We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but it is obviously a rhetorical covering for a far more varied collection of individuals.
A recent survey by Politico asked 35 “thinkers” to summarize what these last few years has taught them about our society. What had they learned that they did not know? The most common response was about the deep social and political divisions within the nation. But I was especially struck by what Stanford Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama concluded at the end of his statement:
“At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”
Many of us can only add a sigh of acknowledgement that, indeed, the mental pictures we have of our collective selves is badly in need of revision. The reasons are perhaps less about the mendacity of this hapless President than about the millions of supporters that thought he was on the right track. Most of the rest of us continued to believe that we were moving away from America’s original sins of racial exploitation, nativism, and our perpetual devotion to paranoid and conspiratorial fantasies. These traits all have their own markers in the nation’s recent and distant past. And many of us hoped beyond reason that we were finally breaking free of them in the Obama years. But it is disheartening that these core features still can make our political life toxic. Our public rhetoric is now filled with statements that implicitly disenfranchise, devalue, or deny Americans that have a right to be acknowledged. Note, for example, that Trump only wanted a Wisconsin vote recount in liberal Dane County and in Milwaukee, where many African Americans live.
Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.
The President as the vessel for many of these conspiratorial and racist views polled weaker than what was actually tallied after the election. One explanation for this discrepancy is that there might be some shame in revealing support for a demagogue. Poll respondents may not want to “own” that kind of association to a questioner. Perhaps it is just my own fantasy, but there may be a level of embarrassment that comes with supporting a candidate intent on ripping up the social contract.
Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems. By now you know the catechism of complaints: jobs taken by immigrants, crime festering in racially diverse cities, “socialism” fostered by our allies, and so on. These ideological dinosaurs can be embarrassing to publicly express. Indeed, the very idea of a full-throated defense of a position with evidence and good reasons has itself become an “elite” standard: a liberal ruse that people filled with more opinions than evidence won’t accept.
Fukuyama’s candid admission is also reminder that any nation-continent is not reducible to personalistic descriptors like “compassionate,” “fair-minded,” diligent,” or other terms that we might use to describe an individual. We can’t easily use terms of character to describe a mass comprised of millions of people. The nation is too big and too diverse. We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but the phrase is a rhetorical covering for a far more heterogeneous collection of individuals who are variously rich and poor, inner-directed rather than other-directed, honest and manipulative, educated and suspicious of educational institutions, thoughtful and willfully ignorant, generous and selfish. We are all of the above.
It would also be the same if we lumped the nations of the European Union together into a single political entity. As we now know, a plurality of the British will have none of it; their divorce from the EU is almost final. Even Italians have their own problems reconciling the common idea of “sophisticated” northerners sharing a state with more flamboyant citizens living in the south.
These days it should not be a surprise that many Americans barely recognize the beliefs and attitudes of their compatriots. Our foundational documents are under greater scrutiny for their own biases; we sense that there is less accepted common ground. We are also used to mediating our world through digital devices rather than direct personal contact. All of this makes it more likely that the attitudes of our neighbors may make them seem like strangers.