America, You Great Unfinished Symphony

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was, in many ways, a recipe for success. It was simple, catchy, and it articulated his clear ideas for the country he wanted to lead. Many, including the authors of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, have cited Hillary Clinton’s slogan as an epitome of the problems that ravaged her campaign: it failed to capture her version for America. She had policy ideas—scores of them. But Trump had those four words. Make America Great Again. And now, for better or for worse, he has the presidency.

Of course, whether America was ever truly great is up for debate. If America is great now, at this present moment, is also debatable. And is America any greater than it was before January 20, 2017, the date of Trump’s Inauguration? It is a sign of these politicized times that even calling America “great” (a word which is arguably one of the most elementary adjectives in the dictionary) is a charged discussion. It is a discussion which matters nonetheless, though. If you believe that America is currently great, you’re not going to want to change it; but if you believe that some aspects of America are great, but need some work, then you are more likely to attempt to improve it.

If you want my opinion—and I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you do, if only to express disagreement in the comments: I agree with the latter declaration. I think that there are aspects of America that are great—ideals which, if recognized, have the potential to create positive change. But you only have to read a few of the posts tagged “politics” on this blog to know that I am not pleased with the Trump administration (and “not pleased” is putting it lightly).

In theory, I think that the founding principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence have the power to pave the way to greatness. Fundamental equality? Unalienable rights? The pursuit of liberty and happiness? I’ve written before about the hollowness of the word “liberty,” but I digress. These ideals, if recognized, would make a great society.

“If recognized” are important words. Many of Trump’s policies challenge concepts like equality and unalienable, universal rights, making these things not tangible parts of society but instead unequally distributed privileges. In reality, America is not great because it has not fully realized these ideals. Maybe it is great in spite of the absence of them, though, because as we are seeing more and more, where there is trumping of rights (see what I did there?) there is triumphing of the Constitution. The ACLU, for example, is making America better. Good, even.

In case you didn’t understand the reference in my title of this post, it comes from the “death monologue” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunningly genius musical Hamilton (spoiler alerts ahead, but if you don’t already know how the musical ends that means you haven’t listened to the soundtrack which means you need to skip this paragraph and listen to it ASAP). In the musical, Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary, is killed in a duel with Jefferson’s VP Aaron Burr. In a beautiful and heart wrenching moment, the duel freezes right before Hamilton is shot. He launches into a monologue, one spoken earlier in the musical.

“Legacy, what is a legacy?/ It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see/ I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me/America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me/You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up”

That’s only part of the monologue; I could dissect the entire thing word by word, second by second. But I will focus on what I titled this post: “America, you great unfinished symphony.” I’ve already skirted around the word “Great” and whether or not it truly applies to America, present day or at any other time. Let’s talk about the idea of America being “unfinished”; an idea which makes me think of Barack Obama and his legacy which Trump has been steadily working to dismantle. Obama has lived to see the seeds of the garden he planted, and they’re being ripped up, some of them before they had the chance to grow. He wrote some notes in the song of America, but the choir has retired.

Unfinished. Healthcare, moving backwards. Women’s rights, moving backwards. Acceptance, tolerance, moving backwards. No one would claim that Obama “fixed” America; some argue that Obama actually paved the way for Trump’s success. Trump constantly claims that he was not aware how difficult certain things would be—“Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated,” he claimed. Certainly some of his supporters believe that Trump would be able to be successful, if it wasn’t for the crooked Democrats and biased liberal fake news outlets who are holding him back. Trump’s work is unfinished, some would say. I would agree, I just don’t think he is the person to fix things.

Perhaps my favourite part of this line from Hamilton’s monologue is the word “symphony.” America is an overture; harps and flutes singing while trombones blurt out the foundation. Independence. Equality. Liberty. Happiness, or at least the unrelenting pursuit of it. These are the underlying notes of the symphony of America, finely tuned notes sung since America broke away from Great Britain so many years ago.

With the election of Donald Trump, the great, unfinished symphony of America is both dying out and playing in a more chaotic manner. Things are happening left, right, and centre. Where to look? Look right at Trump’s actions. And then look at the people resisting. The people helping. The people caring. The people refusing to give in. These are the people who make America great, and who are going to make it an even greater symphony. The symphony of America may never be finished, but members of its orchestra can be relentless in their pursuit of greatness, of fundamental freedoms and equality. It may never be fully great, or a finished symphony, as Hamilton’s character sings. But that is up to Americans to decide.


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Is Liberty Dead?

“Is Truth Dead?” Time magazine asked on a recent cover, a clever nod to their 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover. I can’t imagine the words “Is Truth Dead?” boldly gracing a cover in any other year but this one. The events of Nov. 8, 2016, changed the course of the world dramatically, as did the months of campaigning that led up to that fateful night. Donald Trump’s victory made “Truth” into a buzzword—because suddenly, we were forced to consider the reality that there are often several shades of the truth.

Truth wasn’t the only concept distorted by Trump’s win and subsequent actions as president. Freedom, often symbolized by an-American bald eagle, has taken on a new meaning. Are American citizens truly free if the colour of their skin or the religion they practice makes them the target of a discriminatory travel ban? Equality is another word that has changed drastically; because while America’s founding fathers held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, many of the words, actions, and policies of Trump’s administration are at direct odds with the very notion of equality.

There’s another word that I think has been missing in many discussions of Trump’s government: liberty, as in the inalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and also as in the statute of Liberty  (which, I may add, has seen a significant increase in visitors since Trump took office).

Maybe it’s just me, but “Liberty” hasn’t been as widely-discussed as some of the aforementioned words. Liberty is very similar to freedom, but the definition of the word liberty on its own struck me as having particular relevance to Trump’s administration. Liberty is, according to the trusty dictionary.com, “Freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.” Another definition: “Freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.” And another: “Freedom from control [or] interference.”

My mind jumped to Russia as I read those definitions. The investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia took a dramatic turn this week when former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn offered to testify about Russia in exchange for immunity. America is, of course, relatively autonomous; but the overwhelming evidence of links between Putin and Trump’s government makes me question just how free from foreign rule America really is, especially considering the Russian interference into the election. There is also evidence that some of Trump’s actions have been influenced by his businesses. For example, the first version of his travel ban excluded countries where he has business interests.

George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So here is something that you may not want to hear: many of America’s traditional values are shifting, perhaps not for the better. If you value things like truth, freedom, equality, and liberty, then you need to speak up and fight for them to remain an essential and unwavering aspect of democracy. Because at the rate things are going, Time is going to have a field day with all of the “Is [insert important concept here] dead?” covers.


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