What Americans Do Now Will Define Us Forever

If multiracial democracy cannot be defended in America, it will not be defended elsewhere.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters / The Atlantic

The conservative intelligentsia flocked to the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., this week for the National Conservatism Conference, an opportunity for people who may never have punched a time clock to declare their eternal enmity toward elites and to attempt to offer contemporary conservative nationalism the intellectual framework that has so far proved elusive.

Yoram Hazony, the Israeli scholar who organized the conference, explicitly rejected white nationalism, barring several well-known adherents from attending, my colleague Emma Green reported. But despite Hazony’s efforts, the insistence that “nationalism” is, at its core, about defending borders, eschewing military interventions, and promoting a shared American identity did not prevent attendees from explicitly declaring that American laws should favor white immigrants.

Some other attendees, such as National Review’s Rich Lowry, took pains to distance themselves from the president’s brand of nationalism. “We have to push back against Donald Trump when he does things to increase that breach between the right and African Americans,” Lowry said. But in the fall of 2017, when Trump attempted to silence black athletes protesting police brutality, Lowry praised his “gut-level political savvy,” writing, “This kind of thing is why he’s president.”

The conference stood solidly within the conservative intellectual tradition, as a retroactive attempt by the right-wing intelligentsia to provide cover for what the great mass of Republican voters actually want. Barry Goldwater did not break the Solid South in 1964 because the once Democratic voters of the Jim Crow states had suddenly become principled small-government libertarians; voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016 did not do so because they believed a nonracial civic nationalism had been eroded by liberal cosmopolitanism.

The consensus that American civic nationalism recognizes all citizens regardless of race, creed, color, or religion was already fragile before Trump took office. That principle has been lauded, with varying degrees of sincerity, by presidents from both parties, and in particular by the first black president, who reveled in reminding audiences that “in no other country in the world is my story even possible.” The nationalism that conservatives say they wish to build in fact already existed, but it was championed by a president whose persona was so deformed by right-wing caricature that they could not perceive it. Instead, they embraced the nationalism that emerged as a backlash to his very existence and all it represented.

Trump’s nationalist innovation is not taking pride in his country, supporting a principled non-interventionism, or even advocating strict enforcement of immigration laws. The only thing new Trump brings to the American nationalism of recent decades is a restoration of its old ethnic-chauvinist tradition. Conservative intellectuals cannot rescue nationalism from Trump, any more than they could rescue Goldwater from Jim Crow, because Trump’s explicit appeals to racial and religious traditionalism, and his authoritarian approach to enforcing those hierarchies, are the things that have bound conservative voters so closely to him. The failure of the conservative intelligentsia to recognize this is why it was caught so off-guard by Trump’s rise to begin with.

At a rally last night in North Carolina, Trump was reminding the country of this truth. Last week, the president told four Democratic congresswomen—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar—to “go back” to their countries, even though all of them are American citizens. This is literally textbook racism. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers “Go back to where you came from” as its example of potentially unlawful harassment on the basis of national origin.

Trump’s demand is less a factual assertion than a moral one, an affirmation of the president’s belief that American citizenship is conditional for people of color, who should be grateful we are even allowed to be here. Some elected Republicans offered gentle rebukes; others defended the president’s remarks. But at his rally in North Carolina, Trump showed them all that the base is with him. The crowd erupted into chants of “Send her back” when the president mentioned Omar, the Minnesota representative who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia.

Republicans, in the week since Trump’s initial tweet attacking the four representatives, have tried to argue that the president was criticizing their left-wing views and “hatred for America,” or that the attacks on Omar were justified because of her past remarks about Israel. This is belied by the nature of the attack itself—not only did Trump say “countries” in his tweet telling the representatives to “go back,” but much of the bill of particulars against Omar that his supporters use to justify calling for her banishment also applies to the president, long a hyperbolic critic of the American political establishment.

Some of Omar’s remarks in the past (for which she has apologized) have echoed anti-Semitic language about Jewish conspiracies and dual loyalty, but the president has described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” to American Jewish audiences, and is a proponent of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around immigration that terrorists have used to justify killing American Jews. No apology from the president on these matters is forthcoming, and the right will not demand one. The ancient anti-Semitic charge of dual loyalty does not somehow become more justifiable when applied to Muslims. As James Kirchick wrote for The Atlantic, “Trump’s invocation of Israel to attack four ethnic-minority women is breathtakingly cynical, effectively working to pit Jews and people of color against each other.”

Trump has falsely accused Omar of supporting al-Qaeda, of betraying her country. But when a foreign power attacked American elections, it was the president who first sought to profit from that attack, and then to obstruct the investigation into it, and finally to offer a vocal defense of the perpetrators.

