America’s Mirror on the Wall

A year into his presidency, Trump has proven to be a reflection of the nation’s darkest political traditions.

President Trump pumps his fists into the air.
President Trump celebrates after his Inauguration speech on January 20, 2017.  (Saul Loeb / Pool / Reuters)

One year ago, Donald Trump stood in front of a nation still in shock at the outcome of the 2016 election, and listening as the president-elect spoke in his inaugural address to see what he would be about: preventing “American Carnage.”

The landscape that he painted was bleak. “[F]or too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leave our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”

Over the past year, as he embarked on his campaign to Make America Great Again, much of the nation has been disturbed by some of the ideas that have gained currency in the national debate. It is tempting to think of the worst elements of President Trump’s tenure as a deviation from American history. The nativism, the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the insular, xenophobic nationalism that have circled around this president, and sometimes flared from within him, have been too unsettling to be smoothly incorporated into the American understanding of the nation’s fundamental values. In 2018, Americans must be better than that, or so many say.

But that understanding of America lets the country off the hook too easily. Viewing the aggressive and socially divisive elements of President Trump’s conservative populism as a deviation from the enlightened path of the nation romanticizes the American political tradition as being purely about cherished values such as liberty, freedom, equality, opportunity, representation, free markets, and justice. This view of America whitewashes away huge swaths of U.S. history in order to perpetuate the myth that at its essence America is a shining city on the hill.

But several generations of historians since the 1960s have shattered this myth. The regressive side of the Trump presidency is just as inscribed in the American political tradition as Ronald Reagan’s optimism or Barack Obama’s call for racial healing.

That is what makes moments such as the “shithole” nations comment so disturbing to see. The problem is not just what they say about President Trump, but what they say about America itself.

Nativism is nothing new. Each era when the nation liberalized its immigration policies to let more people into the country, the open doors have quickly been followed by a fierce backlash. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 followed several years of brutal violence against Chinese workers. The influx of immigrants in the early 20th century from Eastern and Southern Europe ended after a decade of intense nativist attack that found respectability at the highest levels of power. Scholarly experts were praised when they promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics to demonstrate how the brains of the urban newcomers were inferior. Politicians warned of “race suicide” for Anglo-Saxons and even progressive reformers were desperate to Americanize the “foreigners” who were living in cities like New York and Chicago. Labor leaders in the burgeoning union movement, the historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote, were so deeply divided along ethnic and racial lines before the 1930s that effective organization and strike activity often proved impossible to sustain. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that imposed a national quota system that limited the number of immigration visas to be granted to specific nationalities, particularly those regarded as inferior to “Anglo-Saxon” stock (such as Italians or Eastern Europeans), in order to restrict immigration that would remain in place until 1965.

Racism has always been in the American bloodstream. Of course, the national economy and its government were founded on the institution of slavery. The subjugation and importation of Africans to the American South was at the heart of the cotton trade. Americans fought an entire Civil War before slavery came to an end, and the nation subsequently experimented with a bold plan for Reconstruction, only to see noxious Jim Crow laws put into place that denied African Americans their newly won political rights and created a racially segregated economy that left much of the freed population living in conditions that were decisively separate and unequal. Notwithstanding the enormous progress born out of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans have learned in recent years how little progress the nation has made on problems like institutional racism. Residential segregation continues, racism shapes every part of the American criminal-justice system, and American educational policies perpetually place significant portions of the population in a disadvantaged position simply because of the color of their skin. In 1968, the Kerner Commission warned that, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal,” and that "white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.” That assessment could easily apply to today, where segregation and racial inequality remain lingering problems.

Of course, sexism is nothing new either. Americans have always found novel ways to subject more than 50 percent of the population to a lesser economic and political standing. Until the early 20th century, women were not even allowed to vote for their elected officials. Conditions clearly improved with the ratification of the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage, but the majority of women were still unable to fully participate in the workforce, ghettoized to less desirable jobs, and paid at lower rates. They inhabited a culture where gender norms confined women to “nurturing roles” as mothers and wives. There remain fewer women in most leadership positions, from politics to the corporate world, despite all the gains of feminism. There were no serious sexual-harassment laws to speak of until the 1970s, and unequal pay remains a major problem throughout most industries. The revelations from the #MeToo movement regarding the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace have exposed just how poorly anti-discrimination laws have been enforced.

