COLUMBUS, Ohio — On Jan, 6, after a mob of rage-fueled supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, my phone started ringing. I run a nonprofit school network for refugees in Ohio and Georgia. Parents were calling, frightened. These families fled civil unrest and authoritarianism in their native countries — and found safety in the law and order here. Now they wondered: Was America just as unstable?
Some people now want to rationalize or fictionalize what happened that day. Or they just want to forget and move on. But take it from refugees. We know how quickly stable governments can unravel. We must root out extremism, disinformation and distrust of our sacred institutions. If we don’t, these evils will be weaponized to further divide the country.
If you’ve lived under authoritarian strongmen, you know former President Trump is not simply a failed president. He is a tyrant whose megalomania won’t end because he vacated the White House. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales bypassed his country’s own constitution to run for third and fourth terms. He left office in 2019 after violent protests alleged electoral fraud — then branded it a coup.
The further Trump is from power, the more desperately he will claw at our democratic institutions to try and regain it.
Further, the armed militias who follow him — many steeped in white nationalism — won’t simply disappear. They’ve been emboldened by Trump’s racism, including the 2017 travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.
President Joe Biden is already working to reverse this and what, by one count, were 400 other immigration policy changes during the Trump administration. But as he does, the far right will take a lesson from the Taliban playbook and turn their political misfortunes into a powerful recruitment tool. They already are.
I fled my native Jordan because being gay there is punishable by death. Here, laws protect my civil rights. And yet, I felt palpable fear listening to Trump proclaim, “We will never give up, we will never concede.” According to him, the rule of law meant nothing.
America has always seemed to move forward — if slowly — to become more equal and just. It’s why refugees never hesitate to give back to the country that welcomed us. With the right support, refugees routinely make incredible strides in America. We are upwardly mobile, more than tripling our household income after 25 years, according to the immigration advocacy research group New American Economy. The communities where we settle become safer; between 2006 and 2015, nine of the 10 cities with the highest resettlement rate saw their crime rates fall. And nearly 350,000 refugees are essential workers, from health care to the food supply chain.
While most of us — refugees and U.S.-born — were trying to help the country through a pandemic surge, Trump and his Republican allies allowed disinformation to flourish: repeating lies about a “stolen election” and suggesting that anyone who disagreed was treasonous. In the end, 147 Republicans refused to certify the election. It was terrifying to see our own elected officials disregard the foundation of our democracy.
My students and their families lived through civil wars and violent clashes that ripped their populations apart. It’s been traumatic to see similar things happening here. We were supposed to be better. And we can be, but that means a total rejection of authoritarianism, both at the ballot box and in the courts. We must hold Trump — and the Republican party — responsible for what they did and allowed others to do in their name. Only then can American democracy find its true North.