4.5.17

INSIDE, OUTSIDE, U.S.A.

What happens when the United States ceases to be an ideological nation?  The American Interest's Paul Miller is worried.
Trump’s actual policy record is only just beginning to emerge, but the pattern so far suggests that Trump as President intends to follow through on his nationalist rhetoric. If so, it is fair for conservatives and others who affirm liberal nationalism to ask: How much damage can his political movement do to American ideals and institutions?
There's a lot in the essay, starting with the political economy of trade policy, or economic nationalism, but it's the emergence of a tribal nationalism (rather than an ideological nationalism, based on some sense of common aspirations) that gets to the heart of the potential damage.
Trump believes mass immigration without assimilation threatens to dilute American culture, tradition, and identity, especially if the pace of immigration outruns society’s capacity for assimilation. He believes, no less than Theodore Roosevelt did a century ago, that immigrants should assimilate to American culture.

Yet Trump has added a new corollary to the old argument: that the pace and type of immigration coupled with the progressive Left’s political correctness and multiculturalism have retarded assimilation. The point about multiculturalism in public policy (such as with bilingual education) acting as a retardant to assimilation is not easily dismissed, even though the data suggest that most immigrants are assimilating quite well. Trump clearly is concerned about the problem of multiculturalism making America’s traditional capacity to assimilate worthy immigrants weaker. On the campaign trail he promised to start a program of “ideological certification” to ensure “that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.” And that is not everybody: “We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. It is our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here.”

On its face, this is a valid and straightforwardly patriotic argument, no less than TR’s was in the face of an earlier wave of immigration. There is no “competitive prestige” at stake in the effort to sustain American culture and traditions, and every patriot who loves the flag and what it represents should applaud the effort to sustain American ideals. Progressives are wrong to dismiss this desire out of hand as (again) a cover for racism and xenophobia. Many liberals have a maddening and incomprehensible tendency to view any celebration of American ideals and identity as an exercise in chauvinism, seemingly because they tend to view American identity solely through the lens of American sins.

But liberals are correct to insist that context matters. Asking the government to carry out “ideological certification” and screen people to ensure their beliefs are sufficiently American is, frankly, creepy to anyone familiar with the history of civil rights abuses in America. Screening immigrants is fine, but will Americans be vigilant enough to ensure the government never turns that power on its own citizens? “Extreme vetting” isn’t quite the moral equivalent of interning tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II on grounds of racial suspicion, but it does fall along the same shameful spectrum.
Mr Miller suggests that Mr Trump rejects the notion of "American exceptionalism," if on different grounds than Mr Obama did.  (To clarify:  there are probably as many notions of American exceptionalism as there are Americans.  My notion owes a lot to "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."  It has nothing to do with making the world safe for democracy or moon shots.)
Trump’s working-class appeal is class nationalism—or, in simpler language, populist demagoguery. Trump has threatened, at times, to whip up a populist, nationalist frenzy among poor and working-class Americans and to direct their ire against foreigners out to steal their jobs and rich American collaborators who want to import cheap labor. This is a nationalism that seeks the power and prestige of “real” Americans over and against foreigners and the complicit rich here at home.

What’s wrong with populism? Populism begins with the belief that regular people are more qualified to make decisions and lead the country than the wealthy or educated elite. That sounds fine to conservatives and unreconstructed Jeffersonians—it echoes William F. Buckley’s famous desire to be governed by a random selection from the phone book rather than the Harvard faculty. But follow the logic: Populism tends to feed on resentment toward and distrust of the rich and the educated. Populism exacerbates class divisions and breeds anti-intellectualism. In its most radical form, it invites mob rule and is functionally opposed to equality under law. Populism is not the empowerment of all the people, but only a segment of them—the “regular” people, which usually means whoever can claim the mantle of the nation’s traditions, culture, and history.

Thus, populism and nationalism often invite a tinge of ethnic and sectarian exclusivism. Who are the “people” empowered by populism? What is the “nation” celebrated by nationalism? The people and the nation need boundaries to identify who is one of them and who is not. They tend to get defined in opposition to some other group. That is why Trump’s nationalism has often been interpreted as a form of identity politics for whites (or sometimes for Christians) despite the absence of any explicit statement from Trump to justify that interpretation.
Thus, ultimately, it's about philosophy.  My understanding of the notion of the United States as an ideological nation is that anyone who is willing to buy into the ideology becomes a citizen.  That is, dear reader, the genius of any of the civil rights movements over the years, in identifying those areas where the reality is at odds with the ideology.  Our President, Mr Miller argues, is redefining what it means to be an insider.
Trump, by disclaiming the universalizability of American ideals, is emphasizing the particularity of our ideals to our shores, to the American people, and to our history. His version of American nationalism is a copy of Old World nationalism, a nationalism of blood and soil, of one particular land, language, and people. American ideals are for Americans; they are not for export. The universal or internationalist version of American exceptionalism says, “America is different because of our ideals, but you, too, can believe them and follow our example.” It is a positive-sum vision in which democratic nations come together in cooperative security to uphold liberal order around the world. Trump’s nationalism, by contrast, says, “America is different because of our culture and our history, which you can’t share because you have your own.” This is a zero-sum competition, a vision of America’s role in the world that has far less use for alliances and for liberalism. It is a vision that, in place of steady and measured American leadership, prefers American dominance at the times and places of American choosing, matched with American retrenchment at other times and places.
Alas, the boutique multiculturalists have deconstructed enough of that expansive view of American identity doesn't have the sway it used to, and the continued harping by the critics of the times where reality has fallen short of the ideal doesn't help (deploring people for deplorably clinging to the good parts?) and Our Previous President's dismissal of American exceptionalism as akin to British, or Italian exceptionalism might have pushed a few traditionalists away from his anointed successor.

The recent The Collapse of American Identity appears to be thinking along similar lines.
After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

But recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.
Now we are engaged in a cold civil war, and author Robert P. Jones wonders whether identity trumps ideology.
There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

But during these eras, white Christians were still secure as a demographic and cultural majority in the nation. The question at stake was whether they were going to make room for new groups at a table they still owned. Typically, a group would gain its seat in exchange for assimilation to the majority culture. But as white Christians have slipped from the majority over the past decade, this familiar strategy is no longer viable.
We still have the anchors of the civic religion Chesterton noted, and you can peruse the arguments about the role, diminished or not, of Christian tradition in secular culture at your leisure.  To the extent, though, that a new national narrative (to use Mr Jones's concluding remarks) is more about live-and-let-live and less about High National Purpose, it's likely to have a better chance than the unending partisan tussle over everything.

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