The Trouble with Keeping America 'American'

A single turn of phrase that encapsulates the best -- and worst -- of America has cropped up on the campaign trail, thanks to Mitt Romney

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Monday began as just another day on the New Hampshire campaign trail for Mitt Romney. By lunchtime, he was delivering his stump speech in a Madison lumber mill. He likely used the same lines he'd delivered in Iowa a few days before, saying of President Obama:

He means what he says when he says he wants to fundamentally transform America. There's nothing wrong with America that needs transforming. I want to restore America. I want to turn around America. I want to keep America America.

Or perhaps this particular afternoon he rendered the line, as members of his audience have sometimes heard it, "I want to keep America American."

What followed might serve as a case study on politics in the social media age. Seth Masket spotted the quote in a tweet from a local reporter, and quipped that it sounded like Bill the Butcher. Steve Benen called it "kind of creepy." One of his readers took the trouble to Google the phrase, and turned up several odious associations, including its regular use by the Ku Klux Klan. AmericaBlog shortened that to Romney Adopts KKK Slogan, Reddit picked it up, and HuffPost raced to the bottom for SEO gold. By Wednesday, it was on MSNBC, and a line that Romney had been using for years suddenly became controversial.

The phrase itself seems innocuous enough, even tautological. What else might America be, after all, if not American? It's the sort of banal pledge with which stump speeches are routinely stuffed in lieu of actual policies. There is no particular reason to think that Mitt Romney was aware of the full history of the phrase, much less that he intended to invoke it. It is grossly unfair to accuse him of adopting a Ku Klux Klan slogan. The Klan may have embraced and popularized the phrase, but it wasn't their coinage. The phrase had circulated for years before the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s, and persisted long after its demise.

But even if Romney's stump speech represents an independent coinage, it is still worth asking what he meant by it. Romney, in his speeches a year ago, used the phrase to convey a spirit of openness and optimism, promising: "We will keep America America by retaining its character as the land of opportunity." But as the campaign heated up, Romney began to draw sharper contrasts. By November, a new version of his stump speech tied the slogan to the accusation that President Obama "wants to transform America into a European-style nation." Now, Romney explains that whereas Obama wishes to "fundamentally transform America," he will "keep America American."

Some were quick to hear echoes of the past in that formulation. More often than not, calls to "keep America American" have played upon fears that our nation is beset by alien ideas, or even worse, alien peoples.
"Keep America American," urged an 1887 appeal in The Congregationalist, promoting efforts to convert and assimilate Catholic immigrants from Canada. The paper identified the efforts as necessary to "withstand the aggressions of Romanism" and reach out to the immigrants themselves, overcoming the "manipulations" of their priests and their own "superstitious" devotions.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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