“This is not who we are.”
How many times have you heard that said since Donald Trump became president? Candidates say it. Ex-candidates say it. Pundits say it. It’s as much a desperate plea as it is an assertion. This is not who we are...is it?
The question of who, exactly, we are as a country is something we grapple with in just about every presidential election, though in some elections more than others. In 2008, Democrats took Barack Obama’s victory as an affirmation that America was the kind of country they wanted it to be: multiethnic and multiracial, open and inclusive, forward-looking and forward-thinking.
But right away, Republicans said, “No. That is not who we are.” They expressed their loathing for Obama in a hundred ways, but at its center was the belief that he was not Us—not born here, not a Christian like he claimed, with a worldview “so outside our comprehension,” in Newt Gingrich’s words, that he could only be some sort of alien. The true America was not the one that celebrated Obama and the multi-hued future he seemed to represent; it was the one that viewed that future with trepidation and dismay.
Then along came Donald Trump. The brilliance of his 2016 campaign, the thing that enabled the single most loathsome figure in American public life to win the presidency, was his understanding of who America was, or at least who enough of it was to bulldoze through the primaries and then assemble an electoral college victory.
Trump is a deeply stupid man in many ways, but he has one specific kind of genius: his preternatural ability to sense, locate, and stimulate what is worst in people. Perhaps it’s his decades as a celebrity, perhaps it’s the fact that he is himself burdened by no human virtues or morality, but when it comes to manipulating voters’ most repellent impulses, there’s never been a politician like him.
He started by telling the Republican Party that they were wrong about who their voters were. Those voters were not concerned with economic freedom or small government or traditional values, except as afterthoughts. What they wanted was hate and fear, to feast on hunks of red meat dripping with blood when the party had been serving them itty-bitty nouvelle cuisine portions meant to be consumed delicately. They didn’t want “We need secure borders as part of comprehensive immigration reform,” they wanted “Build that wall!” and “Lock her up!”
Only Trump would give it to them, by tearing off the veneer of decorum and politeness to let loose all that lay underneath. Don’t hide who you are and what you really think about those people. Don’t let a bunch of liberals tell you to be nice. They’re not the real America, you are. And they didn’t just agree with him, they thrilled to it. As one MAGA-hat-wearing retiree said just last week, “Everything he says is how I feel.”
Then it turned out that with the right circumstances, the right foil from the other party, and some timely intercession from the Kremlin and James Comey, it was just enough to cobble together an electoral college victory in the general election.
Many of us were shocked. “Could this really be who we are?” we asked. But some of us weren’t. African-Americans and feminists were the least surprised by Trump’s victory, whatever the polls had predicted. “Didn’t you know that’s who we are?” they said.
And how did Democrats react? Their party’s leaders accepted that Trump is right about who America is, and their only hope is to find some way to temporarily distract those exalted white working class voters away from the dark impulses that drew them to Trump, with the right symbolic gestures or the right policy package.
Meanwhile though, Democratic voters were staging their own rebellion, starting the day after Trump’s inauguration with the March for Women’s Lives in Washington and cities and towns all over the country, which may have been the largest protest in history. It was a way of saying what Republicans had in 2009: “No. That is not who we are. This is who we are.”
Democrats won sweeping victories in 2018, but that did not dissuade Trump from his fervent belief that his vision of America, one motivated by racial hatred and xenophobia, is the true one. So as his reelection campaign approaches he has grown louder and more aggressive in his racism, less because it’s what he truly believes (though it is what he believes) than because he’s convinced it is the one and only way for him to win.
He is arguing, just as he did four years ago, that this is who we are. We are not a country made and remade by immigrants, but a country that tells immigrants to go back where they came from. We’re a country that says that to anyone who isn’t white, even if their ancestors came here centuries ago. We’re a country that says when an angry white man running for president says we’re a bunch of losers living in a dystopian hellscape it’s in our finest traditions of free expression, but when a woman of color says there are policies she thinks could be improved, it means she hates America and ought to get out.
And here’s the thing: Trump is not wrong. But neither are the liberal voters desperate to cast him out. We are both those things, the welcoming and the xenophobic, the inclusive and the racist, the young people trying to make the future and the old people desperate to restore the past.
When someone says “This is not who we are” to the latest horrific administration policy or snarling presidential incitement, all you have to say is, look around. Of course that’s who we are. If it wasn’t who we are, Donald Trump wouldn’t be sitting in the White House.
But it’s not all of who we are, nor is it who we have to be. Those of us who find it abhorrent are America, too. So we should call it by its name, and not let any of Trump’s defenders pretend that they aren’t trudging through Trump’s moral sewer alongside him.
One of those two visions of America’s identity will prevail next November. But the essence of our national soul guarantees neither outcome. Even if the Democrat wins, and even if liberal values continue to entrench themselves in our culture, Trump’s America will still be there. It’s going to be part of who we are for a long time.