“An American said to me at Berne: ‘The trouble is that we are all eaten by the fear of being less American than our neighbor.’ I accept this explanation: it shows that Americanism is not merely a myth that clever propaganda stuffs into people’s head but something every American continually reinvents in his gropings. It is at one and the same time a great external reality rising up at the entrance to the port of New York across from the Statue of Liberty, and the daily product of anxious liberties.”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, “Americans and Their Myths”
Many of us were shocked to hear early Wednesday morning of the electoral triumph of Donald Trump, a man we thought too bombastic, racist, xenophobic, sexist, vulgar, and stupid to ever garner the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. We took it for granted that a civilized, rights-based democracy would never—could never—elect an autocrat. Without question the surprise is warranted: apart from the contrary poll data, the election of a candidate who promised repeatedly to violate the Constitution seemed blatantly in conflict with the process and likely choice of a free people whose freedom rests on the Constitution. Threats to exclude, marginalize, and punish whole groups of people seemed to contradict the pluralism that is not just an American value but is America itself. And yet the majority of U.S. states—representing 306 electoral votes—chose Trump.
We got it wrong.
We thought there wasn’t as stark a racial divide in our country (though pollsters and commentators made predictions largely based on racial demographics). We thought that Trump’s divisive rhetoric and proposals would appeal to fringe voters but moderation and calls for inclusivity would win over the majority. Perhaps more than anything, we believed that presidential elections are essentially contests of policy and competence, where rationality dictates and ultimately wins. They are not.
Presidential elections are exercises in collective mythologizing: Every four years the U.S. voting populace gathers together to create or recreate a nation-myth we’ve told ourselves and wish to hear anew, or perhaps differently. Thus John F. Kennedy called his election “not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom … signifying renewal as well as change.” Kennedy, like all great speech-making presidents (Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Obama), frequently referenced the heroes, events, and principles of the founding—as a way to justify his policies and, even more, to create or reinforce a sense of unique American identity and purpose under which a majority would feel included, validated, and energized.
Donald Trump’s proffered myth wasn’t very specific or altogether consistent, but it was strong all the same. He wrote it, shouted it, embroidered it on all his hats: “Make America Great Again.” With that, Donald Trump conjured and reaffirmed a mythic American identity, the invoking of which overshadowed its precise content. The message and myth were significantly racist, sexist, and xenophobic—I don’t want to discount that, or minimize the hate that Trump’s campaign has already engendered and which is more and more invading private lives and bursting into public spaces. But that racism, sexism, and xenophobia were motivating to voters in the same way as—and as part of—his nation-myth: they created and affirmed imagined communities within which people felt empowered and connected, in opposition to a defined scapegoat or enemy (the person of color, woman, immigrant, non-American or un-American, … Chiiiiina). (It’s telling also—that the other is most vividly feared and hated when it/they/she/he is unknown. Many of the states that voted for Trump have relatively small immigrant populations, while Texas, though it went Republican, was closer than it has been since 1996. While that’s partly a matter of voter demographics, it also says something about voter viewpoints.) Finally, as a strongman, unafraid of conflict (relishing it, actually) and ready to do anything required to re-establish American power and status, Trump became and conformed well to the mold of mythic hero, reflecting and fighting for the imagined community he celebrated.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, with loose themes of hope and unity, utterly failed to craft a vision of an American myth. She did not significantly appeal to the founders, the Constitution, the greatness once possessed. Though the content of her proposals arguably better matched the values expressed by the founders, the Constitution, and the “American idea” (as it has been broadly understood from Toqueville through Scalia and Kennedy), she neglected the myth-making effort; she struggled to develop a coherent campaign message and ultimately failed to enunciate an American myth in which she adequately played a hero role.
As a means of winning voters and championing policies, nation-myth-making is tremendously powerful and has been often adopted. As historian Andy Schocket wrote:
“Those battles over the Revolution’s meaning raged even before the ink was dry on what we now consider our sacred founding documents … Both sides in the Civil War claimed to be acting on the founders’ legacy … The founders were both in favor of and against the Vietnam War and civil rights for African Americans and women. Thomas Jefferson applauded President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to devolve some federal responsibilities to the states but not his exploding of the federal deficit. And Alexander Hamilton … was both sympathetic with and appalled by Bill Clinton during the controversy over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. We continue today to enlist the founders for our own political battles and to invoke the Revolution in our culture.”
