In recent days, President Donald Trump has sunk to a new low, labeling certain places as “shithole countries” and questioning why we should let people immigrate from Haiti, Africa and Central America. The comments were made to a bi-partisan group of lawmakers who are working on immigration reform. The comments reminded me of the worst elements of Trump, specifically the racist belief that America should be a place for white people only.
In my book, The Emergence of One American Nation, I argue that the United States continues to be one nation united by our love of country, our constitutional order, and fealty to a core set of ideals that were handed down by the founders. Most importantly, America is one nation with many diverse people, held together by the power of ideas. But I must admit, the rise of Donald Trump leaves me deeply troubled over whether our nation can remain as one, or if we will fall prey to tribalism.
Trump appeals to the worst elements in human nature. In the face of the very real concerns of many that the American dream is disappearing, Trump chooses to lay blame on all those who are not white and male. Division is his goal, and he places responsibility for the complicated problems we face on Hispanics, women, Muslims, immigrants, and foreign competitors who have duped our witless leaders. It’s an argument that appeals to base instincts, but lacks any basis in fact. The type of divisions that Trump sows endangers the future of our nation. As Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution has written, Trump is the type of tyrant, “riding to power on the shoulders of the people,” and his movement contains within it the seeds of fascism. That alone makes him extremely dangerous, but he also makes a mockery of what makes us one nation.
Today, the United States is religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Yet we see ourselves as Americans. Why? President Obama, in a speech he made to a group of newly naturalized American citizens, told them: “We are a country bound not by ethnicity or bloodlines but by fidelity to a set of ideas.” In response to Trump’s racist comments, Senator Lindsay Graham, who attended the immigration meeting, wrote the following. “I’ve always believed that American is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.” These comments by men from opposite ends of the political spectrum encapsulates much about what makes America a nation. At our core, America is a nation because of a shared set of ideas about what it means to be American—ideas developed during the founding generation that have evolved over time. Among these ideas are liberty, equality, justice, and democracy.
The founders saw America as a nation for white males, but that was the nature of their society in the late 17th century. Trump acts as if we have not grown over the past 240 years since Jefferson wrote those immortal words in the Declaration of Independence that stand as the American creed. Those grand sentiments expressed in the preamble to the Declaration were ideals to be pursued, but they did not reflect the condition of the colonies in 1776. Over the course of American history, those ideals have animated Americans, lead to numerous disagreements over their meaning, and required the struggle of many people to have the blessings of equality, liberty, and democracy extended to all. Certainly, at the time of the revolution, such rights were denied to a large portion of the population, including, most glaringly, slaves, women, and native people. And the struggle has continued throughout our history. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his “I have Dream Speech” in 1963, the founders had made a “promise that [all] would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Do we really hope to move backwards a world that Donald Trump wants to resuscitate?
Ultimately, I remain an optimist and believe that Trump is swimming against the tide of history and the good sense of the American people. Clearly, he failed to get a majority to support him in the 2016 election, and I suspect many of those who did vote for Trump did so out of a frustration that their concerns had been ignored. Nativist movements of the type Trump is championing seem to appear at regular intervals in American history. Earlier waves of immigration unleashed attacks upon Catholics, the Irish, and Italians. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850’s was born in opposition to immigration, but soon collapsed. Anti-immigration movements were directed against the Chinese in the late 1800’s and the Japanese in the 20th century, who were rounded up and placed into internment camps during World War II. More recent nativist sentiments have arisen against Mexicans and, in the aftermath of September 11, against Muslims. These movements do not reflect what is best about America, and we always look back with regret at what fear has produced.
What makes Trump’s approach different from pure nativism is that he combines it with an authoritarian personality. His approach to politics is reminiscent of the “cult of personality” normally associated with totalitarian regimes that were led by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. His campaign events were spectacles that could easily become violent, and his response to the events in Charlottesville indicate he cannot distinguish between racists and those who fight racism. In their new book, How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that Trump is the only man who has been elected president who “tested positive” on the four warning signs of an authoritarian personality. These include the rejection of democratic norms; an unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of political opposition; a tolerance for violence; and a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of those with whom they disagree. This last element has become increasingly clear, as the President repeatedly undermines our system of checks and balances, attacking the media, the courts and his political opponents as purveyors of “fake news.”
The American people deserve, and our democracy requires, two strong and vibrant political parties that compete for power. Unfortunately, one of our major parties has abdicated its role in promoting conservative ideals. That is why conservative intellectuals like William Kristol, Brett Stephens and Max Boot have become Never Trumpers. Should the Democrats take back the Congress in 2018, perhaps the calculus of the Republican Party will change, and they will finally begin to denounce the president’s racism and authoritarianism. The sooner Trumpism is placed where it belongs, on the trash heap of history, the sooner we can work toward making America great again, and save the oldest democracy on the planet.