What Was 2016 About? Who We Are and What Values We Cherish.
tags: 2016 election,Donald Trump
Mark Byrnes is professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
Not all presidential elections are created equal. Every election is a choice, of course, but the choices are not equally consequential. In some cases, the country seems largely set on what to do, and is debating little more than how to do it (Kennedy-Nixon in 1960). In others, there are more substantial questions of what we as a nation should do (Reagan-Carter in 1980). The most consequential ones, however, come down to the question of who we are as a people, how we define America as a state.
I would argue that 2016 was the last of these.
It was so because Donald Trump made it so.
The 2008 campaign easily could have been one of those, with the Democrats choosing the first African-American major party nominee, with all that choice symbolized about what kind of country this is. While there were certainly moments in the campaign that threatened to veer in that direction, the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, stopped his campaign from exploiting that approach. When a woman at one of his town hall meetings said she thought Obama was “an Arab,” McCain stopped her: “No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab].” McCain was given the chance to make it a campaign that said I am one of “us” and he is one of “them,” and he insisted it should instead be a campaign about issues.
Those two words—“No, ma’am”—made clear that McCain was determined not to take the low road. He would talk about what we should do, not who we are. He would say “no” to his supporters when they went down that other road. They are also the words Donald Trump never uttered in his campaign rallies, no matter what vile shouts his deliberate rabble-rousing provoked.
Long before he became a candidate, Trump took the low road by becoming the most famous “birther” in America, again and again claiming that he was finding proof that Barack Obama was not born in the US, asserting that Obama was secretly some non-American “other.” What McCain disavowed, Trump took up—with glee. McCain thought there were things more important than winning, an attitude Trump clearly views with utter disdain. To Trump, decency is for losers.
Trump’s birtherism was more than just a way to attract attention (though that may have been its chief attraction for him personally). It was in practice an attempt to repudiate the vision of America that Obama’s presidency represented, an America that defines itself by core beliefs that are available to all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion—rather than by an immutable national type of person.
It is no coincidence that Trump then literally began his campaign by demonizing Mexicans as criminals and rapists. His opening salvo against Mexicans set the tone that he never abandoned: these “other” people are different, they are not good, they do not belong here, they are not “us.” His attack on Judge Curiel demonstrated this perfectly. He said the judge could not be fair to him in the Trump University case because “he’s Mexican.” The fact that the judge was born and raised in the United States did not matter to Trump. “He’s Mexican. I’m building a wall.” For Trump, Curiel’s ethnic heritage was who he was. His birthplace, his profession, his devotion to the law and the Constitution were all irrelevant to Trump. The judge’s identity was his ethnicity, and it was Mexican, not American.
He added to the ethnic dimension a religious one by calling for a ban on Muslims coming into the US. He did not call for a ban on extremists or terrorists. He called for a ban on everyone who adhered to a specific religion. He told CNN: “I think Islam hates us.” Not some Muslims, not even some people from some countries that are predominantly Muslim. “Islam hates us,” he said—ignoring the many American Muslims who are “us.” What that lays bare is that for Trump, Muslims are not “us.” For Trump, they may be here, but they don’t really belong here, because they are not really of “us.”
His positions and policies (and the rhetoric he used to promote them) made it clear that his slogan—“Make America Great Again”—meant that the US should be defined in racial, ethnic, and religious terms: as a predominantly white, Christian country again. His unabashed bigotry throughout his campaign challenged every American to decide: is this who we are? Is America defined by racial, ethnic, and religious traits or is it not?
As I see it, there have long been two competing visions of what the United States is: a country based on an idea or a nation like all the others.
The first argues that the United States is not any particular ethnicity, language, culture, or religion—some of the traits that usually comprise a “nation.” Instead, the United States is fundamentally an idea, one whose basic tenets were argued in the Declaration of Independence and given practical application in the Constitution. At its core, America is the embodiment of the liberalism that emerged from the Enlightenment, which took as a self-evident truth that all people are equal, that all people are fundamentally the same, no matter where they live. They all have basic rights as humans, rights that no government can grant or deny, but only respect or violate. Because this fundamental liberal idea erased the traditional lines that divided people based on race, ethnicity, or religion, it was a “universalist” (or, to use a common term of derision among Trump supporters, “globalist”) concept. It was open to everyone, everywhere. By extension, the American idea (and America itself) was open to everyone, everywhere.
