Last Saturday, Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live amid protests from a number of groups that wondered why a man who claims Mexican immigrants are largely rapists and drug dealers should be front and center in one of the country's most influential and longstanding cultural productions. It is well known by now that in addition to such claims about Mexican immigrants, Trump asserts that if elected he will build a wall on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and repatriate roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants even if it means tearing apart families (something that would take approximately five years and billions of dollars). When Governor Kasich criticized such a plan in Tuesday's Republican debate, Trump pointed to the precedent set by Dwight Eisenhower's "Project Wetback," a program that led U.S. agents to remove 100,000s of aliens from the United States and drop them on the other side of the border without food, shelter, or funds. Such removals not only disregarded the civil rights of the aliens and broke apart families, but also led to dozens of deaths of individuals abandoned by U.S. agents in the Mexican desert. When asked in a 60 Minutes interview about civil rights, Trump responded: "There's also something called, 'We have a country.'"
Trump's SNL appearance took place days before the Broadway debut of George Takei's play Allegiance, which uses the backdrop of Japanese internment during World War II to explore the themes of family, loyalty, and identity. On the surface, Allegiance is the legacy project of an actor and activist who has carried on an idiosyncratic career after playing the role of Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. Takei's seemingly omnipresent presence on Facebook and activism for marriage equality have made the 78-year-old unexpectedly popular among Gen-Xers and Millennials who have little clue that he once supported Captain Kirk and Spock on the Starship Enterprise. Overall, we might admire Allegiance as one more example of a welcome trend of Asian American representation on stage and screen, including shows such as Fresh Off the Boat and Aziz Ansari's new, superb Master of None. If Fresh off the Boat was the first major television show in decades to foreground Asian Americans, Allegiance represents the first time Japanese-American internment during WWII has appeared in a mainstream American production. In light of the obscurity of Japanese internment and the xenophobic rhetoric upon which Trump has founded his presidential campaign, the play has a timely significance.
Unfortunately, many Americans still don't know the story of Japanese internment. In the months following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 112,000 Japanese-Americans in "concentration" camps. People who had worked for decades to build a life in America were given days to gather whatever they could carry in preparation to leave their homes for government-run camps where soldiers and barbed wire kept them guard.
During the lead up to internment, the Mayor of Los Angeles, U.S. senators, and President Roosevelt himself openly wondered if the U.S. could trust their loyalty even though they never levelled such suspicions toward Italian- or German-Americans. General John Dewitt, commander of the West Coast forces, famously stated that there was "no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation... though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes." Political leaders such as the Fletcher Bowron, Mayor of Los Angeles, and California Attorney General Earl Warren (later governor of California and leader of the "Warren Court") fueled the extant nativism of white Americans who had blamed Japanese laborers for a lack of jobs and reductions in profits for decades. The attack on Pearl Harbor provided the forceful impetus for political leaders to play into these fears despite any evidence of espionage or sabotage on the part of Japanese-Americans. Although several reports on the West Coast Japanese and the Japanese in Hawaii found that there was no serious threat of revolt or coordinated espionage, the popular xenophobia, fueled by political and public leaders, led Roosevelt to make the decision to intern 112,000 people, 80 percent of whom were American citizens.
All the while, Japanese-American representation in the U.S. military was per capita the highest of any group. When the War was finished, the 100th Battalion/442nd Regiment would become the most awarded American outfit for its size and length of service in the history of the American military, despite the fact that many of its members families had been forcefully evacuated from their homes in an egregious affront to the Constitution. If they stayed home, they would have been imprisoned in order to defend other Americans from them. Once they left home, these men sacrificed as much as anyone to defend all Americans.
Mr. Takei was one of those imprisoned. When he was five years old, his family was moved first to a makeshift quarters in the horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles, then transferred to Rowher Arkansas, before finishing their internment at Tule Lake in northern California. Allegiance is a reflection on the tests of loyalty, identity, and faith interned Americans faced during their three years in camp. As such, the play is the legacy project of an American who experienced what happens when America succumbs to the type of rhetoric Mr. Trump is using in an attempt to get elected.
Above all, Allegiance testifies to the fact that we have already built walls -- walls around immigrants and citizens whose only crime was the fear of fellow Americans -- and with tragic consequences. We have criminalized loyal and hard-working Americans, putting them behind bars in order to appease xenophobic hysteria rather than uphold the promises of freedom and hope that are meant to characterize the American ethos. In the process, we have ignored evidence, broken faith in our neighbors and communities, and allowed those who espouse such rhetoric to be our leaders. If its Broadway debut reminds us of how much can change in half a century, it also testifies to the dangers of allowing racist and xenophobic rhetoric to take hold in the American political and cultural landscapes. In this sense, Allegiance is not a call to boldly go where no one has gone before, but a call not to go back to a place -- a dark place -- we have certainly already been.