Donald Trump has made a lot of enemies.
Many have been expected foes: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, 90 percent of the media, half the country. But Trump has also emboldened a motley crew of characters criticizing his bad behavior and absurd executive orders: Senator John McCain, the Pope, Glenn Beck, NBA MVP Steph Curry—and Star Trek star George Takei.
Back when Takei’s Hikaru Sulu helmed the original USS Enterprise in the ’60s, it would have been strange to see the actor as a leading voice of the resistance, in love beads and sandals, arm-in-arm with Abbie Hoffman and Joan Baez shouting down Richard Nixon. Takei has always been politically active, though: He volunteered on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns in the ’50s, manning phones and handing out leaflets on street corners. It has only been in the last decade, however, that he has become a progressive icon working to educate Americans about the vulnerability of our system.
“I am a political activist and at the same time I am very proud of the fact that we live in a democracy,” he said recently from his home in Southern California. “I want people to understand how important this democracy is and how fragile it is, and I want people to fight for it right now.”
He also has a simple, clear message for fellow celebrities and citizens: “We all have a responsibility as good American citizens to speak out. To not speak out is cowardice.”
While the man who originated the role of Sulu is always happy to gab with Trekkies—and has recently presented a few showings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn around the country—he feels he is finally doing what he was put on this earth to do.
“I have realized my life’s mission is raising awareness about the story of the internment of Japanese American during the Second World War,” he said. “The story of parents, of my family. And making certain we don’t repeat this history.”
Takei was just five years old when the U.S. Army shipped his family from their native home of California to an internment camp in rural Arkansas. His family’s tale was inspiration for the Broadway musical Allegiance, in which Takei starred. While Allegiance only had a four-month run that ended a year ago, it found a successful second life when Fathom Events screened the production on December 13th in 600 theaters in America and Canada, a country which also imprisoned its citizens of Japanese heritage. The event broke Fathom records for similar screenings, bringing in over $1 million in box office receipts.
Thanks to the success, Allegiance returns for an encore showing on February 19th. The date coincides with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began forced relocation and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, and has been dubbed the Day of Remembrance.
For those unfamiliar with the impact of President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order, Takei is happy to offer a quick history lesson.
“Almost overnight, because Pearl Harbor was bombed by people that looked like us, Japanese Americans were seen as enemies,” he explained. “The politicians got swept up in war hysteria and the President’s order put us into the barbed wire prison camps. We were Americans, but it didn’t matter.”
Because Takei was only five, he doesn’t have many memories of life in the camp, but the experience and its impact shaped his life. It planted the seed of his activism. It also confused him: If democracy was the ideal government, how could it inflict such horrors on people?
“What I came to understand was that my father bore the burden of it all, the anger and loss and degradation of the interment,” he said. “When I was a teenager I had many, many discussions with my father after dinner. I was reading civics and history books then, and I couldn’t reconcile what I read and what I had experienced in childhood. We were innocent American citizens. My parents were born in the U.S., my mother was from Sacramento, my father was from San Francisco, and they met and married in Los Angeles. None of it seemed to make sense.”
Takei’s father clarified that the U.S. democracy was a people’s democracy, and people have the capacity to do great and terrible things. He turned his son’s eyes to the founding fathers, specifically George Washington. He pointed out these great men who built the country, battled for liberty and also kept slaves.
“My father taught me that men are fallible,” he remembered. “This means that our democracy is vitally dependent, existentially dependent, on people who actively work to keep the system alive.”
And so we come to Trump and the resistance people like Takei are leading against him.
The idea of a Muslim ban offends Takei morally, but for him the odious suggestion that a certain religion or race would be targeted as enemies of the state hits him at an even deeper level. As he prepares to present another showing of his play about his internment, the highest levels of government work to limit the rights of already imperiled American minorities.
“When I heard [Trump supporter and conservative writer] Carl Higbie was caught talking about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans as precedent for a Muslim registry, I spoke out immediately,” he said. “I have frequently talked with Muslim American communities about this very issue. I spoke at the gala dinner of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and related my story of child imprisonment to them to let them know that this is how it started for us.”
“Back then they called it a data base,” Takei continued with a dark little laugh. “They found out where we lived, what we did for a living, how many were in our family. After that, they came down with a curfew where we had to be home between 7 pm and 6 am so we were first prisoners in our homes. Then we found out our bank accounts were frozen and we were financially paralyzed. After that the soldiers came for us.”
Despite Trump’s successes and the GOP’s control of Congress, Takei believes all of this is only a bump in the road to a more open and tolerant America. Sometimes his view seems impossible to get behind, but Takei has lived through plenty of radical changes and he’s a big fan of the whole “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” thing.
Born in 1937, Takei grew up in an America where being a homosexual was an abomination and being Asian wasn’t much better. Yet the young actor found in Star Trek one of the most progressive television programs of the time. While it’s a matter of debate among TV nerds, many believe the show gave us the first interracial kiss. Whether or not this is true, Star Trek championed racial diversity and equality in a country reeling from a failing war, divisive and violent Civil Rights Movement, and fears of atomic annihilation at the hands of the U.S.S.R and red China.
“The show dealt with it all,” Takei said. “It represented progress in America on many fronts.”
After breaking racial barriers, Takei became a LGBTQ icon. In 2005, already in his 60s, he revealed he was gay and had been with partner Brad Altman for nearly two decades. In 2008, Takei and Altman became the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in West Hollywood, and a year later they were married at the Democracy Forum of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
You might assume Takei is tired of fighting? He’s not, and he doesn’t want you to be. He sees the current spirit of dissent growing with each radical move Trump makes.
“If anything, he’s galvanizing the American people into a resistance,” he said. “The man knows nothing and covers up that ignorance by bragging he knows more than anyone. He is devoid of information. It’s chilling and it’s frightening and it’s galvanizing an opposition, which will come to include Republicans. He’ll put a noose around his own presidency.”
Takei has spoken in forums about not losing LGBTQ rights. He has encouraged (as of this writing) over 310,000 people to sign his petition pledging support for America’s Muslim community. He has spearheaded battles against Steven Bannon, Betsy DeVos and Kellyanne Conway in tweets to his 2.2 million followers.
Through it all, he has maintained his sense of humor. Takei has become a major force on Twitter, but Facebook is where he is a true giant. To his more than 10 million friends, he serves up a daily dose of politics, as well as viral cat videos and truly awful puns. So how does a guy who is intensely critical of a White House looking to undertake mass deportations and surveil mosques manage to still post memes with heart-shaped cat turds?
“To be positive is to start to succeed,” he answered.
Again, it comes back to his family.
“My parents went through a hellish experience during the Second World War,” he concluded. “We were moved from California to the swamps of Arkansas and my mother took local plants to make that drab barracks a little bit prettier, a little bit nicer. My father was a block manager because he spoke both English and Japanese fluently. He organized a baseball team in the camp. He got the camp command to allow teenagers to have dances in the mess hall after dinner. He got them to screen old Hollywood movies after dinner.”
Perhaps this is his clearest message: “The way to survive isn’t to wallow in the misery, it’s to find joy in life, to find beauty. You work for justice and find joy at the same time.”
Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Columbia Journalism Review, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.