Unlike the situation in other “nations,” since America was an idea, one could become an American by learning about and devoting oneself to that idea. This fact is embodied today in the citizenship test given to those wishing to become Americans: it is a civics test, with questions about American history and government. The final step is taking an oath of allegiance, in which one pledges to support and defend not the “homeland” but the Constitution. The oath is not to territory or blood, but to what we believe and how we do things: to become an American means to believe in certain ideas and commit to living by them.
The other concept of the state is older and more traditional. The United States is a territory, a piece of land. It is also a particular group of people with unique, identifiable national traits that set them apart from others. Trump’s constant refrain about “the wall” perfectly captures this sense of territory in concrete terms. He says that the borders are absolutely essential to defining the nation: “A nation without borders is not a nation at all.” After the Orlando shooting, Trump tied the idea of the nation explicitly to immigration. Eliding the fact that the killer himself was born in the US, he noted that his parents were immigrants and said: “If we don't get tough and if we don't get smart, and fast, we're not going to have our country anymore. There will be nothing, absolutely nothing left.” Immigrants, he suggested, will destroy the country.
This is why the border must be, in his words, “strong” or “secure.” Keeping “our” country means keeping the wrong people out. Otherwise there will be “people who don’t belong here.” While in theory this could be merely about a given immigrant’s legal status, Trump’s rhetoric and proposals give the lie to that—the Orlando killer’s parents were not “illegal” after all, but they were Afghans and Muslims. The wall won’t be on the border with Canada, either. He singles out Mexicans and Muslims, which has the effect of defining who exactly the people who do “belong here” are—those who are white and Christian. Trump’s nonsensical promise that “we are going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again” signals that he will make America Christian again. He told Tony Perkins: “I see more and more, especially, in particular, Christianity, Christians, their power is being taken away.” The passive voice masks who precisely is doing the taking away, but it is not hard to imagine who he means: it must be non-Christians, maybe secularists, maybe Muslims. Either way, “them,” and not “us.” (It is also noteworthy that he says Christians had “power”—which suggests a previous supremacy that’s been lost.)
By striking these themes, Trump has appealed to this traditional, more tribal concept of what America is, or should be: not an idea based on universal principles, but a state rooted in a particular place and with a specific, dominant identity comprised of racial, ethnic, and religious traits that should never change.
The irony is that in doing so, Trump is effectively saying the United States is not really distinctive, at least not in the way it usually thinks of itself. It is a nation like all other nations. Trump has, in fact, explicitly rejected American exceptionalism: “I don't think it's a very nice term. We're exceptional; you're not…. I don't want to say, ‘We're exceptional. We're more exceptional.’ Because essentially we're saying we're more outstanding than you.” While he couched this in business terms, claiming that since the US was being bested in trade it could not claim to be better, he was openly and consciously rejecting a basic tenet of Republican orthodoxy since at least Ronald Reagan. Coming from the standard bearer of the 2016 Republican Party, which has beat the “American exceptionalism” drum relentlessly (especially in the Obama years), that is rather stunning—but it also makes sense from another perspective.
Jelani Cobb wrote recently in the New Yorker that Trump’s political rise represents the “death of American exceptionalism.” He states: “The United States’ claim to moral primacy in the world, the idea of American exceptionalism, rests upon the argument that this is a nation set apart.” By emulating the “anti-immigrant, authoritarian, and nationalist movements we’ve witnessed in Germany, the U.K., Turkey, and France,” Cobb argues, Trump forfeits that American “claim to moral superiority.”
I agree with Cobb, but I think it goes even deeper than he suggests: it is a rejection of the idea-based definition of what America is and a reversion to an older, European one. American exceptionalism not only encompassed a moral claim, not only set the United States apart from other nations. It even—or maybe especially—set the US apart from those places from which most of its founding generation fled: the states of Europe. Here in America, the thinking went, the people will create something new and different, based on first principles and following the dictates of reason, unrestrained by tradition, culture, religion—by anything but the best ideas. In Thomas Paine’s famous words, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The United States would show the world what could be accomplished when free people creating a new state had the chance to write on John Locke’s tabula rosa. (It should go without saying that this was never literally true, but rather an ideal to which people aspired.)
In doing so, Americans were effectively saying: “We are not our European ancestors. We are different. They are tribal, we are not.” For most of the 19th century and well into the 20th, American isolationism was based on the foundational idea that the US, despite its ancestry, was decidedly not European. It would not be ruled by Europe and it would not be drawn into Europe’s tribal squabbles. The US was different—and better. It may have been borne of Europe, but it would supersede it and show it a better way.
