Donald Trump’s central campaign thesis is that America is in steep decline – that its citizens should be fearful of crime and terrorism until he can build a wall on the southern border, impose a religious test on immigrants and stand up for police officers. At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he tried to win support in his prime-time speech by claiming that as President Obama’s tenure ends, “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims.”
For conservatives, the last golden age in American politics began in 1980, when Ronald Reagan took office. He declared it “morning in America” and left office so well-liked that his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was able to keep the White House in Republican hands for another four years.
But think back to the end of “morning.”
Abroad, American soldiers were fighting in Iraq. And at home, especially here in Los Angeles, our communities were in actual chaos. In the spring of 1991, a man with a video camera caught LAPD officers brutally beating Rodney King. A year later, after a jury failed to convict the police officers involved, the city erupted in riots. Charred palm trees dotted the landscape. Racial tensions ran high, not just between black and white, but among African Americans, Latinos and Korean Americans. Every group was angry and afraid.
And that was fairly rational.
In 1992, 9 million people lived in L.A. County and there were 2,589 murders. If there was ever a moment to wonder if a diverse city could thrive, if its groups could coexist, that was it.
After listening in Cleveland to dire portraits of an America made terrifying by immigrants, my personal reality check could not have been more stark.
Today more than 10 million people live in L.A. County, and in the last 12 months, there were only about 650 people killed in L.A. In my youth, that figure would have been cause for ecstatic celebration; now it’s the norm. But L.A. isn’t only bigger, it’s also more diverse. According to 2015 census figures, it’s home to around 1 million black people and the nation’s largest population of Latinos, Asians and American Indians. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates that there are roughly 500,000 Muslims in the wider region.
Of course, those statistics don’t capture what it’s like to live here day-to-day.
After listening in Cleveland to dire portraits of an America made terrifying by immigrants, my personal reality check could not have been more stark. My plane touched down at LAX and I promptly hopped in a cab with a friendly Muslim man who drove me home. Then I lit out for my favorite Mexican taco truck. The next morning, I chatted at a Venice coffee shop with these fellow patrons: a Salvadoran immigrant from a Catholic family, a woman who converted to Judaism and a Buddhist. The next day I patronized businesses owned by people of Korean, Thai and Italian heritage. What would sound, in a former era, like the setup to an ethnic joke is now routine in Southern California.
“I’m just your average Mexican American Jewish Italian,” L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti said at the Democratic National Convention. “America works best when every strand is woven into our national fabric.”
Neither he nor I mean to imply that there is no trouble in paradise. As Randy Newman, our region’s most incisive satirist, has suggested, our mountain views and palm-tree lined boulevards shouldn’t blind us to the homeless folks camped out on the streets. Terrorism may well represent a bigger threat today than it once did. Then again, in 1999 a white supremacist sprayed 70 rounds into a Jewish community center in Granada Hills — it was a miracle that no one died — then murdered a postal worker because he thought he was Latino or Asian. (He was Filipino American.)
Still, if diversity has, in other times and places, coincided with balkanization or even sectarian violence and war, L.A. is proof that we can all, more or less, get along. The city’s thriving relative not just to earlier incarnations of itself, but to most places around the country, past and present. To live here is to see that for all the problems we have to solve, Trump is badly out of touch. You can bet he’ll lose Los Angeles by a historic margin.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.
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