Seventy years ago, Heinrich Cramer sailed into New York Harbor aboard SS American Judge and passed the Statue of Liberty. The twenty-seven-year-old former soldier of a defeated army then spent five weeks in limbo, on Ellis Island, unsure if the United States would admit him. He spoke Low German, High German, and Russian, but not English, and he had very little money in his pocket. Finally, on November 24, 1950, the day after Thanksgiving, he left the storied immigration station, found lunch in Manhattan for a dollar, and set forth — now known as Henry — on his next chapter.
For the better part of his life, Henry was a proud U.S. citizen who loved God and country only slightly more than he loved horses and a fresh loaf of rye bread. He settled in Middle America, where he married a woman from Orange County, California, who could trace her family roots to eighteenth-century Virginia. He worked a dairy farm, raised three kids, and drove a school bus in his retirement. Henry was deeply conservative but the kind of guy who would go out of his way to help a neighbour or a perfect stranger, who would splurge a little to take his grandson on an airplane ride at the county fair, and who would tie a yellow ribbon around a tree when his other grandson went off to war. He knew all too well the tricks a demagogue could play, the way a despot could manipulate the religious and deceive a people, so he would visit high schools to talk about the importance of history and the dangers of indoctrination.
Everybody loved Henry Cramer. While he never completely lost his Lower Saxon accent, he represented so many of the things that were good about the United States. His wasn’t quite a rags-to-riches immigrant story, but he realized, in his more modest way, the American dream. And, of course, he was my grandfather.
When I decided that, like Opa, I would build a different kind of life in a different kind of country, I worried the most about what he would think. Was I disrespecting the sacrifices he had made and the opportunities I had been given? To my great relief, he supported me, and, when I was eligible, he encouraged me to become a citizen of my new home. He understood, I think more than anyone, why I decided to leave.
Opa passed away shortly before the ascent of Donald Trump, and I have often wondered what he would make of the forty-fifth president, with his good-people-on-both-sides this and fallen-soldiers-are-losers that. I have wondered how my grandfather, a former Morse code operator, would interpret the Confederate flags, the swastikas, the Proud Boys, the Orwellian doublethink, and all the other unsettling signals that have come to punctuate this moment. And as I filled out my mail-in ballot for the 2020 U.S. election, I wondered which little oval he would shade if he were still with us.
“He was a master at attracting the citizenry to his plan without revealing his true motives,” Opa wrote in his 1997 memoir. “By the time he had full power, he had the country by the throat.” He was recalling Adolf Hitler’s rise, but those words echo in my mind as I watch Trump tighten his grip on the Justice Department, on the judiciary, and on the Republicans in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and as he flouts convention with increasing impunity and sows division and skepticism and hate.
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation,” the president said before he tested positive for the virus, when asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose to Joe Biden. Contrast these bald words with those of Ronald Reagan, who opened his first inaugural address by thanking his rival Jimmy Carter. “By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other,” the Great Communicator said in January 1981. “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
The graciousness is gone. The normal is gone. The world keeps watching, but I fear the miracle that so attracted Opa all those years ago is gone too. It almost doesn’t matter how November 3 turns out: vast swaths of the American electorate are frozen in ideological cliché, having allowed and encouraged a blustering bully to bulldoze one institutional check and balance after another.
Opa would have turned ninety-seven in June, and I miss him. But I’m also relieved, in some ways, that he didn’t have to watch these past four years of disgrace. And that I didn’t have to watch him, God forbid, go along with it.