More often than not in recent decades, it has been American conservatives who have shown disdain for Europe, sneering at the idea that the US should look to Europe for ideas or leadership of any kind: in law, in public policy, in diplomacy. But scratch the surface and what we see is not contempt for Europe per se but for liberalism as it has developed in Europe since the end of World War II. As right-wing, anti-liberal movements have grown in Europe, so has American conservatism’s appreciation for what Europe has to teach Americans.
As Cobb points out, what is striking about Trump is how much his program resembles that of right-wing extremists in European states who reject that better way America sought to offer in favor of the old European way. Trump’s program is not uniquely American. Arguably, it is following an ancient pattern set in Europe that is rearing its ugly head again in the 21st century. (Trump himself said his election would be “Brexit times 10”—bigger, but not original.) Trump is following more than he is leading, copying a formula that has had some success elsewhere, one that is far from uniquely American. It is, if anything, uniquely European—in the worst sense.
Recently the New York Times had an article on how the far-right European movements have adopted Vladimir Putin as their hero, for his defense of “traditional values.” It quotes an American white Christian nationalist praising Putin: “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.” (His definition of “free” must be markedly different from the one that has dominated in American political culture, but the framing is telling. Theirs is not the freedom of the Enlightenment, but rather freedom from the threat of the non-western or non-traditional “other.”)
Most American pundits, still caught in a cold-war paradigm, marveled at Trump’s embrace of Putin, and could not understand how it failed to discredit him as it seemingly should have (even this past weekend’s stories on the CIA’s conclusion that Russia sought to help Trump in the election has yet to leave a mark on him). Those critics failed to see that a new paradigm has completely eclipsed that of the cold war. They missed the fact that, despite his KGB pedigree, Putin has transformed himself into “a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites.” In the new paradigm, these are the new enemies, the real enemies of the 21st century. Communists have been vanquished. Islamists, immigrants, globalists, “others” of all kinds, have taken their place. The cold war was a battle of ideologies; this is a battle of identities.
If this take is correct, the combination of Trump’s willingness to jettison American exceptionalism and his embrace of Putinism as “real” leadership portends a significant transformation of what it means to be an American. Rather than a country built on ideas and principles, which defines itself by its devotion to those principles, Trump’s America is simply one (albeit the most powerful) of the many western tribes beating back the “uncivilized” hordes that threaten to undermine the white, Christian traditional identity of the west. In such a world, embracing Putin as a partner makes sense—even if he does have journalists and other political enemies murdered or imprisoned. Embracing anti-liberal autocrats and dictators in order to destroy ISIS becomes not a necessary evil, but a positive good, a desirable state of affairs, a restoration of an ancient European unity against the infidel.
Implicit in this view is a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism. Once you jettison the commitment to an idea and embrace a politics based on racial, ethnic, and religious identity, showing a reckless disregard for democratic norms and processes (as Trump reflexively does) is natural, since those things have no inherent value. How we do things does not matter—all that matters is who we are and what we must do to protect that essential identity. Since American identity is not defined by principles of any kind, it is not important to have principles of any kind. The only standard by which to judge right and wrong is success in defending the homeland from the “other.” So Trump can blithely pledge to restore “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” with no qualms whatsoever. After all, he asserts, “torture works.”
Trump has made clear repeatedly that that is his only standard: what works. When asked by the Wall Street Journal after the election whether he had gone too far with his rhetoric during the campaign, he said flatly: “No. I won.” His worldview is entirely instrumental: what works is right, what fails is wrong. Nothing could be more fundamentally opposed to a commitment to liberal process, which values process as a good in itself, as the glue that holds together people with different views and beliefs.
When Marxists, following the logic of economic determinism, claimed that class created identity, fascists countered with racial determinism: the blood determined identity. What has always set liberalism apart from these extremist ideologies is the belief that people create their own identities. As rational beings, we can create who we are by deciding what we believe. We are not merely the products of race, or ethnicity, or class. We are who we choose to be.
What made this election so consequential is that it posed the question of who Americans are as a people as clearly as it has been since 1860. Hillary Clinton’s campaign recognized this with its slogan: “Stronger Together.” Trump’s strategy was to encourage white Christian nationalism, and Clinton’s was to say we cannot go back to some tribal concept of American identity. What has disturbed so many of us about Trump’s elevation to the presidency is not simply that our candidate didn’t win. It is that the choice that 46.2% of the voters made is so antithetical to our vision of what America can and should be. It threatens a reversion to a more primitive tribalism that has proved so horrifically destructive in the past. We know the history. We know the danger. That is why this was no normal election and this will be no normal presidency. This country is about to be tested as it has not been since the 1860s, and the outcome is not at all clear.
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