Prior to starting residency, I traveled across Germany and Poland with a group of medical students and seminarians as a part of a two-week long fellowship to study the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
As we walked the streets of Berlin and alongside the railroad tracks of Auschwitz, a carousel of horrific images became indelibly imprinted in my mind. As civilized people, how could we have allowed such atrocities to have occurred?
More than any historical fact, I returned home with a humble lesson— that no individual or society is inherently immune to some of our baser instincts.
At age ten, I immigrated to the United States from South Korea, a country that held invasions, annexations, civil war, and military coups in recent memory. Without knowing too much about it, I immediately developed a strong faith in the system of American democracy. As a young child who had just left his friends and his home behind, that system provided feelings of safety and stability, filtered through the lens of my untested yet unshakable optimism.
Growing up, I quickly realized that my initial faith was more of an inchoate idealism. Like any nation, America’s story was more muddled than what I’d read in textbooks. I witnessed—and to a lesser degree experienced—discrimination and racism. I treated patients whose suffering stemmed more from socioeconomic inequities than from any physical or psychological disease. Upon closer examination, the American reality contained many inconsistencies and hypocrisies when compared to her founding and still often touted ideals. I began to deeply question my faith in the American system. That is, until recently.
The last four years have cemented my view of America as an undeniably great nation. America became “great again” in my eyes, and I will tell you why.
Before Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, his party jumped in less than a decade from winning 3% of the vote to 33%—still no majority. However, beguiled by the promises of a superior nation and enabled by a bystander majority, his supporters quickly cemented the Nazi regime’s fascist dictatorship. Institutions such as the press, as well as the healthcare and judicial systems, were either suppressed or readily acquiesced to the party agenda. Baser instincts prevailed, and the rest is history, as we all know too well.
The current right-wing populist movement is a global phenomenon. From Britain and Brazil to Poland and Germany, many countries saw a dramatic rise in such groups’ influence fed by swelling economic, social, and political grievances, alongside racial and other prejudice. American democracy has been one of the test subjects.
For the last four years, I watched aghast as the Trump administration blatantly attacked some of America’s most fundamental, nonpartisan institutions such as intelligence agencies and the media, while giving control of the judiciary as well as other essential pillars of government to his sycophants. He threatened to deploy the military against protestors and undermined the integrity of the election before it even began. At some moments, watching his administration tread the road to tyranny conjured images of my time in Germany and Poland, leading me to acknowledge with a sense of defeat: “Ah, this is how it happened.”
However, giving up at that point would have been a failure to acknowledge how President Trump has been making America great again.
Progressive, grassroots movements, fueled by nothing but the collective faith and desires to restore America’s true promise, sprung up across the nation. Millions have rallied to defend democracy, across ages, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and sociopolitical leanings. Without President Trump, these movements would not have been as, shall we say, tremendous.
“I understand why my parents made so many sacrifices so that my brother and I could pursue our education and one day raise our families here.”
Institutions like the courts and press, as well as members of the medical, legal, educational, and scientific professions, checked and balanced the administration’s disregard for many crucial issues such as the Coronavirus pandemic—refusing to heed the president’s claim it was going away—and election procedures, rejecting the administration’s false claims of fraud. Without President Trump, these breakthroughs surely would not have been as radical.
With many of our global allies as well as other right-wing populists watching, the American people elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice-president. Without President Trump, I wonder if we would have seen the winner receive the largest number of votes ever in the history of America. “Sad!” perhaps — but true.
A part of me still harbors gnawing anxiety and uncertainty in the aftermath of the election, and the damage Trump has wrought. But for the first time since I immigrated to America, I have renewed faith in this democracy and why it is worth fighting for. I understand why my parents made so many sacrifices so that my brother and I could pursue our education and one day raise our families here.
Yes, Trump’s tenure has exposed some of this country’s flaws and vulnerabilities that we must continue to improve. Yet simultaneously, its strength was most evident in being able to withstand the Trump presidency. Timothy Snyder, who studies autocratic regimes at Yale, recently said Trump’s predicament is that he hasn’t been able to ruin our system enough. In other nations less deeply rooted in democratic values, he may have managed to.
In the end, I have to give the president credit for being right about one thing. He did make America great again, just not in the ways that he envisioned. The country is becoming great, not because of him, but in overcoming him.
Jason J. Han is a cardiothoracic surgery resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and writes a column for the Inquirer’s health section.