The argument that Omar’s criticisms of her adopted country for failing to live up to its stated ideals justify revoking her citizenship substantiates the very criticism she lodged. Trump has said, “If you hate our country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!” but his entire 2016 campaign was premised on the idea that many Americans not only are deeply unhappy, but also have every right to demand that things be better. That Trump’s supporters believe Omar’s sins justify her banishment, and Trump’s similar transgressions justify his presence in the White House, helps illustrate exactly what is going on here. Under Trumpism, no defense of the volk is a betrayal, even if it undermines the republic, and no attack on the volk’s hegemony can be legitimate, even if it is a defense of democracy.

Faced with the president’s baldly expressed bigotry toward four women of color in Congress, Republicans turned to reporters to argue that his attacks are part of a clever political strategy, elevating four left-wing women of color into the faces of his opposition. I suspect these Republicans, and some political reporters, believe that this somehow exonerates Trump from the charge of bigotry, as though prejudice ceases to be prejudice if it becomes instrumental. In fact, the admission that fomenting racism and division is central to Trump’s strategy is a stunning rebuke to those political reporters and pundits who, for four years, have insisted that the rise of Trump is about anything else. Trump and his most ardent liberal critics are in full agreement about the nature of his appeal, even as they differ on its morality. Only the Trumpists, and those who wish to earn their respect, fail to see it.

It also speaks to the futility of trying to somehow rescue a Trumpian nationalism from Trump. Racism is at the core of Trumpism. The movement cannot be rescued from its bigotry, and those at the National Conservatism Conference who believe it can are in denial. Conservatives can make their case for limited government, or for religious traditionalism, but as long as it is tied to Trump or Trumpism, it will be tainted. Trump is not a champion of the civic nationalism Hazony and others claim they want to see. He is a mortal threat to it.

I often open my articles on Trumpism with explorations of American history. I’ve spent much of the past four years trying to illuminate the historical and ideological antecedents to Donald Trump, to show how America got to this point.

So I want to be very clear about what the country saw last night, as an American president incited a chant of “Send her back!” aimed at a Somali-born member of Congress: America has not been here before.

White nationalism was a formal or informal governing doctrine of the United States until 1965, or for most of its existence as a country. Racist demagogues, from Andrew Johnson to Woodrow Wilson, have occupied the White House. Trump has predecessors, such as Calvin Coolidge, who imposed racist immigration restrictions designed to preserve a white demographic majority. Prior presidents, such as Richard Nixon, have exploited racial division for political gain. But we have never seen an American president make a U.S. representative, a refugee, an American citizen, a woman of color, and a religious minority an object of hate for the political masses, in a deliberate attempt to turn the country against his fellow Americans who share any of those traits. Trump is assailing the moral foundations of the multiracial democracy Americans have struggled to bring into existence since 1965, and unless Trumpism is defeated, that fragile project will fail.

Nevertheless, most of Trump’s predecessors had something he does not yet have: the support of a majority of the electorate. Ilhan Omar’s prominence as a Republican target comes not, as conservatives might argue, simply because her policy views are left-wing. Neither is it because, as some liberals have supposed, she is an unmatched political talent. She has emerged as an Emmanuel Goldstein for the Trumpist right because as a black woman, a Muslim, an immigrant, and a progressive member of Congress, she represents in vivid terms a threat to the nation Trumpists fear they are losing.

To attack Omar is to attack a symbol of the demographic change that is eroding white cultural and political hegemony, the defense of which is Trumpism’s only sincere political purpose. Many of the president’s most outrageous comments have been delivered extemporaneously, when he departs from his prepared remarks. Last night, though, his attacks on Omar were carefully scripted, written out by his staff and then read off a teleprompter. To defend the remarks as politically shrewd is to confess that the president is deliberately campaigning on the claim that only white people can truly, irrevocably be American.

Still, a plurality of Americans in 2016 and 2018 voted against defining American citizenship in racial terms, something that has perhaps never happened before in the history of the United States. There was no anti-racist majority at the dawn of Reconstruction, during the heyday of immigration restriction, or in the twilight of the civil-rights movement. The voters of this coalition may yet defeat Trumpism, if they can find leaders who are willing and able to confront it.

That is not a given. In the face of a corrupt authoritarian president who believes that he and his allies are above the law, the American people are represented by two parties equally incapable of discharging their constitutional responsibilities. The Republican Party is incapable of fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities because it has become a cult of personality whose members cannot deviate from their sycophantic devotion to the president, lest they be ejected from office by Trump’s fanatically loyal base. The Democratic Party cannot fulfill its constitutional responsibilities because its leadership lives in abject terror of being ejected from office by alienating the voters to whom Trump’s nationalism appeals. In effect, the majority of the American electorate, which voted against Trump in 2016 and then gave the Democrats a House majority in 2018, has no representation.

