Although the question has been posed repeatedly throughout our history, America’s current dalliance with demagoguery begs the question yet again: What does it mean to be an “American?” In times of national strife and economic anxiety, America tends to indulge in one long lament and battle cry. Our loss of confidence morphs into a perverse self hatred. Our hoariest hopeful clichés turn into invective, and our spirit of optimism gives way to rage and panic that is by turns racial, nativist and ugly. As a London-based expat, still idealistic about my homeland, but perhaps more gimlet-eyed, I forever wonder when America will finally learn to love itself — that is, to fall in love with who we are rather than who we fantasize ourselves to be.
I’m not exactly sure if a nation can love itself, or if the question of what exactly constitutes an American can actually be answered. Even still, our long and childish adherence to the notion of American exceptionalism invariably mythologizes our past and terrorizes our present, and consigns our still young country to a stunted adolescence. Not for nothing does our cowboy culture persist (the Stand Your Ground law springs to mind), proudly hawking a cultural hucksterism as disingenuous as it is pernicious. (Think John Wayne and jingoistic movies like The Green Berets.) Never mind the indigenous peoples who came before us; the 19th century concept of Manifest Destiny deigned our frontier as not simply boundless, but providentially ours. For a good part of our nation’s historical trajectory, an embrace of New World Christian origins was very much an Eden, but only for the Anglo-Saxon, propertied male; for all others, African Americans, women, Native Americans and the like, America’s ostensibly liberal promise was more like a deliverance to despotism. As the poet William Carlos Williams contended,
History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.
To be sure, the current spectacle of Donald Trump, our xenophobic peddler-in-chief, continues our nation’s long tradition of going to war — not against outside enemies, but against ourselves. Bigotry is as American as Cheese Whiz, yet for all of its outward invidiousness, it reveals our internally damaged psyche, to say nothing of our self-loathing.
Indeed, America’s long history of demagoguery is as replete with showbiz bravado as it is with fascistic fear-mongering. Huey Long, The “Kingfish” governor and senator from Louisiana, was especially popular with Depression-era farmers, although he was less a lighting rod for racial and ethnic division than he was for economic agitation. Long’s political escapades, which included wearing green pajamas when hosting important meetings, is something of a modern counterpart to Trump’s televised buffoonery, and in particular, his clownishly iconic coiffure. Additionally, a charismatic radio host named Father Coughlin was a voracious anti-communist who stoked the flames of fury and took to the airwaves in the 1930s and ’40s to excoriate communists and Jews. In our own time, frequent news commentator and repeated presidential candidate Pat Buchanan deployed incendiary language, often trafficking in racist and anti-Semitic tropes in his many books, columns and speeches in order to rally the rabble. As recently as 2011, Buchanan was rueful about what he called, “The end of white America,” which not only reinforced long-held suspicions about him, but cost him his political pundit job at MSNBC.
Similar to his tub-thumping forerunners, Trump is selling an American fantasy writ large, no less sinister or inflammatory than theirs, but seemingly more honest about its electoral appeal. Trump’s rhetoric is odious, if not dangerous, but ironically, he shrewdly understands the pliability of the American imagination. In his 1987 best-seller, The Art of the Deal, Trump encapsulated his purview, which he has doubtless applied to his current quest for the White House. As he wrote then:
I play to people’s fantasies … I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.
Specifically, Trump inveighs against immigrants in “populist” language both divisive and benighted. He enthuses about mass deportation and seeks to end birthright citizenship as enshrined in the 14th amendment. His bloodiest piece of red meat, of course, is his relentless call for building a wall along the 1,954 mile long border with Mexico, an ode, as it were, to Buchanan’s immigrant-baiting during his time on the campaign stump. Trumps platform is largely animated by what the political philosopher Michael Rogin called “political demonology.” It’s a particular type of thinking, as old as the republic, which marries fantasy to fear, and places such an ideology at the core of American political consciousness. The stigmatization of the “other” is not a marginal, but rather a central motif of the American narrative. (According to Trump, Mexicans coming over the border are “rapists.”) We may be a nation which cherishes our heroes, but we are bereft without our villains. And we are often quick to find those villains among us. As Rogin explains, political demonology forms the nucleus of political discourse through:
The creation of monsters as a continuing feature of American politics by the inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes.
Ours is an age or truthiness, infotainment and rage, and Trump garners a wellspring of support from the discontented among us. A Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in July, reveals that the base of Trump’s support is comprised chiefly of voters without a college degree and voters who see immigrants as the enemy. Even more troubling, at recent rallies in Alabama, Trump was raucously received amid chants of “white power.”
Trump’s narcissistic bravura, while a ratings bonanza for the mainstream media, is unlocking the darker recesses of the American imagination, a vituperative racism which leaves not a whit of distance between Tea Party politics and unabashed white nationalism. Last week, Evan Osnos penned a revealing, if disturbing piece in The New Yorker about Trump’s allure to the George Lincoln Rockwell constituency in American politics. As Osnos writes:
Ever since the Tea Party’s peak, in 2010, and its fade, citizens on the American far right — Patriot militias, border vigilantes, white supremacists — have searched for a standard-bearer, and now they’d found him. In the past, “white nationalists,” as they call themselves, had described Trump as a “Jew-lover,” but the new tone of his campaign was a revelation. … Ordinarily, the white-nationalist Web sites mock Republicans as Zionist stooges and corporate puppets who have opened the borders in order to keep wages low. But, on July 9th, VDARE, an opinion site founded to “push back the plans of pro-Amnesty/Immigration Surge politicians, ethnic activists and corrupt Big Business,” hailed Trump as “the first figure with the financial, cultural, and economic resources to openly defy elite consensus. If he can mobilize Republicans behind him and make a credible run for the Presidency, he can create a whole new media environment for patriots to openly speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs.” The piece was headlined “WE ARE ALL DONALD TRUMP NOW.”
When Richard Hofstader identified what he termed the “paranoid style” in American politics in 1965, he largely analyzed the frustrations and grievances that give rise to right-wing groups who were the spiritual antecedents to today’s Tea Party. The anti-Communist hysteria of the post-World War II era gave rise to both McCarthyism and The John Birch Society, ardent consipratorialists who found the “transgressive” among us within various subaltern groups which included alleged Communists, but also Jews, blacks and immigrants.
Whatever else Trump may be (shamefully expedient might be one explanation), he is nonetheless a most redoubtable American archetype: that of the American anti-hero. The tradition may well be risible; Puritans, after all, found their demonic “others” among suspected “witches” who purportedly haunted the dark forests of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yet the American experiment has been as much a paradigm of democratic government as it has been a noxious stew of intolerance, paranoia and resentment. The Indian “savage,” the African-American “rapist,” the traitorous anarchist, the anti-family feminist, the gay “pervert” are all embodiments of our palpable dread, our demonization of the “other.” Trump is simply our latest demonologist. Here be monsters, indeed.