it. But I never thought for a minute I’d have to make good on the promise. The idea was unthinkable, incomprehensible. Preposterous and crazy. And yet here I am, holed up on the other side of the Pond in a tiny studio in one of Paris’s more fashionable neighborhoods, having made it out of the U.S. two days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as America’s 45th President. Just like I said I would, if it ever came to that.

Unbelievably, it has come to this: I flew out of my American homeland from New York City’s JFK airport on Wednesday, January 18 at 9:30 p.m., aboard Air France flight 1041, forced to run by a “narcissistic psychopath,” as a Facebook post on my feed soberly put it. My plan was to sit out the first 100 days of the Trump administration from another shore, to see how it all looked from afar, then plot my next move. The election seemed as good (or bad) a time as any to retire. I was closing in on 70, had the blessing of good health, as well as the particular blessing of a comfortable income, and knew I could afford to become an expatriate for a minute, or even longer, if it came to that.

The decision to leave your native land is major, possibly transformative, and therefore never made lightly or impulsively. My threats to leave during the presidential campaign probably sounded more like ambivalent teasing than hard-edge pronouncement. “Sure hope I don’t have to leave — I don’t want to leave,” I would say after every threat. Yet I instinctively knew that if by some twist of a bad karmic joke Donald Trump was elected President, I would have to leave. First, I knew I couldn’t stay in a country that elected a demagogue to be its leader with no government experience of any kind in holding elected office, and proved to be incapable of acting with rational thought, measured judgement, or simple decency.

I knew I couldn’t stay in a country that elected a demagogue to be its leader, who proved to be incapable of acting with rational thought, measured judgement, or simple decency.

I was also clear that if Donald Trump was elected President of my country, my country would no longer feel safe ― no longer feel like home, of either the free or the brave. I knew I would just feel scared — not an emotion I am used to, and certainly not one I like. I would be scared of political leadership that I knew at worst would be hostile (and at best indifferent) to my aspirations as a black and a woman, as a mother of a black son, a grandmother of black girls, and a journalist who has always reported from the blurred lines of race and gender. I was already afraid of the seismic shift in the national mood following eight years of Obama that exposed the American fault lines of hate and intolerance as Trump supporters embraced free-falling into the black hole of a dark past now considered “great.’

Many are reluctant to own up to fear, for fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. Yet fear can galvanize you ― even save your life ― by activating that primal fight or flee response. There are really only two instinctive responses to the fear brought on by terrifying danger or sheer madness. You can either stand your ground and fight, or marshal your forces and run. More than a few people have questioned my instinct to run. I am punking out as the feisty, in-your-face black woman I have been known to be, they imply, failing in my duty as an old-line revolutionary to stand ground and fight. But even the never-caught revolutionary Harriet Tubman knew that in the face of some dangers, some madness, running is the appropriate response.

I knew I would be scared of political leadership that, at worst, would be hostile (and, at best, indifferent) to my aspirations as a black woman, as a mother of a black son and a grandmother of black girls.

By the time I made my run, Trump had already named an avowed white supremacist as his chief of staff, an avowed segregationist as attorney general, an oil company executive as secretary of state, a questionable public education supporter as secretary of education, and an African-American neurosurgeon, the only black cabinet appointee, to be secretary of housing and urban development, a position for which he himself admitted to being unqualified. This is going to be bad, I remember thinking as I got ready to go. It hasn’t taken nearly 100 days to see exactly how bad: Bad is Trump signing an executive order almost as soon as he removed his hand from the swearing-in Bible to dismantle a health care system that insures 20 million American citizens. Bad is Trump signing an executive order that blatantly discriminates against the religion and the people of seven Muslim countries by barring them from entering the United States.

Bad is Trump managing to piss off a few world leaders in less than two weeks after taking office, threatening to scrap trade deals, break environmental protection pacts, and make noise ominously sounding like war. Bad is the Trump administration’s horrific fights with the press; its unabashed disregard for protocol and procedures, insults directed toward a revered civil rights leader who is a current U.S. congressman, as well as towards its own intelligence community. Bad is thinking the American people are stupid, susceptible to con games and sleight-of-hand distractions.

I’ll admit I don’t know how much I’m up for this new struggle — the inevitable and mighty pushback against the Trump madness. We African Americans have been down thunder roads of madness before, through the madness of slavery and Reconstruction, the terrorism of lynching and Jim Crow segregation, the violent assaults during a nonviolent civil rights movement. I am entering the age of old, starting to feel tired and selfish, and not so much up for active, in-your-face protesting anymore. Isn’t that what younger generations are for? My son and his wife are perfectly willing and capable of doing by any means necessary whatever it takes to protect family, home and their civil rights.

So for the moment I am fine with punking out in Paris, thinking and writing, and watching the madness and the resistance to the madness unfold from 3,600 miles away in a city I have loved for more than 40 years and briefly lived in 10 years ago. I don’t speak French, which I consider to be a good thing because it keeps me from being consumed with hearing about Trump from the French, though I do watch BBC and British CNN. And I confess to being addicted to social media ― to spending hours reading the endless news feeds, Facebook posts, Instagram messages, watching videos, all of which is probably its own form of madness (as Tweeting Trump proves), but has nevertheless helped me assess the state of my country’s current union from afar.

Paris is by no means perfect, nor will it ever be home, but it does leave me be, which is what I have always liked about the French.

What I see from the perspective of another country is my country on the brink of a second American Civil War ― a nation rapidly dividing against itself ― as the predatory forces of money, greed and Christian-right dogma align against the resistance forces that constitute what the Right thinks of as the deviant “others.” Other races, other religions, other sexual preferences, other diverse, thinking sensibilities. These resisters to the madness are strong and powerful, angry and resourceful, and comprise a majority coalition of blacks, browns and whites, gays and straights, young and old, who will stand their ground and fiercely fight the Trump madness at every turn. They will continue to storm the gilded towers, organize protests worldwide, shut down airports, take on pro bono legal fights, speak media truth to government lies. The fight will be protracted, brutal and bloody, as war always is. It is another reason I chose to leave my country. To preserve my mental and spiritual health, for war is also wearing and debilitating.

I don’t know how long I will stay on the run. Paris is by no means perfect, nor will it ever be home, but it does leave me be, which is what I have always liked about the French. I do believe the election of Donald Trump will prove to be the great game changer in American history, signaling either the fall of the American empire as we know it, or the capacity of the empire to insure its survival by resurrecting its highest ideals.

I also believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice.” Which means the current forces of resistance against the madness in America will surely prevail. They will ultimately win. They have to win. Otherwise, I can’t go home again.

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