We have always been good haters: Our Donald Trump problem goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers

tags: Founding Fathers, election 2016, Trump

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson" (Random House). Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

Some days, the poll-manufactured drama of the long and laborious 2016 campaign is presented as though it’s the only development in the life of the planet that’s current and newsworthy. We lose the larger picture. In truth, a super-rich guy’s affront to American values is not really newsworthy, and its currency is equally debatable. Furthermore, despite what you’ve heard, the coming presidential contest is not about one-upmanship; it’s not about little things at all.

As historians, we’ll go so far as to suggest that the culture-warring drums that daily beat are but reverberations of the 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century struggles to define America’s moral position in the world. That’s how not far we’ve come in 2016. We are not independent of our cultural inheritance. Americans were always idealists. And always good haters.

Historians are taught to see the present through a long lens. To take one hot-button issue of the here and now–perceptions of immigrants from Mexico and the Islamic world–a student of the past knows that the visceral language used to tar new arrivals as pollutants and regard them en masse as objects of suspicion is as old as our country. In colonial Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin had no patience for Germans who refused to abandon their native language. The Irish, across generations, were despised as simple-minded, argumentative drunks and rabble-rousers. Swarthy southern Europeans and Jews were “filthy”; Chinese were “loathsome” and legislatively prohibited from entering the country.

The list is long. The anti-foreign types in today’s GOP who court the votes of bigots and xenophobes reflect American history. And yet, the story we are taught is that of the Statue of Liberty, and the poor immigrant who saw America as an asylum from persecution. So many politicians credit their honest, hardworking immigrant parents for pointing the way. But what are they leaving out? Answer: historical perspective. Without even knowing it, here is what they are professing: that the United States of America was the one place in the world that enacted the admirable ideals of the Enlightenment. This one statement underlies all claims of American exceptionalism. It is who we wish we were.

The Enlightenment, first and foremost, was a movement conceived for the broad betterment of the human condition, promulgated in an age when the civilized world, so-called, regularly wrought destruction through military adventure. The technology is vastly improved, but that’s where we still are in terms of the ethical dilemmas we confront. War is constant. ...

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