My most recent visit home to the United States was kind of like going to see a relative who, since the last time you met, has completely lost her mind. You know: you creep through an unkempt front yard littered with "Make America Great Again" signs. You pick your way across a front porch covered in peeling paint, past dozens of cats who eye you suspiciously. You push open the front door with a horror-movie creak, bracing yourself against the unknown.
In a house like that, as in a country where Donald Trump is the presidential nominee of a major party, anything can happen, and whatever does happen will probably be bad.
So imagine my surprise when I pushed open that creaking door and instead of a decrepit, raving relative, found Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping in the living room. (Translation: during the visit, my big brother took me to see Hamilton, thus placing me forever in his debt.) I was reminded that there is so, so much more to our country than what we see on the news. The show and its creator celebrate everything Trump misses about what has made America great from the start. I kept thinking about the presumptive nominee as the musical replayed itself in my head in the days and weeks that followed.
I think it's because of Trump that the song I can't stop singing is the Biggie Smalls-inspired "Ten Duel Commandments." The day after seeing the show, as I walked along the river with Trump Place to my left and Weehauken, New Jersey, where Alexander Hamilton was shot, up ahead to the right, I couldn't stop hearing Miranda's line describing how most duels were averted thanks to negotiation by intermediaries: "Most disputes die and no one shoots."
I wondered: are these United States already past that tipping point? Are we already halfway across the Hudson? Will we look back on Barack Obama's "no red states, no blue states" speech as a eulogy instead of an aspiration?
There's not much time for such thoughts, of course. We've got a freaking terrifying election to crap our pants over. As we look down the barrel of the opponent we're facing in November, we might need a few ground rules of our own.
So for those who, like me, stand in the center of the Venn diagram of Trump-induced anxiety and Hamilton obsession:
It's the Ten Trump Commandments. (Only I'm no poet, so I'm going Biblical.)
1. Thou shalt not wring thy hands. I'll be honest: this is all I've been doing for eight months or so. This can't be happening! He's so terrible! Enough. He's awful. He's it. Time to deal. As Hamilton puts it: "OK, so we're doing this."
2. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's prime minister. We can't have Justin Trudeau. We just can't. Let's move on.
3. Thou shalt not turn around. Speaking of Canada, moving there won't help (much). No matter where we are, there's no point in turning our backs on this one. There's no deniability in this duel. As someone who has been living abroad for a dozen years, I am on shaky footing here; however, the fact is that none of us can flee the President of the United States, especially a belligerent egomaniac with the temperament of a toddler and access to our nuclear codes. Our leader wields global influence, and all of us, especially those of us who emigrate, have to answer for the choice our country has made, whether or not we share it. What's more, as others have observed, many of the people who are in greatest danger from his particular brand of nativism don't have the luxury of choosing to uproot their lives. We'll all hang together or we'll all hang apart.
4. Honor thy father and thy mother. Or your grandpa, or great-great aunt, or whoever the first person was in your family to immigrate to this country. Or whoever else comes to mind when you think about the colors and nationalities and religions and languages and sensibilities and sexualities that make our country what it is. I would think that Trump will change his tune a bit in the months ahead - not on immigration policy, but at least in terms of paying some kind of lip service to diversity. (Or maybe he won't; this year, the old campaign rules apparently don't apply.) If he does, we already know this will be a lie, and it can't be accepted. He has already made this personal for anyone who values the roots of our families and our country, and his comments to date are unforgivable. The source of those comments, unelectable.
5. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. We need to pace ourselves because this is some kind of hellish marathon we're running. We're going to have to fight hard and then, when we can, turn off those screens and get some rest. If we don't, we'll tune out altogether, and we can't have that (see #3).
6. Thou shalt read. I don't know about you, but I feel dumber and meaner by the day. We are as smart and sophisticated as the company we keep, and by keeping company with this small-minded, reckless excuse for a candidate, we are all diminished. I can tell you every ridiculous, dangerous and flat-out stupid comment Trump has made this week - or at least, I can recite the contents of the sample platter that has made its way into the press - but what I can tell you about the complex issues he's getting wrong? How well-informed am I about the problems that are driving people to his rallies, the problems that are going to face us no matter who wins in November, the problems that are with us for the long haul? We've got to follow the crude lows of the campaign trail, because his racist, sexist, hate-mongering comments matter. However, we've got to educate ourselves with a new urgency as well, reaching deep into history, broadening our understanding any way we can, searching for new, intelligent commentaries from a range of backgrounds. The divisions and hatred that this campaign has already stirred up were here before Trump, and will be here when he's gone. I don't know what one person can do about that, but I want to be an intelligent player in that long-term struggle, and to do that I can't let Trump be where my thinking stops.
7. Thou shalt speak. Sometimes it seems like the last things we need are more strident voices, but this is a moment when we need to step out of our comfort zones and use whatever tools are at our disposal to challenge what is happening in our country. We've got to look for new ways to engage and make waves both within and beyond our immediate, often ideologically homogeneous circles. We need to post, tweet, fact-check and write Trump into oblivion at any opportunity. This will be especially important when and if he refines his act and starts to "look Presidential." Politics is all about short-term memory loss. We need to be that memory, the ghosts of viciousness past. We must be relentless. After all, if Trump continues to attack press freedoms, our reporters will need as much help as possible to keep tabs on his myriad mistruths, distortions and smears.
8. Thou shalt listen. For many of us, widespread support for Trump has made us feel that we are in a new country, a different one from the place we thought we knew. The good thing about your first weeks in a foreign land is that you meet new people, open your mind a bit, and get a glimpse into lives that would otherwise be closed to you. If Trump has a plus side, then this, for me, is it: This crisis has brought to my attention new perspectives, whether from people I didn't know before, or friends I already have but might not have heard, really heard. I've learned from people who have talked about the racism they've experienced their whole lives, and their amusement as they watch the shocked, reaction of white liberal Americans to Trump-inspired vitriol; to them, it has been a daily reality for decades. I've learned from people who support Bernie Sanders and point out the ways Hillary Clinton, or the Democratic Party, or both, need to change and improve. To be honest, I don't know what I'd have to talk about with someone who absolutely loves Donald Trump and everything he stands for, although I hope I'd approach that conversation with respect. However, that still leaves a wide range of conversations that can result in changed minds or greater understanding.
9. Thou shalt look him in the eye. This the first presidential election I've experienced where I feel I could out-debate one of the candidates myself (unless, that is, he called me a fat cow who'd be better off on my knees and caused me to run off the stage in tears. That is completely within the realm of feasibility, which in and of itself is beyond belief). This is not a good thing, of course, but at least it pushes me to speak with more confidence, and I assume it is having the same effect on other people, too. Maybe by some miracle that will enrich our conversation down the road. Maybe this batshit crazy election can crack open the door for new engagement. Maybe this terrible person can piss us off into new levels of action and advocacy. Maybe that's the silver lining, because we certainly need one right about now. At any rate, anyone with basic levels of respect and kindness is already over-qualified to square off against Trump, so let's stand shoulder to shoulder and find whatever way we can to do just that.
10. Count ten paces and... - hell, we're beyond that. It's on. It's ON.