This land is my land: whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, it’s never a bad time to become an American
Niall Ferguson says for a British-born citizenship-seeker, the US president’s behaviour in the UK was cringe-inducing, but no more so than Britain’s handling of Brexit. Plus, the citizenship ceremony, with its diverse crowd, shows why so many seek naturalisation
I picked a fine time to become an American. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by Croatia. And Hurricane Donald Trump was making landfall in London.
(Sound of breaking glass in Downing Street)
“The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on. It was not the deal that was in the referendum”.
(Alarm bells start ringing)
And what did Trump think of Boris Johnson, until last week the foreign secretary? “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he's got what it takes”.
Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a Trump “baby” balloon floated over London, symbolising a new nadir in Anglo-American ties.
Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, Conservative MPs studied the government's Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had told The Sun. Common rule book? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on disputed points of European law?
And this is just the prime minister's opening pitch. Heaven only knows how many further concessions the European Union's formidable divorce lawyer, Michel Barnier, will demand. When she brings the further-mutilated compromise back to Westminster, these are the options MPs have to choose between: swallow fake Brexit; risk a no-deal hard Brexit; or, call another referendum.
I picked a fine time to become an American.
I was one of 1,094 people of every colour and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. I was not the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. The Chinese were the most numerous group, close to a fifth of the new Americans. Next were the Mexicans (more than 150), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet, it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvellous. The young man to my right was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and initially came to California to work for Nasa.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism? Or more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service?
In fact, the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Filipino.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanisation, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the Constitution, Yankee Doodle and Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land.
The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations – specifically our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the Social Security system.
The ceremony then became more stirring. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”.
Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
And then there he was – eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some – the president himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions. You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life”.
Contrast that with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology…"
The grand finale was God Bless the USA, a bombastic country anthem by Lee Greenwood. It, too, was a call to arms. “And I'm proud to be an American / Where at least I know I'm free / And I won't forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me / And I'd gladly stand up next to you / And defend her still today.”
More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American – because there is no other kind of time.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford