The United States of America


Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council, and an Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking. At the time, the president seemed untroubled by Trump. When I told Obama that I thought Trump’s candidacy was an explicit reaction to the fact of a black president, he said he could see that, but then enumerated other explanations. When assessing Trump’s chances, he was direct: He couldn’t win.

This assessment was born out of the president’s innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people—the same traits that had propelled his unlikely five-year ascent from assemblyman in the Illinois state legislature to U.S. senator to leader of the free world. The speech that launched his rise, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, emerged right from this logic. He addressed himself to his “fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents,” all of whom, he insisted, were more united than they had been led to believe. America was home to devout worshippers and Little League coaches in blue states, civil libertarians and “gay friends” in red states. The presumably white “counties around Chicago” did not want their taxes burned on welfare, but they didn’t want them wasted on a bloated Pentagon budget either. Inner-city black families, no matter their perils, understood “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

Perceived differences were the work of “spinmasters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ ” Real America had no use for such categorizations. By Obama’s lights, there was no liberal America, no conservative America, no black America, no white America, no Latino America, no Asian America, only “the United States of America.”

I didn’t read Dreams from My Father, the memoir that catapulted Obama onto the national stage, when it came out, and I still haven’t read it. I listened to Obama’s famous keynote address at the DNC in 2004, but certainly with less enthusiasm than most. Books and speeches by politicians about their lives arouse in me an innate disgust. Each politician tries to place himself within the American tradition, and that tradition is inevitably distorted for the purposes of narrative. Joe Biden claimed, ahead of the 2016 presidential election, that a victory for Trump would be antithetical to the American project: “We’re America. We don’t scare easily. We never bend. We never break, we never bow, we endure, we overcome. We move forward. We are America and we will own the finish line in the 21st century. That is what this election is about!”. Obama, as implied by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s passage above, agreed. Cory Booker, after Trump’s election, opined “Patriotism—let’s get to the root of the word—means love of country. You cannot love your country if you don’t love your countrymen and women…Love says everybody has worth and has dignity. It’s about looking at someone and … understanding that my destiny is interwoven with your destiny”.

I don’t believe any of that. I don’t love many of my countrymen and women. I don’t believe that America is about “mov[ing] forward”. I don’t think there is only one “United States of America”, and that we’re all on the same team. I don’t share the former president’s “innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people”. I don’t believe that half of the country gives a shit about my destiny, or considers it interwoven with theirs. I no longer heed Michelle Obama’s admonition, “When they go low, we go high”. I am tired of hearing about a “conspiracy of love”, or “the arc of the moral universe” bending towards justice, or how Republicans need hugs.

I do understand why politicians say these things. Coates wrote,

Obama’s DNC speech is the key. It does not belong to the literature of “the struggle”; it belongs to the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased. That is the tradition to which the “skinny kid with a funny name” who would be president belonged. It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.

Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined. His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 contributed to his declining favorability numbers among whites—still a majority of voters.

The sentiment tugs at the heartstrings of the white “independent” voter who would like to believe that the world Obama describes is not too far away, and that the election of a magical politician like him would make it imminent. Coates writes that Obama would not have won without providing such reassurance, and I agree with him.

The unfortunate thing, though, is that this sort of political rhetoric acquires greater and greater force the more often it is uttered. Or, perhaps more accurately, in order to be a convincing political speaker you must have deluded yourself first, or else the performance comes across as insincere cant. A large number of Democrats do indeed believe in the fundamental goodness of Americans; the danger of embracing the “dark arts” of Republican politicians; and of the necessity, or even wisdom, of combating hatred with love. Like Obama, they believe in extending one’s hand across the aisle, no matter how many times it is slapped away. Perhaps this pablum was needed to win in 2008 and 2012, but its long-term effects strike me as quite pernicious.

Republicans have convinced their supporters that institutions they might otherwise respect, such as academia, the media, and the judiciary, have been irreparably poisoned by liberal ideology and therefore should not be trusted. The strategy has been a long-term one, executed over the course of several decades. Democrats have not adopted corresponding tactics themselves, partly because of the difficulty in reconciling the two disparate messages: one, that, as Cory Booker says, “you’re [not] going to beat darkness by stealing darkness”, and two, that organizations like ICE and institutions like the Supreme Court are evil and their reputations should be impugned. If you believe that we are all really just one America, then John Roberts and Sam Alito and Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are part of that America, and if you believe that “we’ve got to be people of love”, then you would oppose efforts to slander them. The ultimate consequence is that Democrats feel quite positively towards institutions or people that are acting against their interests.

A 2016 Harvard University-designed survey, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, found a quarter of Republicans saw the Supreme Court as “very liberal” or “liberal,” whereas only a fifth of Democrats saw the Court as “very conservative” or “conservative.” This was first pointed out by Sean McElwee, a researcher with the progressive think tank Data for Progress. Between 2014 and 2016, there was a shift among Democrats, more of whom saw the Supreme Court as “middle of the road.”

(What’s remarkable is that the Supreme Court has reflected conservative interests ever since Thurgood Marshall was replaced by Clarence Thomas in 1991, and still a substantial chunk of Republicans think it’s liberal. That’s a testament to Republican messaging and the general idiocy of its base.)

The Supreme Court is not an exception in this regard. George W. Bush is viewed favorably by nearly half of Democrats, and his favorability has increased ever since Trump took office. (If you’d forgotten what a mondo shithead Bush is, remember that just this past week, he called Susan Collins numerous times on Kavanaugh’s behalf.) Jeff Flake was praised by members of the “Resistance” for delaying Kavanaugh’s vote by one week for a sham investigation, even after voting him out of the Judiciary Committee. Democratic Senator Chris Coons described him as a “hero” for doing so. People continued to believe in the fundamental goodness of Susan Collins until the very end. Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes desperately want to believe that Kavanaugh is a decent human being, and that as a judge he will be an apolitical umpire, calling balls and strikes, despite all evidence to the contrary. Each of these opinions, in my view, stems from a theory of politics similar to Obama’s and Booker’s.

The alternative to believing in the fundamental decency of the American people, or of Republicans, is, well, not to do so. It is to take the messaging that has been applied successfully to ICE and extend it to the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the Republican Party. It is to harness the hatred and anger that is coursing through the Democratic base and apply it towards the institutions that, time after time, obstruct progressive change. And, like the corresponding Republican efforts, it will be a decades-long project.

What happens if Democrats continue to practice politics as usual? I’m reminded of two quotes.

Questioned about the Bush v Gore decision, back in the late 2000s, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “That comes up all the time, and my usual response is ‘get over it’.” And Democrats, for the most part, did. The Obama administration was not so much a repudiation of the Bush administration but an attempt to forget it ever happened, to paper over the torture and war crimes by adopting an attitude of looking forwards, not backwards, to try to unite America through gauzy rhetoric while ignoring its fundamental and irreconcilable internal differences. The reputation of the court did not suffer a long-term blow despite its naked partisanship, and the legacy of Bush himself was not ruined despite the fact that his was an illegitimate election.

Fast forward 10 years. Mitch McConnell was asked, in a similar vein, about the Kavanaugh confirmation and its potential to cause backlash, and said, “These things always blow over.” My firm belief is that, as long as we hew to the politics of going high, of loving thy neighbor, of believing in “America” (whatever that means), and of rejecting the “dark” tactics of negative polarization, McConnell will be proven to be right.


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