As a point of strategy, it may behoove Democrats to embrace patriotic or nationalistic language — to insist that there is more than one way to make America great. As a matter of history, however, this tends to obscure the bitter and enduring conflicts of the past. During election season, many Democrats apparently believed their own story, assuming that Americans were too dedicated to the expansion of liberty to elect Donald Trump. His victory is a reminder that, despite the country’s fondness for aspirational rhetoric, our illiberal traditions have serious staying power, too.
Today’s Republicans seem to recognize this perfectly well. In the past three years, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised the 1924 immigration act as a matter of national self-preservation. Newt Gingrich has called for a revival of HUAC to contend with ISIS sympathizers. And the Ku Klux Klan and American fascist movements have experienced levels of attention and influence not seen since before World War II. Trump complains that he is being subjected to “witch hunts” and “McCarthyism” but has advocated policies — like a “registry” for Muslims — that hark back to the list-making and name-naming of the HUAC era.
For the president’s opponents, it may be comforting to believe that such policies are un-American. But as the editors of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted more than a century ago, “the things we hurry to denounce as un-American” are often “peculiarly and distinctly American.”
“A better and broader view,” they concluded, “seems to be that these problems are of our own creation, and are to be solved only by ourselves.”
Beverly Gage, “Second Nature”, The New York Times Magazine (26 March 2017), 14.