Last weekend I traveled to New York City, staying with my aunt in Brooklyn and spending much of Saturday exploring Manhattan. One of the highlights of my brief trip was a visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which generated much interest when it moved to a new building in May 2015. After experiencing “Laura Poitras: Astro Noise” — an immersive exhibition about the war on terror — and attending a lecture about jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, my aunt and I went downstairs to relax in the lobby. Unsurprisingly for a sunny April afternoon, people of all ages and speaking an array of languages were streaming in and out of the museum, leading my aunt to pose an unexpected question: How many of these visitors are Donald Trump supporters?
My initial guess was that very few, if any, of our fellow museum-goers would fall into that category. In general, I don’t envision those who subscribe to Trump’s message and candidacy as very eager to frequent a place like the Whitney (aren’t museums part of the liberal agenda?), especially in a city as solidly Democratic as New York. In fact, Manhattan was the only county in the entire state of New York not to vote for Trump in Tuesday’s Republican primary, choosing instead the supposedly moderate John Kasich. The raw numbers reveal just how sickly Republican support is in the Big Apple: The three Republican candidates received fewer than 25,000 votes combined in Manhattan, while Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, won more than 10 times as much support in the borough.
The primaries that took place in New York last week were remarkable in that three of the five candidates could claim home advantage: Trump was born in Queens and lives in Manhattan, Sanders was born in Brooklyn and Clinton lives in Westchester County and served as U.S. Senator from New York for eight years. Each of these candidates used the opportunity to frame the city as a prism through which to view the country and their unique visions for it. On the other hand, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, barely showed his face in New York, hosting an astoundingly lackluster event in the Bronx and suffering the consequences of a comment he made earlier in the campaign critical of “New York values” in comparison to those of the American heartland.
Cruz’s comment implies a certain definition of “New York values” that places them in sharp contrast with “American values.” While the former might include brusqueness, a fondness for big government and a penchant for bagels, the latter must encompass strict adherence to the Second Amendment, religious liberty for Christians and a desire to “carpet bomb” enemies of the United States. (A darker interpretation is that “New York values” is an example of thinly veiled anti-Semitism.) Of course, these categories are arbitrary and devoid of any fixed meaning — they are myths that the candidates can deploy to advance their campaigns according to the direction of the political winds in any given week.
Rather than abandoning these concepts, though, I would argue that New York values and American values are far more similar than they are different. From the time of Ellis Island, New York City has represented the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants who have irreversibly shaped the face of the country. (Cruz himself, born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father, has an American story deeply colored by immigration.) Thanks in part to its history of immigration, New York is incredibly diverse in racial, ethnic and linguistic terms — its residents speak 800 different languages. That vibrancy makes the city, in my eyes, the epitome of an American value system that embraces all races and cultures and celebrates differences while working to create a tighter social fabric.
This prioritization of diversity as a vehicle to a stronger society is far from original and may be perceived as naive: New York, like the rest of the country, is troubled by a laundry list of very serious problems rooted in intense income inequality and segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. What good is diversity if it only lifts up the privileged few? In my opinion, though, in a country as complex as the United States (unlike the relatively homogeneous “utopia” of Scandinavia), the recognition and appreciation of difference is a necessary first step in the process of unification. In the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan and while walking on the High Line, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that millions of people of all backgrounds and identities are literally living on top of one another in this most dense and populous of American cities. Rather than isolating themselves in gated communities and secluded towns, New Yorkers have chosen to reside among people who don’t look or live like them to (hopefully) learn something from their neighbors.
In reflecting further upon my aunt’s question at the Whitney, I feel more strongly convinced of the incompatibility between the worldview of division, deportation and isolation espoused by Trump and Cruz and the very existence of a multicultural city like New York. This is not to say that New York is perfect, though I often believe it is after visiting: The politicians who hold it up as a model of diversity must put their money where their mouths are in responding to the needs of marginalized communities affected by inequality, racism and segregation. Ultimately, though, my weekend in New York gave me a dose of optimism for the future of the country beyond this tragically divisive election. By leaning on — not denying, not fleeing — the diversity that sits at the core of a certain definition of American values, we can move forward rather than tumble backward.