The rise of Donald Trump has induced a collective shudder through much of America. For many, the GOP nominee is jeopardizing our most cherished ideals, a broad and capacious sense of who could be an American citizen, and norms that forbid open and outright expression of racist sentiment. The last Republican president at least had the decency to insist that Islam is a “religion of peace,” however destructive his policies might have been to actual Muslims, at home and abroad. Liberals and more than a few conservatives find themselves saying, This is not us. This is not the America we know.
Michael Gerson recently penned one of the more impassioned statements in this genre, looking aghast at Trump’s breezy hostility to democratic ideals. The former George W. Bush speechwriter contrasted the candidate’s ugly xenophobia with the proudest American tradition of social justice embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr., a drive to “expand the circle of inclusion, protection, and promise.” He spoke of the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated as one of America’s sacred spaces, and saw in the black freedom struggle a “vision of human rights [that] became an inseparable part of the American story.”
In Gerson’s telling, it is King who is the true American, Trump the avatar of an ideology so aberrant as to be only alien—an ethnonationalist import, perhaps, from the “dark continent” of Europe, to borrow a phrase from Mark Mazower.
Now Gerson is an old hand at wordcraft, and no doubt entirely sincere in his views. As Daniel Rodgers noted in ToM favorite Age of Fracture, he was “amid the strong and diverse figures in the George W. Bush speech writing office, the one most adept at the phrases that ‘reached for the marble’… a figure out of the same evangelical Protestant milieu in which George W. Bush had reinvented himself in middle age.” (262) Gerson had also “absorbed a large slice of Catholic social theory,” “a fervent faith in the subsidiary institutions of society” and “an ethic of solidarity with the weak and the poor.” So his faith in an idealized American creed is understandable.
However, Gerson’s telling gets the story slightly wrong, as the work of historians such as Gary Gerstle and Mae Ngai makes clear. American history is not the story of one high ideal, imperfectly realized at first (to say the least) and then improved in fits and starts, in civil war and sit-ins. It might be reassuring to think of ours as one story: a people fumbling their way toward an end result that, one hopes, will approximate as closely as possible the nation’s original ideals of equality before the law. But the truth is that America has long had multiple ways of thinking about identity, of who’s in and who’s out. Many of them look more like Trump than King.
Indeed, as Gerstle’s American Crucible (2001) illustrates, competing concepts of American citizenship have jostled side by side throughout our history. In particular, Americans in the early twentieth-century struggled with the question of whether was American identity was fundamentally racial in character—that is, that there was an American people in some kind of natural or biological sense, in the way that there was (presumably) a singular French or German or Chinese type.
Americans, of course, did not have to look far for support for this concept. The nation’s first naturalization act only covered “free white persons” in 1790; the notorious Dred Scott decision effectively denied citizenship to African Americans in 1857; and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was but one of several measures that drew a hard line between Asians and the American community. If that was not enough, there were plenty of political campaigns in the nineteenth century that discreetly conveyed that America was “a white man’s country.”
To be white is to be American; native peoples, African Americans, Chicanos, and Asian migrants fit somewhere in this picture, but the full prerogatives of citizenship remained plainly the property of white people in the minds of many Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gerstle termed this way of thinking “racial nationalism,” but he was quick to point out a distinct, if intertwined tradition: “civic nationalism.” This strain of political thought held that to be American was to believe in American ideals, whatever one’s skin pigment or nation of origin. Unlike the citizenship of jus sanguinis, which limited membership in a national community to those sharing kinship by blood, anyone could be an American. It only required pledging allegiance to the flag, freedom, equality, democracy—you know, all the good stuff.
As an inexperienced student who was new to history, I found Gerstle’s terminology to be slightly artificial and contrived. Were civic and racial nationalism really that separate? Indeed, were they even a “thing” in any meaningful sense? What was the “Rooseveltian nation” that he analyzed in American Crucible? (Now you’re just making stuff up, Gary!)
Of course, that is what historians do, to a certain extent: make stuff up. They organize the past by inventing concepts and categories, heuristics that (hopefully) bring clarity to confusion. (For example, “The New Deal Coalition”—as John Green likes to say, “Good job with the naming there, historians!”)
In retrospect, Gerstle’s use of Theodore Roosevelt as a vehicle for understanding these competing conceptions of national identity seems wiser today than it did fifteen years ago, when I first read the book. Roosevelt was prone to a racialist way of ordering the world, with the whitest Northern Europeans at the top and the swarthier “races” of Europe on a sliding scale toward the bottom, where Africans, Asians, and others could be found.
But TR was also the man who led the charge of the multiethnic Rough Riders up San Juan Hill; as Gerstle shows, Roosevelt struggled to work out an idea of the world in which peoples of varying innate inability could merge and fuse into something stronger. He was working with shoddy tools to weld together rickety ideas—indeed, arguably asking the wrong questions and getting the wrong answers—but the Republican president was at least groping toward a more inclusive vision of American identity and citizenship. (This was also the age of Israel Zangwill’s “melting pot.”)
Of course, Roosevelt presided over the Gentlemen’s Agreement that effectively barred migration from Japan in 1907, and severe limitations on immigration and naturalization followed in the 1920s. A restrictive idea of who could be truly American endured for decades, only to be shattered in many ways by the struggles for justice of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and others in the 1960s and 1970s.
In short, Trump is speaking to a deep tradition in American life, not just a stray strand of bigotry. Latinos and African Americans have been sexualized as a rapacious brutes throughout American history (“they’re rapists!”); whole categories of people have been placed firmly outside the bounds of American citizenship (“a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”); various types of people have been viewed as unassimilable, whether “red Indians” or “red Communists.”
These were not just momentary lapses of judgment or unfortunate mistakes. They are part of a vision of America only belonging to a select few—most typically, white Protestants—that only came under the most sustained and successful attack in the mid-twentieth century, with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation and immigration reform. In this case, the past is past, but only barely. In the living memory of many Trump supporters, after all, Asians were not allowed to enter the United States.
In a bitter irony, though, even civic nationalism has its limits, as Gerstle pointed out. This brand of identity might seem more inclusive in that it does not set racial parameters for belonging, but it still demands that individuals adhere to American ideals, however those might be defined. People who were seen as hopelessly deviant—anarchists and Communists, for instance—might find themselves outside the circle of citizenship. Hence, some find it easy to define Muslims as un-American or unassimilable due to their belief in a “hateful foreign ideology.”
Trump, in that way, is working both sides of the nationalism debate from American Crucible. But as many Americans of good faith, left and right, have been crying in ever louder tones, it may be Trump that fails the test of civic nationalism, not Khizr Khan or his fellow Muslims. Indeed, the Republican candidate has called for libel prosecution against unfriendly news outlets and a registry to monitor all Muslim Americans; he has shown a slippery grasp of concepts like free speech and equal protection, to put it mildly.
Trump’s constitutional chops may be limited, but he is speaking to an old and enduring ideal of racial citizenship. To suggest otherwise is to misread American history, or to read only one storyline to the exclusion of others. To acknowledge that fact, however, by no means diminishes the threat to American ideals that the candidate represents. What it means to be an American is about to be tested in the crucible once again.