In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement speech at American University in Washington, D.C. His focus was world peace and how to achieve it.
By his “final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Kennedy was speaking to an international community because he wanted to forestall an international crisis. His reminder, however, is relevant at any level of human interaction. It is a crucial confrontation at a national level today.
Our political process is driven by two camps, Democrats and Republicans. Putting down the easy mantle of cynicism, it cannot be lost that each party exists for good reasons. Each party believes that its ideas pave better paths towards entrenching and then enhancing the values that define America. Sometimes those paths converge, sometimes they go in opposite directions. But they are each rooted in purpose, conviction, and hope.
Democrats and Republicans are more alike than different. We share this country, and the inevitability of our mortality. We drive the same streets, drink the same water, sleep under the same moon. We want our children’s lives to represent an improvement on our own.
Our passports are embossed with our American citizenship, not our political party. The flag we sing to bears stars and stripes, not elephants or donkeys. We celebrate July 4 because of what happened in 1776, not some other date in 1828 or 1854.
We are humans first, Americans second. Our party affiliations, if any, are a closer relative to our favorite sports team than to our other distinctions. They say almost nothing about the basic principles of our moral code or our civic values.
We are human. We strive for goodness. We disavow evil.
We are American. With a very small exception, we are or descended from immigrants. Our tallest statue beckons the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
We are the results of that assembly of people who desired a more perfect union, founded on justice, general welfare, and liberty. We subscribe to a social contract protecting freedom of things – speech, religion – and from things – tyranny, oppression. We are the shining city on the hill, the land of opportunity.
These democratic, aspirational principles are the ties that bind our country. We are not American because of where we worship, who we love, how we talk, what we read, or why we affiliate with a political party. We are American because we believe we are all created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights. And that is exceptional.
We have made mistakes, taken two steps forward only to take one back. We have lived in darkness. We are great, though, because we return to the light by hewing to the tenets that created us – as humans first, Americans second.
Today, we are being asked to believe that our humanity depends on winning a game with no rules. That we are American because of the shape of our borders, the sound of our names, the severity of our actions. If those definitions prevail, we will have lost our way.
Before Donald Trump is a Republican, he is a man and an American. As a man, he is self-absorbed and self-centered, a megalomaniac of historic proportions. As an American, he is an extremist of every distinction. He relishes our differences, not to praise them but to exploit them, scratching them like a scab until there is blood.
It is impossible that the Republican leadership unanimously endorses his xenophobic, racist, misogynist, uninformed, uncaring, selfish platform. Yet with a very small exception, that leadership is, at best, silent about his candidacy. They prefer that their party wins, even if it means that their country loses.
The order of priority needs to be restored. Our values are not fantasy draft picks. Our legacy should not be threatened by a man looking only to make his brand great again.
Trump has isolated himself from our common worth. All of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, must cling to that, not to him. To be anti-Trump is to be pro-American, and that is the affiliation that matters.