Who Is A Real American?

Adam Serwer is a staff writer for the Atlantic, and the author of a forthcoming book titled “The Cruelty is the Point: the Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America.” He recently contributed an op-ed to the New York Times, in which he undertook to defend the thesis of that book

Donald Trump has claimed credit for any number of things he benefited from but did not create, and the Republican Party’s reigning ideology is one of them: a politics of cruelty and exclusion that strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by portraying them as an existential threat, against whom acts of barbarism and disenfranchisement become not only justified but worthy of celebration. This approach has a long history in American politics. The most consistent threat to our democracy has always been the drive of some leaders to restrict its blessings to a select few.

This is why Joe Biden beat Mr. Trump but has not vanquished Trumpism. Mr. Trump’s main innovation was showing Republicans how much they could get away with, from shattering migrant families and banning Muslim travelers to valorizing war crimes and denigrating African, Latino and Caribbean immigrants as being from “shithole countries.” Republicans have responded with zeal, even in the aftermath of his loss, with Republican-controlled legislatures targeting constituencies they identify either with Democrats or with the rapid cultural change that conservatives hope to arrest. The most significant for democracy, however, are the election laws designed to insulate Republican power from a diverse American majority that Republicans fear no longer supports them. The focus on Mr. Trump’s — admittedly shocking — idiosyncrasies has obscured the broader logic of this strategy.

Serwer locates the origins of that cruelty in the Democratic Party of the post-civil war, post-Reconstruction eras, and he concedes that contemporary Republicans are somewhat less violent and racist than were the Democrats of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. But he points out that, as the parties exchanged positions, Republicans have adopted the Democrats’ prior political logic. They view victories of the rival party as illegitimate, the result of “fraud, coercion or the support of ignorant voters who are not truly American.”

That last belief–that people who vote for the “other party” (i.e. the Democratic Party) aren’t “real” Americans–shocked me, and I thought it must be an exaggerated claim. But Serwer documented it.

On Fox News, hosts warn that Democrats want to “replace the current electorate” with “more obedient voters from the third world.” In outlets like National Review, columnists justify disenfranchisement of liberal constituencies on the grounds that “it would be far better if the franchise were not exercised by ignorant, civics-illiterate people.” Trumpist redoubts like the Claremont Institute publish hysterical jeremiads warning that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”

There’s a great deal to provoke thought in the essay, and I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety, but this accusation seems to me to sum up the crux of the argument Americans are having right now.

We are debating just who is entitled to be called a “real” American.

In a very important essay in the Atlantic, George Packer recently identified the Americans who consider themselves “real Americans.”The narrative of “real America,” Packard said, “is white Christian nationalism.”

Packard is correct. Survey research suggests that slightly over thirty percent of Americans believe that, in order to be a “real” American, one must be a White Christian. Those of us who reject that belief define a “real American” as someone who embraces what I call the American Idea: the philosophy that animated the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unlike the European countries that awarded citizenship on the basis of identity–ethnic, religious, etc.–  the Founders established a country in which one becomes a citizen–an American– via acceptance of those foundational values.

American citizenship depends upon behavior, not identity.

The arguments we are having today in our dramatically-polarized country really boil down to a conflict between those who see “real Americans” as members of a tribe that one must be born into, and those of us who believe that being a “real American” requires that we understand, accept and uphold the principles and aspirations embodied in those constituent documents.

G.K. Chesterton once argued that the American experiment aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

The real “Real Americans” agree with Chesterton.


  1. The problem with your idealism is its propaganda, as we’ve been learning for the past five to ten years. But, unfortunately, our behaviors never matched the ideals.

    Truth be known, the ideals and behaviors of real Americans are the white Christian patriarchs, and those who’ve been reshaping the Republican Party in that likeness are Charles Koch and his cronies.

    I use as support our real history in Howard Zinn’s book and the others who are now braving the environment to write the truth versus the white-washed crap we’ve been forced to digest for generations.

    If Charles Koch were a real leader, he would come out and tell people what he stands for and what he wants to create for them. If he had a solid idea, people would follow. But, the truth isn’t his friend, so he manipulates and oppresses his own followers.

    Same thing with the other side of the political aisle. Except, their target market is a little different because they have a slightly higher status. Who was the worst recent POTUS on welfare reforms?

