The Un-American Essentialism of Donald Trump

The Republican candidate’s attacks on a federal judge directly undermine the principle on which America was founded.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

You can dance around the question of whether Donald Trump’s “he’s a Mexican” criticism of federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, born in Indiana, is technically “racist.” There is no such race as Mexican, after all, and the citizenry of Mexico ranges from blue-eyed blonds to those with dark skin and jet-black hair.

But what’s clear about Trump’s argument, and what is deeply un-American about it, is its essentialism. Trump is saying that because of who you are, in an ethnic or hereditary sense, he will make judgments about what you think and what role in society you can play. The related assumption, as Garrett Epps explains to irrebuttable effect, is that people’s public roles cannot be separated from their ethnic or religious identities. A “Mexican” judge will think and act as a Mexican, not as a judge.

There is no more un-American concept.

For citizens of the United States, essentialism should mean: Who you are, is American. And everything about your place in this society should depend on what you do and say, how you contribute and to what you aspire, rather than to whom you were born. This is the revolutionary American idea. It is the most truly exceptional part of American exceptionalism. And the long struggle of American history has been to match reality to that ideal. This is the concept of becoming a more perfect union laid out in the Constitution, which ranges from extirpating the original sin of slavery, to dealing with slavery’s ongoing effects, to the continuing effort to open opportunities, under fair conditions, for Americans regardless of background.

It would be embarrassing and superfluous to bother spelling this out — except that the apparent Republican nominee for president has just waved the idea away. That is what he has done with his doubling-down, digging-in-deeper insistence that because a federal official “is a Mexican,” his official role is presumptively suspect.

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I wrote a book more than 25 years ago called More Like Us. Its subtitle, I note with both pride and chagrin, was “Making America Great Again.” But its argument is a book-length version of the few paragraphs above. The only “esssentialism” that should matter in this country is an acceptance of the essential rules of our pluralist democracy. A man with a chance to become president has revealed either ignorance of or contempt for this most important of American beliefs.

Update  I’ve received mail asking, in effect, how I can object to Donald Trump’s criticism of Judge Curiel based on who his parents were, and yet still think it important that institutions like the federal judiciary reflect at least some of the diversity of America’s population in their makeup. How can I be glad to have more women and non-whites appointed to the bench or elected to the Senate, if I think every person should be assessed independent of circumstances of birth?

I think it’s not that hard. As a society, we’ll be better governed if our representative institutions indeed represent the range of this varied society. But individual by individual, none of us should be assumed to be prisoners of the country our parents came from or the faith they or we profess.