One Nation, Divisible

Tattered U.S. Flag

There’s no sugarcoating it. This is it. This is the end of a noble dream of progress, dreamt happily and fully still a week ago by those who thought the meaning of America was unity and equality. That this dream’s fulfilment was distant yet, but visible just over the horizon. A dream it was, to be sure, but it could have been dreamt longer. The rude awakening was unexpected and in cold sweat at 3 a.m., and it shocked starkly into consciousness the division of America. Unity and equality would have been a sham no matter which candidate had been elected. But an establishment operator like Hillary Clinton would not have prompted the worst fringe opinions to emerge in force just a day after her election. An outsider with no debt to parties and no pretension to the normal restraints of civility like Trump could and did enable them.

While many white Americans are holding their breaths and are eager to see whether President-elect Donald Trump will live up to the promises he made on the campaign trail; some with hope, others with trepidation, many of those belonging to minority groups are reeling already. Their grievances are real, and their fears justified. Yet even if further violence and denigration does not come their way – and to some, it already has – what will be lost for a generation at least is any semblance of trust in the political elites to protect their rights. This is true even if there is, against all odds, no change in civil rights legislation or enforcement in the Trump administration. It is true simply because Trump’s coarse discourse of othering made it thinkable to be racist and admit it, to be sexist and embrace it. To allow this may not have been the intention of many Trump supporters. It is, however, a direct effect of their votes.

The unity of America, evoked in Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric of “no red states and no blue states, only the United States of America” less than a decade ago, is no more. Not because it was lost since, but because it has not been believed by most since decades before then. What is also true is that, while nearly half of those who voted chose Trump, and a slightly larger contingent chose Clinton, the largest portion of the electorate chose no one. They did not not vote. The plurality is silent. The country, then, is divided about equally between those who supported either one of the two candidates, or no one at all. It is divided by an electoral system that makes third parties essentially irrelevant, forcing those who do not agree with any of the few serious choices in any one contest to sit out yet another election, yet another chance to make their voice heard. Or perhaps, these voices are heard very clearly. They are just not listened to. They are a pool of buyers to whom can be sold every election cycle a bill of goods they do not want but have no choice but to accept if they want to participate.

As the shocking normalization of actions that are not and ought never to be normal continues, exemplified by the installation of Breitbart News agitator, self-proclaimed “Leninist”, and avowed white supremacist Steve Bannon just down the corridor from the Oval Office, it is still unclear what this election means. It is certainly unclear what it will mean in the long run. Gathering from the behavior of both those elected and the fact that those who did not want them elected are already protesting in the streets, nothing good can come of this for the United States as a whole.

Autocracy may be in the offing, yes, and this is terrifying to contemplate. Sure, America in 2016 is not Weimar Germany, Trump is not Hitler, and Steve Bannon is not Goebbels. History, as Joanne Freeman pithily tweeted, does not repeat, but it teaches. America does not have to become a dictatorship, however, in order to betray its core promise of liberty and justice for all. It needs only reach back into this history.

Newt Gingrich, who is poised for a role in the new administration, suggested just this past summer that he was for creating a new House Un-American Activities Committee. History appears to have taught Gingrich the lesson that the first time around, this blight on liberal democracy was ineffective because it wasn’t done right. He has no compunction about its abuses and its basic premise, which flew then and flies now in the face of what the United States has told itself it stands for. This callous attitude towards what should be rights enshrined and revered is what we must beware of.

HUAC. A spectre ready to rise again?

From nineteenth-century nativism (“no Irish need apply”) to anti-German feeling during World War I, to the anticommunist Red Scare of the 1920s and the McCarthyist crusades of the 1950s, there are many long, dire moments in which the supposed promise of America failed its citizens. Most glaringly, of course, in terms of its original sin of slavery, and the resultant segregation, and discrimination. Division runs riverine through American history. Yet, among the many unforgiveable reasons why the anti-Trumpers lost (both during the Republican primaries and during the general election) was a heartening one. They thought better of their fellow citizens than that enough voters would condone, stomach, or tolerate such behavior.

The power structures of the new administration have yet to fall into place, but it is already becoming clear that some of the loudest voices in the camp of those who vowed never to support Trump have made their peace with him and are ready to play the game of politics. They are ready to do this in order to come out on top as the next election cycles roll around. To become profiteers of a wave of hatred ignited by Donald Trump, sustained by a willing cadre of hatemongers, and abetted by those for whom economic, class, or security issues were front and center, but who were ready to forgive the racism, sexism, and general xenophobia. While not nearly on the same level, it also did not help that Hillary Clinton infamously called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” Division reigned during this election season.

This, above all, is already the most insidious legacy and most pertinent lesson of an election not even a week old: that divisiveness pays dividends, that haters with appeal will find support.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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