Tag Archives: cruelty

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.