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I never seriously considered leaving my country of birth. Oh, I’d threatened it before. When George W. Bush was reelected president in 2004 following a truly illegitimate first term, my then-girlfriend and I talked about moving to her country of birth, Costa Rica. But we didn’t. Much as we disliked the idea of another Bush term, America was still basically America. And four years later, despite the rise of far-right fringe group The Tea Party and its vicious racist treatment of Black presidential candidate Barack Obama, he prevailed, and he was elected president not once, but twice. His victories felt empowering. Things were looking up. It seemed to me that America as a whole was saying no to racism, conspiracy theories, and voter suppression.

Boy, was I wrong! Obama’s election just served to stoke the simmering coals of racism. It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but I had no clue that so many Americans had been suppressing their racism. Hell, I’d written a book in 2004, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South, that concluded with a rosy and optimistic picture of the direction in which America and the South were headed. In my hopeful imagination, most of the adult versions of the “little Black boys and Black girls” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had already joined hands with the “little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Obviously, I knew that racism still existed, but I deeply felt that we were getting to the other side.

The real picture was very different — and very ugly — and America came face to face with it in 2016. A joke of a reality TV star — a genuinely insane, narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, anti-American, wannabe dictator — ran for president on the Republican ticket. And won. The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency were terrifying. We watched him chip away at every kind of decency that our country had worked so hard to cultivate over the preceding half-century. 

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

NOT THAT THOSE preceding decades had been bereft of horrific racism and political sleaze. Far from it. Following the civil rights years, we endured Republican Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, which used blatant bigotry to win over racist Southern Democrats. After Nixon’s presidency went down in a blaze of corruption, a pair of generally decent human beings, Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, tried to patch things up during their brief terms as president. In a terribly misguided but kind-hearted move, Ford pardoned Nixon, basically telling the country that it was OK for a president to be corrupt and lawless. Carter then came in and was immediately dogged by a hostage situation in Iran that he handled clumsily. America saw this decent man as weak and ineffectual, and, in 1980, the country elected a former actor, Republican Ronald Reagan, as president.

Reagan appeared to be the quintessential statesman, a smooth-talking but hardline diplomat who made America feel good about itself while he participated in backroom corruption that had the United States selling weapons to Iran and funneling the money to right-wing counterrevolutionaries seeking to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua. But Reagan talked well, and, on his watch, we saw the collapse of America’s longtime bugaboo, the Soviet Union. Reagan was followed by Republican George H.W. Bush, who basically continued his predecessor’s post-Cold War policies and amped-up the racist drug war that had begun with Nixon. After just one term, Bush was ousted by another smooth talker, Democrat Bill Clinton, who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants but generally respected non-white Americans and championed the increasing diversity in our country.

Clinton presided over the longest period of economic prosperity in American history. He was smart, had a disarming personality, and most Americans felt pretty good about themselves again. His would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, was ready to tackle climate change and continue the racial healing and economic success of his predecessor. But despite winning the presidency by a whopping 543,895 popular votes, Gore’s victory was quashed when an increasingly conservative Supreme Court issued a devastating decision that stopped a fair recount in Florida. His challenger, Bush Jr., became only the fourth president in U.S. history (and the first since the late 1800s) to win his seat despite losing the popular vote.

Ah, Florida. It’s the tail that has wagged the American dog numerous times over the years. Hell, Florida even looks like a tail.

By the time that the second Bush came to power, a little cable news network called FOX — the brainchild of a corrupt former Nixon aide who’d always dreamed of influencing the American public by (to put it politely) bending the truth — was having a major impact on its viewers. It reported lies as news, and its viewers stopped turning to reputable news organizations, instead getting their information solely from FOX. This would portend a profound change in the America of the 21st century, influencing elections, policy, and the general mindset of conservative Americans. No longer did conservatives take truth as truth. Truth simply didn’t matter. And FOX was seductive. It played on our base human instinct to react to fear with anger. It emboldened those who had intense hatred of other people. When America elected Obama in 2008, FOX went to war, not even attempting to hide its racist agenda. Its viewers — particularly the poor and working-class white viewers who identified as “Christian”— grew to intensely hate Democrats and Black activism and Black prosperity. To FOX’s viewers, “those people,” those successful Black people and progressive voters, were the enemy, and they needed to be stopped by any means necessary.

FOX viewers were devastated when Obama was elected to a second term, and their favorite network fed their hatred in ways never before seen in the United States. No longer was racism and bigotry confined mainly to the Southern states, FOX took the old ‘50s and ’60s far-right mantra of “segregation now, segregation forever” nationwide. FOX cast white “Christian” people as the truly oppressed group. Never mind that this was utter bullshit. Remember: Truth no longer mattered.

