By Frank Bruni | New York Times News Service
On his first full day in office, our new president harangued the National Park Service about more flattering inauguration photos and preened in front of a memorial to real American heroes, crowing about how often he’s been on the cover of Time magazine.
Before his first full week was done, he temporarily barred refugees from entering the United States, halted immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries and decreed that Christians get preference over Muslims when we let outsiders in.
I watch this and feel heartsick about America, whose most fundamental values and claim to moral leadership are at stake.
Then I talk to my friend Maya Rao and her sisters and I feel just a little bit better. I feel pride and hope.
They’re precisely the kind of Americans who feel so insulted and threatened by Trump. They’re precisely the kind who make this country so special and fill me with such fierce love for it. It gave them a home and horizons they might not have found elsewhere. They treasure that enough to defend it.
A week ago Saturday they woke in New Jersey at 3:30 a.m. for a 5:30 a.m. bus. Then they traveled for four hours, to Washington and the Women’s March.
Maya, 41, had never done anything like this before. Neither had her older sister, Mythili Lahiri, 44, or her younger one, Meera Oliva, 39. No national marches. No street-corner demonstrations. No hoisting of signs. No chanting of chants.
Until recently they thought it was enough to keep up with the news and cast their votes in accordance with their support of the Democratic Party. There didn’t seem to be time for anything more. They have demanding careers. They have three children each. They have husbands.
An extra hour of sleep is a luxury. An extra two is a fantasy.
Then: Trump. As women, they gasped at his sexism.
As first-generation Indian-Americans, they shuddered at his quickness to demonize people of color with Asian, African or Latino ancestry.
“I feel devastated,” Maya told me. “For me, the acceptance of diversity is one of the things that makes this country great. This election is destroying that. And that gets me into the street.”
What we’ve seen from the White House in this opening stage of the Trump administration isn’t encouraging. Trump’s promised pivot to a presidential demeanor never happened, and apparently never will: It’s outside of his skill set. It’s alien to his psychology. He’s all ego and spleen, with only the loosest of tethers to truth.
But we’re seeing something else—something sunnier—beyond the White House: an awakening in many Americans who were trusting, complacent or distracted before. That’s what the protests all around the country demonstrated, though whether they will translate into consequential action—and become an insurance policy against the damage Trump may do—isn’t clear. The three sisters are trying to figure that out.
They’re scared. Mythili told me that as she watches Trump and the people around him reject science, construct alternate realities and try to silence anyone who balks at that, she worries that the very idea of America is in jeopardy.
“We believe in freedom of expression,” she said, meaning Americans. “We believe in facts. We believe in transparency. And what he’s doing—it’s a slippery slope toward a country that I don’t recognize and a country that I don’t want to live in.”
I’ve known Maya for more than five years, I had a long dinner with Mythili once and I’ve talked repeatedly with Meera on the phone. They’re ferociously smart, all three of them. They’re contagiously upbeat. Maya’s laugh is as long and loud as any I’ve heard. I crave, relish and envy it.
They grew up first in Texas, which Mythili recalled as a “brutal time.” No one at her school looked like her. No one shared her family’s traditions—its vegetarianism, for example. Once, for a lesson on nutrition, she and her classmates were told to keep a food diary. Her teacher looked at hers and, in front of the other kids, gasped, “You didn’t eat any meat?” Then she opined that Mythili’s parents were leaving her malnourished.
Later they moved to the suburbs of New York. Their mother died when they were still young. Their father pushed them to excel, wanting every opportunity for them. For college, Mythili went to Barnard and both Maya and Meera to Brown.
Mythili teaches at a private school in central New Jersey. Maya, a physician, treats economically disadvantaged patients at a Manhattan hospital. Meera is head of marketing for a startup near her home in the Boston suburbs.
They pay taxes at the high rate of prosperous two-income couples like theirs. They instill an ethos of achievement in their sons and daughters. They contribute to this country. They flatter it.
Trump’s campaign stunned them. “Who talks that way?” Mythili said, adding that he promoted “the total objectification of people who were different than he is, this concept that there’s only one definition of what an American is: this white, male, gun-toting person.”
Meera’s thoughts were captured in a journal about the march that she contributed to Yahoo News. She wrote this:
“I am a woman of color, a child of immigrants, a wife of a Latino man and a mother to multiethnic children. And I take the election of a man who built his campaign on anti-immigration rhetoric—while shamelessly embracing racism and misogyny—very personally.”
So she took that trip to Washington—four hours down, four back—although she’d never done anything like that before. She made and carried this sign: “Women’s rights are human rights.” Maya’s sign, befitting her work in medicine, said, “Health care is a right, not a privilege.” Mythili’s said, “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
Normally, the sisters told me, a crowd as densely packed as the one that day would have made them nervous. Not this crowd. “You would accidentally hit somebody in the head with your sign and it was always, ‘No worries, it’s OK,’” Meera recalled.
Maya remembered how someone started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and fellow marchers joined in, whether they could carry the tune or not.
They got back to New Jersey after 10 p.m. When Meera looked at comments attached to her Yahoo posts, she was chilled:
“That many angry cows marching in the same direction is called a stampede.” “Marching for Shariah law in USA: bunch of total idiots!” “If you want a free ride, move to Canada. Better yet, any brown country.” “What’s with the men in the march? Do they squat to pee?”
Ah, the internet.
Wanting to do what she can, Mythili recently called the offices of her state’s two senators—Cory Booker and Robert Menendez—to register her opposition to two of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Rex Tillerson and Betsy DeVos. She’d never done something like that before, either.
But these aren’t usual times. One week in, that’s even clearer than before.