So apparently President Donald Trump wants to make this an election about what it means to be American. He’s got his vision of what it means to be American, and he’s challenging the rest of us to come up with a better one.
In Trump’s version, American is defined by three propositions. First, to be American is to be xenophobic. The basic narrative he tells is that the good people of the heartland are under assault from aliens, elitists and outsiders. Second, to be American is to be nostalgic. America’s values were better during some golden past. Third, a true American is white. White Protestants created this country; everybody else is here on their sufferance.
When you look at Trump’s American idea, you realize that it contradicts the traditional American idea in every particular. In fact, Trump’s national story is much closer to the Russian national story than it is toward our own. It’s an alien ideology he’s trying to plant on our soil.
Trump’s vision is radically anti-American.
The real American idea is not xenophobic, nostalgic or racist; it is pluralistic, future-oriented and universal. America is exceptional precisely because it is the only nation on Earth that defines itself by its future, not its past. America is exceptional because from the first its citizens saw themselves in a project that would have implications for all humankind. America is exceptional because it was launched with a dream to take the diverse many and make them one — e pluribus unum.
The Puritans settled this continent with visions of creating a future city on a hill. They had an eschatological dreams of completing God’s plan for this Earth. By the time of the revolution it was well understood that America was the land of futurity, the vanguard nation that would lead all of humanity to a dignified and democratic future.
“I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder,” John Adams declared, “as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”
American life is so raucous and dynamic because people are inflamed by visions of creating a heaven on Earth. As George Santayana put it, Americans often don’t make a distinction between the sacred and the profane. In building material wealth, they see themselves creating a country that will redeem humanity, that will become the last best hope of Earth.
This sense of mission has often made Americans arrogant, and somewhat dangerous to be around. But it has also made us anxious. The country was built amid a wail of jeremiads: Providence assigned us a mission to serve the whole planet, but we, in our greed and sin, are blowing it! “Ah my country!” Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented, “In thee is the reasonable hope of mankind not fulfilled.”
But the American mission survived its failures. Herman Melville summarized the ethos in his novel “White Jacket”: “God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. … We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path.”
Again and again, Americans have felt called upon to launch off into new frontiers — to design a democracy, to create a new kind of democratic person, to settle the West, to industrialize, to pioneer new technologies, to explore space, to combat prejudice, to fight totalitarianism and spread democracy. The mission was always the same: to leap into the future, to give life meaning and shape by extending opportunity and dignity to all races and nations.
This American idea is not a resentful prejudice; it’s a faith and a dream. The historian Sacvan Bercovitch put it best: “Only ‘America,’ of all national designations, took on the combined force of eschatology and chauvinism. Many forms of nationalism have laid claims to a world-redeeming promise; many Christian sects have sought, in open or secret heresy, to find the sacred in the profane; many European Protestants have linked the soul’s journey and the way to wealth.
“But only the ‘American Way,’ of all modern symbologies, has managed to circumvent the contradictions inherent in these approaches. Of all symbols of identity, only ‘American’ has succeeded in uniting nationality with universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, sacred and secular history, the country’s past and the paradise to be, in a single transcendent ideal.”
Trump’s campaign is an attack on that dream. The right response is to double down on that ideal. The task before us is to create the most diverse mass democracy in the history of the planet — a true universal nation. It is precisely to weave the social fissures that Trump is inclined to tear.
Americans have always been divided in where they came from, but united in their vision of their common future. They’ve been bonded by the vision of creating a pluralistic home in which everybody can belong and be seen. Or as Langston Hughes wrote: “America never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath / America will be!”