To be American means to believe in the Constitution: This narrative, despite its obvious flaws, has kept the country together over the centuries. Now, though, Donald Trump is presenting an altogether different identity for the United States. And the consequences are potentially horrific.
An Essay by Charles Hawley
Every country has a founding myth, a narrative that serves as the foundation of its national identity. Often, such stories don’t hold up to historical scrutiny, but that is beside the point. Such stories help nations determine who belongs — and who does not.
For many countries around the world, particularly in Europe, such narratives are based at some level on race, ethnicity, tribe or some other attribute allegedly inherent in the population in question. In Germany, for example, it is the battle in 9 B.C. in the Teutoberger Forest, where Germanic tribes led by Arminius joined together to defeat the Romans, securing both their independence and territorial ownership. In Romania, it is the notion that they are somehow descendants of the Romans and settled the area before any of the other present-day minorities appeared on the scene. Nineteenth century Irish nationalists sought to trace the country’s origins back to the Celts.
The US has always been an outlier. In America, the founding myth does not focus on a particular ethnic attribute, rather it centers on a single document: the Constitution. All it takes to be an American is to believe in the democracy outlined in the Constitution, no matter where you come from. Race, religion, ethnicity: All of that is, according to the narrative, unimportant.
American history, of course, very clearly shows that identitarianism runs deep in the country, particularly when it comes to the racial divide. But American Exceptionalism, flag-waving, overt patriotism, the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and the peaceful transition of power: All are very clear expressions of the belief that America, the world’s oldest democracy, has figured something out that the rest of the world isn’t quite enlightened enough to understand. And it’s all rooted in what the oft-invoked Founding Fathers wrote in the Constitution.
One of the great shocks of our current election cycle has been the discovery that the American national myth — that American democracy — isn’t as robust as we thought. Donald Trump is threatening to destroy both.
To be sure, he is merely the extremely grotesque manifestation of the growing disdain for democracy that has developed in recent years on the American right wing, fostered by a Republican Party that never truly recognized Barack Obama as the rightfully elected president of the United States. (Indeed, at a campaign appearance on Saturday, Trump referred to Obama as the “quote ‘president.'”) He is the product of government shutdowns, of radio talk show hosts who have spent years spouting conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, of Tea Party Republicans who rejected the notion of democratic consensus and of the opportunistic anti-intellectualism that has become so entrenched in the Republican Party that anyone with any kind of expertise, particularly journalists, is automatically viewed with suspicion and outright hostility.
Rhetoric of a Dictator
All it took to reveal the lengths to which Trump is prepared to go was the half-hearted retreat of a few leading Republicans when it became no longer possible to ignore that their nominee was a sexual predator. But now that he has been “unshackled,” as he himself has said, it is becoming apparent that Nov. 8 will very likely not be the end of what he has taken to calling his “Patriotic Movement.”
The rhetoric that Trump has begun using with ever increasing frequency — that he would lock up Hillary Clinton if he won, that the election is rigged, that his followers should monitor the polls and “watch other communities,” that he would rein in the “corrupt” media — is the rhetoric of dictatorship. But it also appeals directly to a significant chunk of the population, one that feels abandoned by the country’s leadership, left behind by globalization and threatened by demographics.
Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” might suggest that he is adhering to the American exceptionalism narrative and, thus, to the American founding myth. But much of what he says — banning Muslims from entering the US, stepped up domestic surveillance, expanded use of torture — is in direct opposition to the Constitution. Indeed, the “greatness” that Trump wants to return to, it has become clear, is one free of immigrants and blacks. One where white American men need not encounter adversity, allowing their supposed natural superiority to shine through.
Trump is suggesting an altogether different narrative of American identity, one based on race and religion.
As his campaign has progressed, it has become apparent that Trump’s intended audience has gotten the message. Many Jewish journalists and intellectuals have noted in recent months that the degree of overt anti-Semitism in the United States is of an intensity that they have never before experienced. On social media, Jewish names are bracketed with triple parenthesis, the Twitter version of the yellow star, and Trump himself tweeted out a picture of Clinton against a backdrop of cash, the message “most corrupt candidate ever” printed inside a Star of David.
