8 March 2017

Donald Trump and the meaning of America


Beneath the cartoonish histrionics, Donald Trump’s presidency already matters. Indeed, it is the mirror image of his predecessor’s, the second part of a drama entitled “What does being American mean?”

Barack Obama offered one, impeccably liberal, answer to that question; Donald Trump offers another. One that is visceral, not intellectual; nativist, not universal. This is the real struggle at the heart of Trump’s presidency – and it is one that will have spillover effects elsewhere, not least in the United Kingdom.

Beneath the bluster of “Make America Great Again” – that being but a muscular riff on a tried-and-tested campaign formula – there lies something vastly more essential. It is the idea that, as Steve Bannon, Trump’s most interesting adviser, has put it, the United States is “a nation with a culture”, and a very particular culture at that: initially Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, now more generally Judeo-Christian.

The contrary, and currently more fashionable, view is that the United States is made by its diversity. Indeed, that the journey towards “a more perfect Union” is impossible unless that diversity is embraced and then celebrated.

This is a valuable notion, not least because it allows for a retrospective, if ashen-faced, tolerance for the republic’s past sins. Indeed, the greater the sin, the vaster the achievement of conquering it becomes. The idea of America had to evolve, lest the contradictions between the republic’s universal rhetoric and the reality of its experience proved insupportable.

Westward expansion might have been a matter of manifest destiny, but it was achieved at great, brutal and heavy cost. If the miseries inflicted upon the Native Americans were measured by a trail of tears, they were as nothing compared to the injustices forced upon African-Americans.

This, more than anything else, was the republic’s original sin, the stain from which – according to one view of American history – it has spent two centuries recovering. Overcoming that sin is an affirming act itself. Indeed, “We shall overcome”, the great mantra of the Civil Rights movement, remains the guiding principle for much of American liberalism today.

This is one idea of America and one that it has exported to other parts of at least the English-speaking world. Canada and Australia share elements of it, and so does Britain. Modern British liberalism, like its Canadian and Australian counterparts, increasingly asserts that strength comes through diversity – even if, sometimes, unity does not.

Barack Obama customarily suggested any outbreak of racial revanchism or populist demagoguery was a betrayal of the great American idea. “This is not who we are” he’d say, though it was – and is – plainly who many Americans are. And have always been. In like fashion, there remains a tension in Britain between those who see Britishness as a baggy, all-encompassing ideal and those who consider it something very much more particular.

So Trump’s victory represents something more than just a fresh outbreak in America’s seemingly endless culture wars. It is a distillation, or concentration, of them, cutting to the foundational questions of what it means to be an American. Is the United States an idea or a people?

The answer, surely, is “both”. It is an idea then given flesh by people. At different points in American history, however, the universalism of the idea has been privileged over the particularism of the people who built and maintained that idea. There have always been two Americas and the battle over the nation’s soul is no exception to that.

A new AP-NORC poll confirms this. Americans without a college degree are twice as likely to think America a place with a culture rooted in Christian beliefs and are significantly more likely to think of the United States as a culture established by early European immigrants.

Only half of non-college-educated Americans think the “ability of people to come from other places in the world to find economic opportunities” is a “key” part of American identity. Two thirds of college-educated Americans believe that to be the case.

Filter the findings through party affiliation and the results are just as stark. Two thirds of Democrats believe there is something intrinsically American about a “mixing of cultures and values from around the world”; only one in three Republicans agrees.

Trump’s victory is likely to have an impact on both views. He stands for a particular view of American exceptionalism, one rooted in the people, not the idea. So it is no surprise to find Republicans tending towards that view, and Democrats recoiling from it.

It’s important to remember here that the “melting pot” was never an idea greeted with universal enthusiasm. Anti-immigrant sentiment was a notable feature of American discourse through most of the 19th century and then again after the First World War.

At any rate, there was a contrast to be drawn between virtuous ethnicity – Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – and more problematic new arrivals – Irish, Italian and Roman Catholic. These, or at least the thought there’d be too many of them, challenged the republic’s burgeoning idea of itself. Bring me your poor and huddled masses, but only in moderation. And even then, preferably only if they are arriving from Europe.

Gaining a foothold – in Boston or New York or Milwaukee or wherever else – took time. You do not need to delve far back into the history of Italian-Americans to realise that it only recently became acceptable for people whose surnames ended in vowels to attend Harvard or Yale. Nor was this a purely East Coast phenomenon. When Lyndon Johnson was growing up in the Texas hill country, there were still towns in which most public business was done in German, not English.

More generally, there is a constituency – amounting to around seven per cent of the population – who reject the idea of hyphenated-Americanism of the sort that has become a dominant part of modern American culture. These people, according to census records, are the people who when asked their ethnicity respond “American”. No hyphen. They are disproportionately white and disproportionately clustered in greater Appalachia.

These are the people who in 2008 preferred Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and then, in 2016, preferred Donald Trump to Clinton. The hillbillies who have, again disproportionately, fought America’s wars and believe America is changing too fast and too greatly, leaving it unrecognisable from the place they reckoned it once was and should be again.

Obama’s election was supposed to herald a new age of reconciliation. By electing a black president, America would draw some kind of line under its history. Henceforth, it would be easier. That was the story America told itself and the world; the reality proved rather more complicated.

A single man, no matter how symbolic, proved too flimsy a vessel for that kind of national-historic accountancy. There would be no tidying-up, no drawing of a line. No final resolution.

It cannot be coincidental that Trump arrived on the national stage on the back of nativist suspicion. The “Birther” movement helped create Trump and was in turn shaped by him. That was his political ground zero; everything else has stemmed from that.

Bannon’s American nationalism is neither new nor surprising. It has always been there, even if the “official” culture has long sought to suppress it. It was there with Nixon and there with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Economic anxiety coupled with racial resentment at the thought some Americans – some new and different kind of hyphenated-Americans – are getting an undeserved privileged status has always been a potent combination.

Hence the travel ban. An important signal, not because it can or will achieve much but because it demonstrates the end of one thing and the reassertion of an older, nativist privilege. The idea that America is a people more than an idea. Or rather that the idea is dependent on, and perhaps only wholly accessible to, some Americans. The others will have to wait in line and earn their place at the table. No Muslims here, for Muslims cannot be properly American.

In short, even if he goes on to achieve little of real legislative substance (an assumption that should not be made too readily, by the way), Trump’s presidency is already one of real significance. Because his administration is an argument over what it means to be American. Keeping the American idea alive, at least as it has been understood in recent decades, has become something else as well: keeping faith with a particular notion of what America can, should and even must be.

Alex Massie is a political commentator