The electoral coalition that gave Democrats the House represents perhaps the strongest resistance to the rising tide of right-wing ethnonationalism in the West, yet observe what the party has done with that mandate. The great victory of the House Democrats has been to halt the Republican legislative effort to deprive millions of health-care coverage, a feat they accomplished simply by being elected. But over the past seven months, Democrats have proved unable to complete a single significant investigation, hold many memorable hearings, or pass a single piece of meaningful legislation that curtails Trump’s abuses of authority. Instead, they held their breath waiting for Robert Mueller to save them, and when he did not, they, like their Republican predecessors, took to issuing sternly worded statements, tepid pleas for civility, and concerned tweets as their primary methods of imposing accountability.

As the president’s declarations of immunity from oversight have grown more broad and lawless, the Democrats have slow-walked investigations, retreated from court battles, and unilaterally surrendered the sword of impeachment. They have only just begun to call witnesses from the Mueller inquiry, they have only just begun to challenge the president’s lawlessness in court, they have only just begun to hold Trump officials in contempt for their defiance of Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. This foot-dragging will leave them with little time to actually look into presidential abuses before campaign season begins, effectively forfeiting a massive political advantage, to say nothing of abdicating their constitutional duties. The leadership of the Democratic Party has shown more appetite for confronting and rebuking legislators representing the vulnerable communities Trump has targeted most often than it has for making the president mildly uncomfortable.

Although two prior presidents, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, faced articles of impeachment over obstruction of justice, Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered the gibberish analysis that the president was “self-impeaching,” so no actual impeachment was necessary. When confronted with yet another woman accusing the president of sexual assault, Pelosi said, “I haven’t paid much attention to it.” When the politically connected financier Jeffrey Epstein was indicted again on charges of sex-trafficking minors, and Pelosi was asked what she would do about now-ousted Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who negotiated a previous sweetheart deal with Epstein, she said, “It’s up to the president. It’s his Cabinet,” a position indistinguishable from that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is a member of the president’s party.

“If you start endangering children, I become a lioness,” Pelosi declared, before caving on a funding bill for border security that will do nothing to relieve the systematic abuse of migrants at the border, and whose restrictions the Department of Homeland Security is already ignoring. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, took the occasion of federal prosecutors in New York mysteriously closing their investigation into the president’s hush-money payments to former girlfriends to ask the FBI to look into a popular app that ages pictures of people’s faces. The president’s racist attacks on Omar and her colleagues were precipitated by Democrats leaking a poll of “white, non-college voters” supposedly showing that they might cost the party the House and the presidency. Having publicly told the school bully where and how to take their lunch money, the Democrats were surprised when he showed up.

One could protest that the Democrats’ timidity is a cold, calculated strategy. Republicans hold the Senate, the argument goes, so an impeachment inquiry would only lead to the president’s acquittal. The whiter, more conservative voters who form much of Trump’s base are geographically distributed in a way that maximizes their political power. Democrats may need to win over some of these voters, who would be alienated by impeachment, to take the White House. If the Democrats cannot hold the House, they cannot hold back Trump.

But Democrats now hold the House, and they are not holding Trump back. The president has abetted a foreign attack on American democracy, he has obstructed justice, he has vowed to turn federal law enforcement on his political enemies. There are squalid camps at the border where families are being separated, and children are being sexually assaulted, their existence justified as a necessary response to a foreign “invasion.” Trump has sought to rig American democracy in favor of white voters and refused to recognize the oversight authority of Congress, and now assails the cornerstone principle of multiracial democracy that none of us is more American than any other. What, exactly, would be enough to rouse Democrats to action?

In the face of such a challenge to the American idea, tactics become intertwined with morality. If the Democrats convince themselves that anything they do to attack the president risks alienating white voters who believe the country belongs only to them, then they will be partially responsible for the path the country is taking, and the standard it is upholding. The Democrats’ weakness has not appeased the president. Instead, it has only invited bolder challenges to democracy and the rule of law. This will not change. If congressional Democrats cannot or will not defend the principle that America belongs to all of its citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion, their oaths to defend the Constitution are meaningless.

Omar must be defended, but not because of her views on Israel, gay rights, or progressive taxation. You needn’t agree with her on any of those things; in fact, you needn’t like her at all. But she must be defended, because the nature of the president’s attack on her is a threat to all Americans—black or white, Jew or Gentile—whose citizenship, whose belonging, might similarly be questioned. This is not about Omar anymore, or the other women of color who have been told by this president to “go back” to their supposed countries of origin. It is about defending the idea that America should be a country for all its people. If multiracial democracy cannot be defended in America, it will not be defended elsewhere. What Americans do now, in the face of this, will define us forever.