That image originated on the extreme right, and it is far from the only time he has retweeted or tweeted such messages and memes. He has several times, for example, passed along supportive missives from alt-right activist Jason Bergkamp, who writes for the online publication Vanguard 14, which frequently addresses “white genocide” and nationalism.
Trump has likewise retweeted a montage of himself as Pepe the Frog, a comic character that has been adopted by the alt-right and is increasingly making appearances at Trump campaign rallies on T-shirts and hats. His son, Donald Trump Jr., has also tweeted out images of Pepe the Frog several times.
As revealing as it is, however, decoding such symbols is hardly even necessary anymore as the campaign reaches its disgusting conclusion. On October 13, Trump held one of his most unhinged campaign speeches yet. At an event in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said that there is a “global power structure” that has robbed the American working class. He also said that Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty” and that the election may be “in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system.”
Such anti-Semitism-tinged claims are common on the alt-right and it’s no accident they made it onto Trump’s teleprompter. Buzzfeed reported that the speech was co-written by Stephen Bannon, the Trump campaign’s CEO. To join the Trump campaign, Bannon took a leave of absence from his position as chairman of Breitbart News, a website that, as Bannon himself has said, is a “platform for the alt-right.”
Another influential member of this white-supremacist cabal is Alex Jones, the widely followed right-wing conspiracy theorist/radio host who recently gained a bit of mainstream notoriety for claiming that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are demons and smelled of sulfur. In December 2015, Trump appeared on Jones’ show and said his host has an “amazing reputation.”
A Warped Vision of America
That visit was arranged by Roger Stone, a GOP strategist who was an advisor to the Trump campaign until last August, and who remains affiliated with the campaign. Stone helped organize the “Stop the Steal March” at the GOP convention to prevent the Republican establishment’s alleged effort to rob Trump of the nomination. Stone made headlines in February of this year by referring to a Hispanic CNN personality an “Entitled Diva Bitch” in a tweet and referring to another as a “stupid negro.”
And then there is Trump’s most recent claim that Hillary Clinton was “pumped up” on drugs during the second debate. Again, it is a notion that originated on the alt-right, appearing well before Trump’s absurd assertion on the right-wing website Mad World News, the same site that recently revisited the racist right’s pet theory that Michelle Obama is actually a man.
The list, of course, could go on. But the evidence is clear: Donald Trump’s vision of America is not one rooted in the Constitution, but one rooted in the notion that White America is under fire from all sides and must be rescued from the establishment. His Patriotic Movement is an identitarian crusade, open to those who dream of an America not for freedom loving democrats, but for those who seek a white male revolution to take the power back.
And he has rhetorically armed the movement to continue beyond the election on Nov. 8. His utter rejection of Hillary Clinton as a legitimate candidate democratically chosen by a political party representing half or more of the American electorate, combined with his repeated warnings that the election is rigged, provides all the excuse necessary for the white right to carry on the fight after Election Day. It is difficult to view the recently exposed plot by a group calling itself The Crusaders to blow up a Somali housing complex in Kansas the day after the election as anything other than a response to Trump’s hardly veiled call to arms.
Will He Concede?
In 2000, after the bruising campaign pitting Al Gore against George W. Bush ended in a recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision essentially awarding the presidency to Bush, Gore held a speech. He said: “Now the US Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome…. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
Polls indicate that the outcome of this election won’t be nearly as close. But for Trump and his followers, his defeat will only be more proof that true Americans — white Americans — are once again being robbed. His shifting of the American narrative from a country based on the Constitution to a newly imagined homeland for downtrodden whites will not allow him to hold such a speech.
Having unleashed the promise of a white-power America, it seems doubtful that his followers will slide back into the background after this election. Even if Trump declines the strongman roll he has developed for himself, the movement, the alternative definition of America, will continue.
History has taught us that changing definitions, altering national myths, is an extremely difficult and often bloody proposition. That though — that and the consequences such a shift necessarily engenders — will be the true Trump legacy. And it is a horrifying one to contemplate.