President Trump’s ascent is, in part, an attempt to restore the narrative of Americans who see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants. It’s an attempt that can’t succeed, but we haven’t found a way to correct the story while honoring its full sweep.
“That’s not who we are.” So said President Barack Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.
The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.
This self-undermining flaw makes the trope a useful way to grasp the dilemmas facing Trump’s opponents. In seeking to reject Trump’s chauvinist vision, they end up excluding too much of what a unifying counternarrative would require.
The exclusion happens by omission, in the course of telling a story about America that’s powerful but incomplete. In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.
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Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.
But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built their a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.
As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil-rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”
Then for a variety of reasons — a necessary reckoning with white supremacism, a new and diverse wave of immigration, the pull of a more globalist ethos, the waning of institutional religion — that midcentury story stopped making as much sense. In its place emerged a left-wing narrative that stands in judgment on the racist-misogynist-robber baron past, and a mainstream liberal narrative that has room for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton (as opposed to the slightly more Trumpish genuine article) and Emma Lazarus, but feels unsure about the rest.
But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.
Trump’s ascent is, in part, an attempt to restore their story to pre-eminence. It’s a restoration attempt that can’t succeed, because the country has changed too much, and because that national narrative required correction. The myth of the “Lost Cause” had to die, the reality of racial wrongs required more acknowledgment, the Judeo-Christian center had to make room for a larger plurality of faiths.
But so far we haven’t found a way to correct the story while honoring its full sweep — including all the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance.
Instead liberalism, under pressure from the left, has become steadily more anxious about its political and cultural progenitors, with Woodrow Wilson joining Jackson and Jefferson in the dock. Meanwhile the right’s narrative has become steadily more exclusionary — religious-conservative outreach to Muslims has given way to Islamophobia, racial optimism has been replaced by white resentment.
Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.
But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.