    Bill Clinton.

    We have so much hostility today because people have been manipulated and lied to for generations, and they are waking up to this fact. But, unfortunately, others are still being lied to and manipulated for political gain.

    I’m afraid that’s the ugly truth of our inception as well. But, unfortunately, humans don’t digest the truth all at once — we take it piece by piece. We are coming to…

    The horizontal spectrums which are most relevant today are the truth/propaganda and open to closed-minded. 😉

    Those two spectrums are the most in play, and that’s why we have so much chaos. The gigantic gap between truth and propaganda is the widest it’s ever been and getting worse every single day.

  2. Have you ever lived abroad? You get a much clearer view of America once you leave those shores. No one in my family has actually said it to my face, but I’m quite sure they don’t believe I should be able to vote anymore. They forget the tax laws for citizens abroad and if I have to submit my taxes every damn year, you bet I’m going to vote. And complain about how bad things look from here too. Thankfully Fox Spews isn’t offered on our cable package but that propaganda is spreading worldwide. The cruelty is the point with those right wing a**hats.

  3. I’m not certain the Republicans are less violent than the Dems of Reconstruction. The methodology has changed. We don’t lynch people these days, we let our police officers take care of that during traffic stops. A mass shooting is quick and deadly. Mobs are just as violent now as they were then. Would anyone care to speculate what might have happened if they had caught Pence or Pelosi on January 6th?

  4. Ideals are inspirational and motivate us to improve both as individuals and as a country.

    This country has its ideals but we have never perfected our country in accord with those ideals as demonstrated by our treatment of African-Americans and Native Americans, LGBTQ plus people, and people of faith traditions other than main stream Protestants. ( not to mention children). Humans with inherent flaws created this country and at times obstruct the realization of the democratic ideals of this country. It is fear of the “other” that often creates our inablity to fulfill those ideals.

    Dark money in campaign finance, the electoral college, and politicized gerry mandering further threaten the fulfillment of those ideals because they all support the oligarchy of the 1%.

    Now we face the challenge of preventing people who are white Christian nationalists and/or part of the oligarchy (Koch brothers)from destroying our democracy. They are not, in my opinion, “real Americans.” They are stuck in the 18th century. They are not acting in accord with the teachings of Jesus and other prophets, both ancient and modern. They do not understand our interdependence with one another and the earth’s ecosystems.

    Real Americans seek to build upon what our founders started, to create a nation in which the civil rights of each citizen regardless of race, ethnicity, age,creed, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity are protected and affirmed.

    I have a vision of a country where each person is treated as someone with inherent worth and dignity. In order for that to occur all our laws and court decisions, all the corporations and wealthy, and yes, even the Christian Right, would have to have a deep reverence for life and a commitment to follow the Golden Rule. We would have to find a way to fulfill the Buddhist mantra ” May all sentient beings be well and happy.”

  5. A great topic before the Fourth and after two viciously “un-American” SCOTUS decisions. Perhaps, the Founders were hopelessly poetic dreamers, looking down from their privilege and like, John Lennon, doing their “imagine” thing.

    Perhaps, humans are genetically set to be about ME, not WE. It seems to come to that via capitalism, racism, etc. I have been re-watching “Foyle’s War”, about WWII Britain. We have an image of that time as a brave country all together under Churchill, taking care of each other and holding back against the Nazis. Not exactly…many grifters, black marketers, louts…all taking advantage for themselves. Human nature?

    Perhaps, it is time for the idealists to grab a state or two, institute a country of real democracy and send the Americans to do their “ME” thing.

  6. I have some doubts that the Oligarchs actually believe the xenophobic BS they spew, but know that that is a time tested way of manipulating the “lesser” citizens. Charles Koch is not interested in the ideas that the founders espoused,as is clear from his (previously he and his brother’s) behaviors. I offer the book “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by Nancy MacLean as evidence thereof.
    In my view, a “real” American fits nicely into that quoted Buddhist mantra.
    Todd, as I recall it, Clinton’s problem with welfare, and other issues, had less t do with his view of America, and more with his hope to cozy up to the GOP of the time so that he could get more done.
    I like your vision, Robin.

  7. What we learn almost everyday is how much of our past in some cases is literally buried. From the Guardian News:

    Our neighbors to the north Canada is now confronting the issue of at least 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend the schools over a century as part of the campaign by the government to forcefully assimilate the children into Canadian society.