MEANWHILE, I WAS PAYING little attention to FOX News. “I don’t watch that crap,” I’d say. “It’s a joke. Most Americans aren’t getting their news from FOX. Most Americans can see right through it.” And with rose-colored glasses firmly attached to my head, I continued doing readings from my optimistic book about how far we’d come as a country with regard to race and decency. I certainly wasn’t the only one walking around in denial. I didn’t know anybody who actually took FOX News seriously. It was simply a joke.

Oh, but it wasn’t. FOX was mobilizing a growing mass of Americans who believed everything the network was feeding them. The Tea Party sprung up. “They’re a joke,” I’d say. “Look – Obama won a second term!” Then the Internet arrived, with chat boards where anonymous users could spin what FOX was telling them into conspiracy theories that were so wild that decent, intelligent people surely weren’t taking them seriously. And FOX News would then grab ahold of those conspiracies and give them credibility in the eyes of its viewers. It was a well-oiled machine. And by the time that former reality TV star Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring in 2016, seizing the moment at a time when FOX had successfully demonized an entire set of nonwhite people — undocumented Latino immigrants fleeing to America to escape unimaginable poverty — FOX’s self-described “Christian” viewers applauded him. It didn’t matter that Trump was as far from being a Christian as could be. It didn’t matter that Trump could give a shit about the lives of FOX’s viewers. These viewers saw his arrival as the Second Coming.

Cartoon by David Horsey.

Only in celebrity-obsessed America could something so farcical happen. But it happened. And Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. When a majority of Americans saw Trump’s dreadful four years in office as the true threat to democracy that it was, he was roundly defeated in his bid for a second term. But by then, it was too late. Too many Americans were completely in his spell, and when he asked his followers to come to Washington, D.C., on January 6 and do whatever it took to stop the legitimate certification of America’s 46th president, Joe Biden, they came. In droves. And the United States of America experienced its first insurrection since 1861 and first-ever attack on its most sacred space, the U.S. Capitol building. It was the third-most tragic moment in American history, topped only by the U.S. Civil War and the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and brought down the World Trade Center.

AND HERE WE ARE TODAY. After a humiliating defeat, Trump is running for president again, and this time, he’s likely to win. All those years of FOX News indoctrination have resulted in election manipulation in red states across America that no longer allow for Democrats to win — even where Democrats are in the majority. And Trump has promised to usher in a full-on dictatorship in the U.S. with the blessings of every one of his supporters. His election will surely mark the end of America as we know it.

So for those of us who have loved and valued the precious freedoms that America has offered — freedoms that were hard-earned for Americans who have been denied them in previous darker times (Black people, Brown people, women, LGBTQ Americans) — the decision is pretty clearcut: We can try to live under a certain dictatorship — a dictatorship that could be very dangerous to those who don’t share the views of Christian nationalists — or say goodbye to our beloved country and its almost 250-year experiment as a democratic republic. 

For me, I was thinking about doing major renovations to my childhood home in a very conservative county in North Carolina. I was hoping that I could live out the rest of my life here, where I could enjoy my retirement doing community work, getting out and hiking around the beautiful rolling hills of my youth, participating in get-togethers with my neighbors in a bond that transcended political opinions. Live my life in a community that cares for each other, debates with each other on ways of caring, but at the end of the day lets care and love override differences of opinion. But if we’re living under a dictatorship, in which people like me will feel paranoid about whether what we say or do might land us in jail or worse, I don’t think that life would be worth living. So now I have — we all have — a huge decision to make. And that’s whether or not to stay or flee to a safer country.

I’ve decided to put off the renovations of my home. Depending on how the election goes, I very well may have to sell it. Because really, I can’t live under a dictatorship. If America chooses that path, I can’t think of any other decision but to say goodbye. And this is profoundly sad to me. Because I really, really loved being an American.

“Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together,” by Thornton Dial


  1. Very well written, Mark. I think I’m several years older than you and I have seen the very same things. I don’t worry so much about myself but I worry about my kids and grandkids and it scares the hell out of me. From Robertson getting elected governor to Trump getting re-elected, the possible future looks mighty bleak. And, I’m not sure the country will recover from it.

  2. I really appreciate this article. I also will wonder if I can live under another term of Trump, whom I believe is truly evil. But I also don’t want to give up and let him and his have free reign to destroy the U.S. I will probably stay and fight, though hard to be sure since the horrors would be truly nauseating. I also have grandkids to defend.

  3. I want to add that I haven’t accepted that Trump will win. Check out Simon Rosenberg’s organization, “Hopium”; he doesn’t believe we should be giving up at all. And don’t bother watching “Civil War”, it will just upset you. We need to fight back while also maintaining contact as much as possible with people who support Trump; we need to be talking to them so we don’t become enemies.

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