In the wake of the terrorist mass murders in Paris and then San Bernardino, many Republicans and conservatives, already concerned about unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have responded by conflating opposition to immigration, anxieties about the porousness of America’s borders, and fear of radical, Muslim-identified terrorists. Most Republican governors (and Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire) announced that they would refuse to accept refugees from Syria. Republican members of Congress, with the support of 25 percent of the Democratic caucus, passed a bill to “pause” the program. First, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would “consider” closing Muslim mosques in the United States “because some of the ideas and some of the hatred—the absolute hatred—is coming from these areas.” Trump then further suggested that Muslims should be required to have a special ID and promising to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. And now he has proposed that Muslims be temporarily banned from entering the United States, a position that, according to several national polls, enjoys majority support among Republicans and white evangelicals. Liberals, including President Obama, have argued that this reaction is not only nonresponsive and practically absurd, but also, as the president put it, “shameful” and, pointedly, “not American.”
But when Obama speaks of what is “not American,” countless citizens wonder: Who is he to judge what is “not American”? The United States is wracked by a spasm of anti-cosmopolitanism and fear of radical subversion. It is exemplified, for many Americans by the election and presidency of Obama himself: black, yet biracially cosmopolitan, urban, intellectual, raised partly in a Muslim country, and the abandoned son of a Kenyan activist and academic. Millions of conservatives still suspect him of being un-Christian and, literally, not a native-born American qualified to serve as president. That Obama’s election occurred simultaneously with the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression exacerbated these cultural tensions. The current conflict is a continuation of one over the past century in the United States between what the historian Gary Gerstle has called the racial nationalism of blood and ethnic supremacy and a more expansive civic nationalism which promises a common political project of equal rights and respect for all. America has seen expressions of both racial and civic nationalism in its history—both are quintessentially American articulations of political power and hierarchy. Yet these different national projects—one culturally and ethnically homogeneous, the other inclusive of differences, yet seeking to subsume them into a “Party of America”, in political theorist Rogers Smith’s words—both risk canceling out a third strain of American nationalism. They contend with a paradoxically de-nationalized pluralism of countless hyphenated Americans whose sub-communities do not cohere into a generous polity larger than the sum of its parts.