    Sue Caribou was snatched from her parents’ house in 1972 by the state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School system that brutally attempted to assimilate native children for over a century. She was only seven years old. “We had to stand like soldiers while singing the national anthem, otherwise, we would be beaten up”, she recalled.

    Here in the USA we have the Reactionary Right who are trying desperately to cover up America’s sordid past. The Reactionary Right wants to view American history as some fairy tale, i.e., – They Lived Happily Ever After.

    For some damn reason we have many US Army military bases named after Confederate Traitors.

  8. Real Americans are those that realize where their freedom comes from. Religious freedom is what our forefathers were after and most of their laws were crafted around morality located in the wisdom of the scriptures. None of that is taught in the schools today. The Democrat Party and the Republican patty came from classical liberalism, conservatism is an off shoot of that thinking. 90% of laws were created in the late 1700s and early 1800s with the scripture as center for creating just laws. Womans suffrage was brought about by Christian Women who wanted change in an industrial revolution along side of unions fighting for better contracts, both wanting to strengthen families. Today families are, according to many black pastors, under attack by the welfare state. Real Americans look at economic trends and reverse them for the good of all. Real Americans reach accross party lines and establish a unity we have so far lost.
    My question is do real Americans associate and receive huge donations from people who turned their back on their own people and have without regret their finances along beside an enemy that sent millions to their deaths. A man who in an interview said he had no regrets, for someone else would have done the same thing?
    A person who wields support for politicians through shorting the investments of hard working individuals? Yes finally the SEC is looking into these practices! But since someone else will short and hurt investors finds no regrets. Do real Americans run up a huge national debt so that we can no longer fund programs and at the same time inhibit the economy from growing?
    Real Americans are realists and see the falacy that is being taught. Real Americans find common ground w/o letting politicians from either side abuse the public politic.

  9. From Renee Loth (excerpted) in today’s Boston Globe:

    “A radical autonomy has turned America into a country with less pluribus and more unum, with fewer bridges and more ramparts. Fifteen months of semi-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic may have hardened us further into our personal bunkers. But if we forget how much we need one another, we all lose.

    The ethic of self-reliance is deeply engrained in the American character. A survey by the Pew Research Center compared views in the United States and Europe, asking what is more important in society: that everyone be free to pursue their life goals without interference from the government or that the state play an active role to guarantee that no one is in need? In the United States, 58 percent chose individual liberty over state support. Respondents in every European country overwhelmingly held the opposite view.

    Americans also believe by large majorities that we are masters of our own fates. This leads some people to conclude that success is earned, so failure or poverty must be as well. And if people deserve their poverty, why is it the state’s responsibility to soften the blow? Why not allow successful individuals to accrue more and more wealth at the expense of the less fortunate — or more dependent — in our midst? These views may be unspoken, but they undergird policy choices that create wide gulfs of income inequality that other countries would find alarming.

    In a self-reliant culture, meaning and responsibility reside with the individual rather than the group. For years, social scientists have been tracking a growing detachment among Americans from communitarian institutions, whether it be the church, the union hall, or the bowling league. Lack of civic engagement, and the associated lack of trust in authority and one another, is at near-record levels. The irony is that what some see as liberating anti-authoritarianism can create the very conditions — fear and division — that lead to authoritarian governments.

    Nothing exists in a vacuum. The truth is that everything we do — even every thought we think — has a ripple effect on others. We need some more humility, acknowledging how much we depend on one another to build our roads, teach our children, and heal our wounds.”

  10. Coming from the common people of East Tennessee and a very homogenous culture, and then moving into the very diverse culture of East Side Cleveland, I began to wonder who the real Americans were. Was I a real American? I had always assumed I was the epitome of one.
    Recently, while watching a documentary featuring the Grateful Dead, a jaundiced Brit declared that Americans were unique in their perplexity over who they are, and that most nationalities had no such problem. Once again, I was off pondering today’s blog subject.
    I think GK Chesterton had it right, but that voluntary assent to commonly held political goals of government has been a hell of a struggle, especially since the franchise was extended to all citizens, and citizenship itself was enlarged. The stuggle toward an egalitarian culture and government has been long, often bitter, sweaty, and very bloody. We’re too deeply invested to let greedy humans marginalize *us* again.

