Whose "America" is it? Neil Diamond's big, inclusive vision vs. Donald Trump's narrow hatred

An '80s pop classic reveals the depth of our division: Is there still room for Neil Diamond's expansive "America"?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 15, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Neil Diamond (AP Photo/John Minchillo/Ron Frehm)
Donald Trump and Neil Diamond (AP Photo/John Minchillo/Ron Frehm)

These last few weeks I have been hearing Neil Diamond's song "America" in my ear over and over again.

We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

Donald Trump, his Republican Party, their media and the MAGA mob hear these words too. But instead of Neil Diamond's embrace of America's hopeful possibilities as a nation of immigrants whose creed is opportunity for all that believe in the nation's values and want to add their labor, creativity, intelligence and overall uniqueness to its greatness, the Trumpists hear an ominous song of doom and destruction.

"Make America great again" is a threat, a slogan and a promise. It has always meant "keep America always and forever white." It is a declaration that America is the white man's country and everyone else is a guest, to be tolerated or evicted as circumstances dictate.

Neil Diamond sings:

On the boats and on the planes
They're coming to America
Never looking back again
They're coming to America

Home, don't it seem so far away
Oh, we're traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we'll say our grace
Freedom's light burning warm
Freedom's light burning warm

These lyrics resonate in cruel juxtaposition with the images of Trump's concentration camps full of babies and children who are left in their own filth, neglected and abused, torn away from their parents by ICE and Border Patrol enforcers.

There is also the sadness of children crying on the first day of school as their parents are arrested and disappeared by the hundreds during a raid by Trump's ICE enforcers on a chicken plant in Mississippi. Trump's enforcers do not care about children's tears. To wit. An ICE spokesperson told the news media, "We are a law enforcement agency, not a social services agency."

There are the images of a dead father and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande because they were coming to America for a better life.

Ronald Reagan, one of America's most popular presidents, was a fan of Neil Diamond. Whatever his other failings or areas of blindness, Reagan shared the values expressed by Diamond's song "America." During the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in 1989, Reagan made the following remarks:

You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.

Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it's the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America's triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.

This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America's greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.

Donald Trump and his henchmen reject this wisdom from Ronald Reagan. Their newest insult to Reagan's vision of an America as a "nation of immigrants" is a change to the so-called public charge rule. The New York Times explains that this new regulation "is aimed at hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter the country legally every year and then apply to become permanent residents":

Starting in October, the government’s decision will be based on an aggressive wealth test to determine whether those immigrants have the means to support themselves. Poor immigrants will be denied permanent legal status, also known as a green card, if they are deemed likely to use government benefit programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing. Wealthier immigrants, who are designated as less likely to require public assistance, will be able to obtain a green card.

This change in the public charge law is not "race neutral": In practice it will disproportionately impact nonwhite immigrants. Moreover, immigrants already in the United States will be subject to deportation if they are deemed to be "public charges." These people largely consist of people who pay taxes and otherwise contribute to American society. Their "crime" is needing assistance in order to survive and provide for their families in their new country. Of course, their real crime in the eyes of Trump and his supporters is the color of their skin or the nations they came from.

Trump defamed the idea of America as a nation of immigrants as represented by the Statue of Liberty when he told reporters on Monday: “Well, I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer — you know, it’s about ‘America First.’ I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer paying for people to come into the United States."

His henchman Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, committed the same form of vandalism when he told NPR on Monday that the Statue of Liberty's plaque should be rewritten to read, "Give me your tired and your poor — who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

White House adviser Stephen Miller, much to the delight of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, launched a similar assault in 2017 with his lie about "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus' famous poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Miller claimed this poem was added at a later date and does not represent America's "true" values towards immigrants.

 As always, hypocrisy is at the heart of racism and nativism.

There is the blatant dishonesty from conservatives and others who slur nonwhite migrants, refugees and immigrants by saying that their own immigrant ancestors came here legally and "didn't break the law."

As a practical matter, before the 1920s "white" Europeans were generally not restricted by American immigration laws.

There is the specific hypocrisy as well. Stephen Miller is the architect of the Trump regime's most racist immigration "reforms." These include the "Muslim ban,"  the intentionally cruel policy of separating nonwhite migrant and refugee children from their families and then putting them in concentration camps, attempts to reduce U.S. refugee admissions to zero, a campaign to overturn birthright citizenship, and an embrace of laws and policies designed to protect the political and social power of America's white majority.

