The crisis Trump has led us into is driven most visibly by racism, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a crisis of two competing visions of America: whether it is a civic nation or an ethnic nation. Furthermore, it’s about what kind of reality that nation exists in.
(Summarizing from my book…) Before America was founded, every nation was an ethnic nation. National identity and ethnicity were the same thing: a mix of race and culture (bearing in mind that race is a largely mythical concept), tied to a particular land: Greece for the Greeks, Rome for the Romans, Germany for the Germans, France for the French.
A nation might include other ethnicities, often through conquest. But one of the ethnicities would be dominant, and that one would define the nation. It was believed there was an inherent nature to people from a particular land — and that belief persists today, widely, showing up on the political left as well as on the right.
But America was different, or so we thought. It was founded not on ethnicity but on ideas: The Enlightenment-era principles contained in the Constitution. Those principles included Locke and Rousseau’s “social contract” theory: a nation could be bound together not by shared ethnicity but by an agreement among free people. It would be a civic nation, not an ethnic nation.
The trouble is — our trouble is — civic nationalism was never embraced by all Americans. Some insisted there was more to a nation than a contract, and that culture, at least, was essential to it. Some of those insisted that race was too.
So the United States were never fully united. The division tearing us apart now didn’t begin with Trump, and didn’t even begin recently. It originated at the Founding.
It’s a division based on both race and culture — and more. The rejection of civic nationalism was part of a larger rejection of the Enlightenment itself: those who believed a contract couldn’t define a nation also believed that reason alone couldn’t define reality. They believed there must also be faith, intuition, tradition, and other non-rational ways of perceiving, understanding, and deciding. This Counter-Enlightenment worldview is also still widely held.
Trump has brought all of this to the crisis point, but he didn’t create it. And the involvement of not just race but culture and worldview is what makes it so hard to talk about.
Trump is, obviously, a racist, and so are many of his supporters. But many of them sincerely believe, rightly or wrongly, that they aren’t. And addressing what’s going on in terms of racism alone is not adequate to meeting the full scope of our crisis.
One could argue that all Trump supporters are racists, because supporting a racist president is an unavoidably racist choice. But many believe they support Trump because he is defending them against people who are immoral, irreligious, socialistic, or otherwise hostile to how they define American culture, and who represent a worldview they find cold and soulless.
So yes, what we’re seeing is, often enough, racism. But it’s nested within a larger context of ethnic nationalism vs. civic nationalism, which in turn is within a still larger context of an Enlightenment worldview vs. a Counter-Enlightenment worldview.
People who live within those two worldviews have different values and different perceptions, use language differently, and even define truth differently. To people of the Counter-Enlightenment worldview, for example, there is a higher truth than the facts.
All of this is why it’s so hard for the two sides to even talk to each other without concluding the other side is crazy, or evil, or both.
In some cases — in many cases, with Trump himself — what we’re seeing is simply racist white supremacy.
But in others it may be culture, or worldview, or it might be any mix of race, culture, and worldview.
In order to make real progress at healing the division, we have to understand all of it.