America used to be the world's last safe refuge. Trump changed that

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Story highlights

  • Maltby: Unlike Trump, Reagan recognized that American democracy manifested greatest in the beacon that it shone to the rest of us
  • If Trump wins or loses on Tuesday, he has already achieved irreparable damage to America's standing across the globe

Kate Maltby is a theater critic for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)My family has been indulging in memories lately.

Not everyone gets invited to a 95th birthday party; nor are most such occasions, I suspect, as invigorating as the celebration I recently attended for my grandfather's boisterous cousin Marianne.
    Marianne is one of life's great survivors -- she's had to be. In a rare somber moment at our gathering, her sister recounted the night that her family fled its native Hungary, scrambling through the woodland border with Austria to escape the brutal repressions that followed a failed nationalist uprising in 1956.
    Her nephew, then a small child, still remembers crawling on his hands and knees through the darkness, Russian searchlights circling overhead.
    This week, as the world fixes its eyes on American democracy, Hungarians will be remembering that civic freedom, once lost, is not easily regained.
    It is 60 years since street protests in Budapest blossomed into a fleeting, 10-day government of independence. A newly emboldened prime minister announced free elections and Hungary's departure from the Warsaw Pact, the military treaty entrenching Soviet dominance over the Eastern Bloc.
    But on November 4, Soviet tanks once again invaded Budapest. By November 11, the last pockets of armed resistance had been gunned down. Reprisals began. As many as 200,000 Hungarians, my cousins among them, became refugees.
    The quest for safe refuge wasn't new. Marianne set a course for London because my mother's father, her cousin and the close companion of her youth, had already settled here. Over the 20 years preceding, most of the family had already left Hungary, some fleeing Nazism; others communism. Half of my mother's family fled to America, others to Switzerland and Britain. Europe continued to lurch between political extremes. Those in America always felt a little bit safer.
    Ten years ago, as a British student at Yale, I heard a fellow young conservative recite Ronald Reagan's great 1964 campaign speech for Barry Goldwater, "A Time For Choosing." For Reagan, freedom in America was threatened by "a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital," a line which wouldn't be out of place from his nominally Republican successor, Donald Trump.
    But unlike Trump, Reagan also recognized that American democracy manifested greatest in the beacon that it shone to the rest of us.
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    In this famous speech, Reagan repeats the words of a refugee from communism -- a Cuban, in this case, but he could easily have substituted a Hungarian. "I had someplace to escape to," the Cuban reminds Americans. Reagan continued: "If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This the last stand on earth."
    I have always known America as my last safe haven. Were Europe ever to be plunged into darkness, I could pack my bag as my forebears did before me, and make that final flight.
    I don't need to book passage just yet, though the rise of populism in Europe is worrisome. As Mr. Trump likes to remind us, Europe is no longer stable and life feels just that little bit more insecure.
    In France, the twin extremes of Islamist apologism and fascist reaction grow ever more intertwined, like thorny weeds in a Grimm fairytale.
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    In Britain, it's hard not to be unnerved by the fratricidal discord unleashed by the recent Brexit referendum. It is only a few months since a young female Member of Parliament was gunned down at the height of the referendum campaign.
    Racist attacks are on the rise in Britain, and major tabloid newspapers have taken to harassing senior judges. (Three who ruled against the constitutional standing of the Brexit referendum this week have been labeled by the Daily Mail as "ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE"). But America stands on the brink of electing a man who has been endorsed by the KKK; who has implied a judge of Hispanic origin should be disqualified from the bench.
    Trump has threatened to jail Hillary Clinton, should he defeat her -- and worse. At a recent Trump rally, shouts of "lock her up" escalated into "execute her."
    European Jews feel particularly unnerved. No other minority has so depended on the prospect of America. And anti-semitism is back on the rise in Europe -- I've written about it, anxiously, myself. But journalists critiquing UK politicians don't receive images of themselves in the striped uniforms of Auschwitz inmates. Glimpse at Trump's support base, and no European Jew can any longer count America a safe refuge. That is the alt right's victory.

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    If Trump wins or loses on Tuesday, he has already achieved irreparable damage to America's standing across the globe. Many Americans know that, intellectually; what they may not feel, as we friends of America feel viscerally, is that America no longer offers hope.
    When I see Trump justify torture; impugn judges; advocate civil unrest, I don't see the ideal democracy that promised to keep the flame alive. In him, I see the petty dictators my grandparents ran from in Europe. Unlike them, I have no last stand on earth. The city on the hill has fallen.