Ted Gup, an author and journalist, lives in Altamont, N.Y., and is writer in residence at Durham University in Britain.
This spring, I received a much-sought visa from Britain that allows me to apply for settlement in that nation after a total of three years of working and living there — as I have been doing off and on in recent years. Receiving it was an occasion for both celebration and sober reflection.
It represents an option to exit a United States I now barely recognize — one that almost daily distresses me with its xenophobia, its saber-rattling, its theocratic leanings, its denial of facts and science, its tribalism, and its petty and boorish president. I think of that visa as my “Trump card.” Come 2020, if the nation chooses to continue on this toxic path, it may well be my way out.
If I do feel compelled to use the visa, it will represent the end of a long family romance with this country. My immigrant great-great-grandfather’s attorney in Illinois was a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Another great-great-grandfather started the stockyard in Cincinnati. Two more great-greats were tailors to the 19th-century Mardi Gras. Another, Isaac, fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Indeed, the men in my family repeatedly answered the call to duty. My great-grandfather Elias got malaria in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. My grandfather Sam served in World War I. My father dropped out of Harvard University to serve in World War II. My grandmother, a civil defense coordinator, had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt.
My forebears came from Vilnius, Lithuania; Tbilisi, Georgia; Wurttemburg, Germany; and Dorohoi, Romania; they are buried in Mobile, Ala.; Springfield, Ill.; and Canton, Ohio. None were famous or rich. Yet they were welcomed into a nation whose promise was a beacon of hope. To a person, they believed in tolerance, the rule of law, faith as a personal and private matter, and the dignity of all people — principles synonymous with the vision, if not always the reality, of America.
Their lives and memories define my values and make me weigh the monumentality of any decision I may make. I can imagine the sanctimonious far right — the love-it-or-leave-it crowd — telling me that the country would be better off without me, or the left chastising me for abandoning ship. But if the United States represents a destination for those seeking a better life, it also recognizes, without prejudice, the right to leave, temporarily or permanently.
I am hardly alone in weighing such options. A Gallup Poll published in January found that 16 percent of Americans would like to permanently move if they could — 50 percent more than expressed that choice under the two previous administrations. The figure was 20 percent among women and 30 percent among Americans younger than 30.
This is not inimical to American values. The Declaration of Independence speaks to the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It does not limit that pursuit to a single nation, but declares that it is all individuals’ God-given (or not) right to go where the heart dictates.
I have not made up my mind what my own course will be — nor can I until the United States again has the opportunity to voice its priorities and chart its future. As long as I am here, I pledge to promote American values. But at 68, I feel the need to live where I am at peace with the government and the people. I will vote at the ballot box, and then I may vote with my feet.
To those who would take me to task for considering leaving the nation, I would simply say that the America I know has already left me — or, more precisely, has turned its back on the principles that made it what it was for so long. I would take the madness of Brexit there over what feels like a more malevolent and portentous turn here.
A year ago, I visited the German concentration camp Dachau. Our English-speaking guide, a retired army colonel, began by reminding us that Adolf Hitler came to power with a single compelling message: to “make Germany great again.” He repeated that comment and paused long enough to allow it to sink in before commencing a tour that chronicled the lunacy of a nation devouring its own.
But unlike Germany after World War I, the United States has suffered no such humiliation. It was already great (I prefer “good”) — flawed, yes, but great nonetheless. I have no longing to join the ranks of the dispossessed, and I retain the hope that this country will find itself again.
But history does not come with warranties. And, in the end, the pursuit of happiness, be it political or geographical, must take each of us where it will. Is that not the definition of liberty? Yes, we are a nation built upon arrivals, but departures, too, are an essential part of the American story and, sadly, could be part of mine as well.