The kind of insular, xenophobia in foreign policy that looks down at the character of other peoples has a long and un-proud history. Politicians have routinely blasted other cultures and societies in discussions of U.S. foreign policy. Certain populations, such as Asians or Arabs, have frequently been the target of ridicule or fear. Proponents of internationalism that called for muscular American involvement overseas have used these stereotypes to justify the U.S. exercising military power, while America Firsters have drawn on the same arguments to warn of the danger Americans face in trying to help “inferior” populations who are forever doomed to their problems.

Not only are these uglier values part of the American political tradition, but in varying degrees they have tragically served as a foundation of the strategies used by politicians who champion white working- and middle-class Americans. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have frequently promoted political agendas that reify these social divisions based on the claim that it was necessary for struggling white Americans to reap the benefits of government support.

The expansion of white male suffrage in the 19th century depended on the perpetuation of a system where African Americans and women were denied the right to vote. President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait now occupies the Oval Office, is an ongoing reminder of these contradictory impulses. During the New Deal—a highpoint of liberalism—FDR famously won the support of southern Democratic committee chairmen in the House and Senate by excluding the African American workforce from programs such as Social Security. Policies such as unemployment insurance, the historian Linda Gordon recounted, were crafted around the ideal of the single male wage-earning family, leaving women to be brought under coverage only as widows or mothers. Though the nation rejected Alabama Governor George Wallace’s troubling brand of racist populism during his presidential runs in 1964 and 1968, submerged appeals to such sentiments could be found as part of the campaign rhetoric of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Both men called for “law and order” in the cities railed against dishonest welfare recipients, and praised states’ rights in their right-wing appeal to disaffected Democrats. Conservatives of this era deride “political correctness,” often a code-word for the rights of women or the rights of LGBT citizens, as getting in the way of “serious” programs to help struggling Americans find good jobs.

The exception to this ongoing trade off came in the Great Society programs of the 1960s, when  Democrats pushed for civil and voting rights legislation, eased discriminatory restrictions on immigration that had been put into the law in the 1920s, while simultaneously pushing programs like Medicare and federal aid to education that boosted the security of white working Americans as well. But President Lyndon Johnson’s era, depended on a robust civil-rights movement built from the bottom up to push back against the reactionary ideas that still animated political debate. When the civil-rights movement started to fracture by 1968, this synthesis of economic and racial liberalism started to weaken, and became overwhelmed by a white backlash. And of course Johnson himself continued to express negative views of African Americans even as he pushed for civil-rights legislation, and the war in Vietnam was premised that the inhabitants of this “pissant” country, as Johnson called it, could be crushed into submission.

Today, President Trump is creating his own version of this American political tradition. Not only has he tapped directly into the divisive ideas from the past, but he has sold the trade off to his supporters: The white rural voters who stand behind him, Trump says, need a president intent on attacking other segments of the country if they want to survive. America needs to build a wall to stop immigrants if it wants to bring back jobs. America has to be tough on “law and order,” particularly against immigrant gangs and African American youth, to keep the city streets safe for everyone else. The nation must fight against the political correctness police if it wants to remake a country that is fair for red-blooded, testosterone-filled men. Americans have to stand firm against dangerous Muslims and “shithole” African and Latin American nations if they are to protect their own national interests.

Perhaps the real reason that it feels so hard to look at President Trump is that Americans see too much of themselves in him. He is the mirror that exposes the nation’s contradictions. The deal he keeps offering rural Americans who make up his “base,” namely that he can help them but only if they empower him to go after others, is one that Americans have heard many times before. In the end, maybe that is what makes Trump so disturbing—the president as American as apple pie.