Ross Douthat FEB. 4, 2017, New York Times [original article contains links]
Image from article, with caption: Engraving of a massacre of Indian women and children in Idaho by 19th century white settlers
“That’s not who we are.” So said President 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.
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
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 mid-century 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 preeminence. 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 [JB emphasis]. 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.