Moreover, though nation-myths justify tyrannies and genocides, they also can inspire positive change and hope. As President Obama did adroitly, one can use the myths of the founders and other heroes to construct an American narrative of progressive inclusiveness and equality—a continual communal effort to create a “more perfect union.” Thereby Obama attempted to illuminate, or solidify, a national “We” characterized by a common heritage of expanding liberty: He regularly referred to the principles of “Our Founding Fathers,” even quoting “the father of our country” (suggesting we are all his children?); and in campaign speeches he made preserving the “American Dream” a central theme.
Our shock and despair at witnessing the election of a candidate more drawn to authoritarianism than to freedom or equality is understandable, but it overlooks the fact that similar myth-making has manipulated the body politic long before this election. It is particularly problematic now because our liberal champion didn’t win—or our candidate didn’t prove to be the sufficient hero. As a result, we now face the threat of an authoritarianism U.S. democracy has never known and bigotry increasingly erupting into widespread violence and bullying.
Still, even a good myth—and the right hero [as Barack Obama was?]—may do disservice to our freedom, equality, and integrity, if and to the extent the myth is false. The potential of nation-myths to mystify, distort the truth, and pacify populations—under authoritarian and democratic regimes—begs that we explore why they carry such influence. Efforts to elect a humane, reasonable, anti-racist president in 2020 demand that we reevaluate and draft new strategy. And for the sake of hoped-for healing, we’re obliged to identify and explain our sickness.
The reason people are seduced by nation myths—and why they adopt attitudes of white and male and American supremacy—is not ultimately greed but fear, not hate but suffering. People are isolated, disconnected, disempowered, and invalidated, by a global capitalist system in which they can’t compete and are shamed for it, and by a political system under which they find neither efficacy nor spiritual connection. They want love, but they will accept superiority and anger in its place. When Trump told voters—some consciously racist, but most probably not—that he would restore the country’s status and power and virtue (unrestricted by corruption), he offered them limited connection and false validation within an imagined community: “Great-Again America.” Hillary Clinton offered them nothing new and nothing mythically old. It didn’t seem much of an option, which explains how so many Trump voters felt they had “no other choice,” that their vote was a painful, lesser-of-two-evils necessity.
Voters chose a troubling mythic Trump-nation over an uninspiring—because unarticulated—Clinton-nation. They were wrong, because Trump’s vision of America is neither loving nor moral nor consistent with true human being—and the myth will disappoint. But they didn’t feel an alternative. Hillary Clinton might have presented a counter-myth, similar to what Obama portrayed in 2008. But Clinton’s myth would likely also disappoint (even if she won), for the liberal world-view, as mediated and described through the founders’ voices, also depicts an unreal ontology: of humans as individually free, equal, and isolated; of government and community as threatening and rightly limited; of economy as a zero-sum competitive market of privately-owned goods; of law and order as semi-divine and ordained. A nation-myth built on such false premises will fail to sustain interdependent, empowering community. It is also intrinsically blind to those in society not free and not equal, who need more than government non-interference but instead positive redress, whose property has been taken and never given back, whom law has never seen nor respected. These are indigenous people, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and the many trapped in poverty—all those who weren’t the white, wealthy men who wrote the Constitution and became the legendary founders. A true myth—a vision that will effectively promote an authentic interdependent community of love and empowerment—must express a different ontology, whether through national narratives or direct appeal to peoples’ present aspirations and struggles.
We could point to many explanations for Trump’s victory. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, cited a number of causes, including third parties, bad data, poor turnout, and David Comey. One academy award-winning director wrote in 2010 that, given celebrity idolization in modern culture, a reality TV star was bound to be elected president, sooner or later. But Donald Trump won, in large part, because he invoked a compelling, albeit problematic, nation-myth, offering people limited connection and validation as “American,” along with protection and security through demonization of the other. Hillary Clinton offered no alternative myth, no vision, no identity. If Democrats wish to win the next presidential election, they will need to offer something more than policies, competency, and liberalism’s alienating ideal of free and equal competition (which turns out to be only free and equal for elites). Finally, if progressives are to successfully create a national community with greater freedom, beyond isolation; greater equality, without hierarchy and division; and greater mutual understanding, based in common humanity, we will need to develop a vision of America that addresses spiritual suffering and longings, uniting races, classes, cultures, and creeds. Can we summon a vision that goes beyond heroes and tall tales, manipulating voters and winning elections, to create a sustainable, real American identity? Having identified a disease of isolation, hierarchy, racism, and fear, can we create true and just community to cure it? That is a project of nation-building, not just nation-myth-making.