Miller is perhaps the greatest hypocrite and villain of all in the Trump regime's campaign of cruelty against immigrants, migrants, and refugees. He is Jewish. His ancestors came to America to escape anti-Semitism in Russia. His ancestors were poor. They were also lucky: "Public charge" laws were used to prevent Jews from entering the United States in the 1920s and 1930s — and many of those turned away were then killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Miller's own uncle. Dr. David S. Glosser, has gone so far as to publicly condemn his nephew's hypocrisy. In an essay for Politico, Glosser describes how his and Miller's shared ancestor, Wolf-Leib Glosser, came to America in 1903 from a poor village called Antopol in what is now Belarus, seeking to escape "violent anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army":

I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.

I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses — the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom.

The Glossers came to the U.S. just a few years before the fear and prejudice of the “America first” nativists of the day closed U.S. borders to Jewish refugees. Had Wolf-Leib waited, his family likely would have been murdered by the Nazis along with all but seven of the 2,000 Jews who remained in Antopol. I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.

Of course, America's history of immigration — and the range of responses to it — are far more complicated than what can be communicated by a single song.

The United States is a country of settlers, not just immigrants. White Europeans came to America and committed genocide against the people who were already living here.

Black Americans were brought to America as slaves — human property who were denied their full human and civil rights for centuries.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, hordes of white Europeans came to America. Many of them, especially immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, were not considered truly "white." By coming to America and settling in, they "earned" whiteness over time through assimilation — much of which involved rites of passage such as acts of violence against black and brown Americans and Native Americans.

America was deemed to be "white by law" through legislation such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, as well as the Ozawa and Thind Supreme Court decisions of the same period. The Ku Klux Klan was highly influential in securing the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, a law that serves as an inspiration and template for Stephen Miller and the Trump regime's war on nonwhites today.

 In total, America was not really a "melting pot" or "tossed salad." For most of its history the United States' approach to immigration — and to the color line more broadly — is better described as a cauldron.

In "America," Neil Diamond sings:

Everywhere around the world
They're coming to America
Every time that flag's unfurled
They're coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They're coming to America
Got a dream they've come to share
They're coming to America

To Donald Trump and his supporters, those words as a threat.

Trump's most enthusiastic followers want to climb the battlements of his real and metaphorical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and rain fire and bullets — whether metaphorical or literal — down upon nonwhite immigrants, refugees and migrants.

At his rallies, Trump's political cultists eagerly shout out their desire to harm nonwhite people who try to come to America. Trump responds with smiles and jokes. His white supremacist followers — whom he commands through scripted violence and stochastic terrorism — enter malls, department stores, mosques, schools and synagogues, where they shoot and kill dozens of people. It is in no way a coincidence that these right-wing terrorists parrot Trump administration and Fox News talking points about "snakes," "rats," "vermin," "murderers," "rapists" and "caravans" full of "invaders" who are "infesting" America and "replacing" white people.

 There is currently an intense debate on social media and elsewhere about the true meaning of Neil Diamond's song "America" in the Age of Trump.

Some select comments:

Maybe Trump needs to hear the words to this song. To remind himself were everyone came from and not to use a wall that needs down there wouldn't be any USA if not for other countries.

This is not about sneaking across the Rio Grande and stealing from tax payers. It is about the American Dream.

This song should be the National Anthem of the United States, perhaps if someone like Beto O'Rourke becomes our President in 2020, we can change our National Anthem to this, a dream!

America wasn’t only built on a battle field: United States of America was built on dreams, fields, labor, ingenuity, sweat and tears. And, the work it’s not over yet ... so, keep it coming. All of us here who continue to push forward and don’t conform, the rebellious, the wild and unique — the ones who brake the laws of the impossible have a name stamped to the progress of this nation... it’s will who brought people here ...

For all those politicians and Democrats that hate America, do everyone a favor and go to the closet [sic] embassy and tell them you want to give up your citizenship. We don't need you in this country. Love America or get the fuck out!!!!!

This song breaks my heart, since our government treats immigrants like villains. What has happened to "Give me your tired, your poor, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free?"

Theme song for an anti-Trump movement

Why can't we all listen to this song and have compassion for those suffering to get here?? Great song and a stunning singer/songwriter in Neil Diamond.

America! Today in Tijuana, we tear gassed migrant men, women and children seeking a better life. What happened to our America? Neil's America? Where did we go?

Because they are drunk on white rage and in many ways obsolescent in a world that is increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse, Trump and those who orbit his gravity well of racism, white supremacy and nativism (as well as sexism and misogyny) are committed to dragging America back to a fake golden age of near-total white dominance and white male power over all areas of life.

For all their flag-waving and pseudo-patriotism, Trump and his supporters do not truly believe in America's greatness. If they did, they would have faith in the enduring power of the country's values and culture to assimilate newcomers.

In the final analysis Donald Trump and his MAGA hordes see America as weak and unexceptional. If they believed otherwise they would welcome immigrants to the United States, regardless of skin color, and embrace them in the spirit of Neil Diamond's "America."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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