  11. Thank you Lester Levine for the article you posted from Renee Loth and the Boston Globe. Her analysis of of our dwindling “unum” hit me in the soal plexis with its passion and nuance.

  12. I have scoured Sheila’s column, including the material she quotes, and I can’t find anywhere that she mentioned Charles Koch. Yet two of the commentators made Koch a major target in their comments.

    It seems whenever a political issue comes up, Democrats have to attack their designated boogeyman, Charles Koch (or ALEC) and Republicans attack theirs, George Soros.

    What is utterly silly about it is that Koch is actually a moderating influence on Trump-stained conservativism. Koch has actively opposed Trump’s takeover of the GOP and pushed for such things such as criminal justice reform and fixing our broken immigration system. Regarding the latter, here is a quote from Koch’s webpage.

    “Immigration is good. Welcoming immigrants who are motivated to improve their lives and contribute to society will enrich America as their ideas and talents drive progress and improve the lives of others. The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to supporting research and initiatives that illustrate how best to open America to everyone who will make the country better off — and nobody who will take advantage or do harm.”

    Here is a quote regarding Koch’s foundation’s position on criminal justice reform:

    An effective criminal justice system protects people and preserves public safety while respecting human dignity and ensuring equal justice for all under the law.

    After years of policies informed by tough-on-crime rhetoric that resulted in skyrocketing levels of incarceration and unintended consequences for individuals, families, and communities, the country has an urgent need to better orient the justice system.

    Here’s Koch’s position on foreign policy:

    “The United States needs a strong military to keep the nation safe. But our foreign policy relies too often on the use of military force — asking our service members to do too much in too many places. This approach undermines our security and saps our strength. U.S. foreign policy should be characterized by a grand strategy of realism and restraint, free trade, and diplomacy focused on articulating — but not imposing — liberal values and the advantages of a society of equal rights and mutual benefit.

    Our foreign policy should be based on facts and reasoned, scientific inquiry, not idealistic assumptions about the world. We support scholars who conduct rigorous research to identify and evaluate optimal policy solution.”

    Feel free to check out the Koch’s foundation on a number of issues.

    Koch’s money gives him outsized influence in the GOP, no doubt, but the fact is when it comes to policy he’s hardly the far right influence on the party that liberals think. In fact, as I said before he’s actually a moderating influence. And I would think liberals would appreciate that Koch never for one minute bought into the hate-filled politics known as Trumpism.

  13. After reading Jane Mayer’s expose of the Koch Brothers (Dark Money) and their methodoligies of achieving their goals which is profit, I think Americans need to take pause, and not be so willing to sell out our freedoms. Koch Brothers father got his start by selling oil to the Nazi’s in WWll, that’s over the line for most Americans.

  14. The sad thing is that I know some intelligent non-white immigrants who are rabid trumpers. Go figure. Maybe it’s because they are rich and were raised in a dicatotrship.

  15. ‘G.K. Chesterton once argued that the American experiment aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.”

    This is a wonderful expression of the sentiment that our Consitution has aspired to from day one, to become a classless society under the law. Equal rights under the law for all of we, the people.

    That’s what democracy is the only known means to create.

    Even though I don’t speak French, I have always thought that “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” expresses the same sentiment beautifully too.

    It’s unfortunate for us to have become unaffordable to the Republican Party who need a class system in order to please their base and get elected where they can be.

    There were times when such a change would have been impossible to sell to more than a handful of Americans but those days were sent packing by popular and pervasive and persuasive entertainment media which also makes money by branded marketing, one such brand being class happy people. Incidentally, that kind of advertising is the basis for most advertising nowadays. “Buy a Benz and be someone.”

    “We have met the enemy and he is us”, said Pogo.

    “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    Emma Lazarus said on November 2, 1883.

  16. I am a”naturalized” American citizen, the result of my parents passing the citizenship test in 1965, when I was 12. The most common question I am asked: “why do you have a name from the old country”. I greatly dislike that question; my answer being “because I was born in the old country”.
    Is that sarcastic?
    My father was a member of the team developing anti-glare solutions for the spacecraft and other uses, optical advances that help us all (like the cold mirrors in dental offices.
    We are as American as our neighbors and have “paid our dues” (I.e. taxes and other contributions).

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