Making America Un-American

 /  March 25, 2017, 4:19 a.m.


When you have a visa to enter the United States, you are classified as a “legal alien,” a term which, I have always thought, sounds like it came out of a science fiction movie. In the last month many of these “legal aliens” as well as green card holders were simply told they could not come back into the United States. After a hectic week, many people who left the United States legally, and legally had a right to return, were told not to come back by an executive order and were stranded in airports for hours or days. This came in the aftermath of President Trump’s executive order that paved the way for the construction of the wall on the southern border. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric turned from campaign slogans to real policy affecting real people. Here’s what it’s like to be a foreigner living in Trump’s America.

When I showed my concern about his rhetoric, my friends said that he surely wasn’t referring to qualified foreigners with all of their documents in order, and I believed them. When “the wall” was made official, the concern was about people who cross the border illegally, so no threat there. When the refugee ban and the Muslim ban kicked in, again the excuse was that I come from the other side of the world, and that surely that wouldn’t affect me. But how long can I continue to say that it won’t affect me, a Colombian national and legal resident of the US?

In the last couple of decades, the United States has welcomed high levels of immigration from diverse cultures around the world. Despite restrictions arising from 9/11 and increasing concern about national security, the borders have not been closed. In 2015, more than one million green card holders, nearly seventy thousand refugees, and eight thousand people who had been granted asylum entered the country. I was among the 74 million non-immigrants who had entered the United States with short-term visas. In 2014, there were also 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Assuming that that number did not change dramatically in a year, there were approximately 19 million foreigners in the United States in 2015, including unauthorized immigrants and people holding non-business or tourist visas (student, temporary work, and diplomatic visas). This accounts for about 6 percent of the total population.

In a more visually observable sense, look at the maps of major cities in the United States and you’ll see the imprints left by immigrants: San Francisco’s or New York’s Chinatown, Chicago’s Greektown, Pilsen, and Polish Downtown, Miami’s Little Cuba … the list is nearly endless. Both the communities that migrated long ago, like the Polish community in Chicago, and those that migrated more recently, like Cubans in Miami, have brought their cultures (foods, products, traditions) to the United States and continue to live by them. The cultural diversity they brought to major cities has become a tourist attraction in itself. The United States has no official language, professing to be a cultural “melting pot.” And, most importantly, the American symbol for freedom, Lady Liberty, holds “The New Colossus” at her feet. American Liberty makes a promise to all:  

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

What makes Trump terrifying is not what he’s actually doing, but the story he’s telling and what he is making Americans believe is OK. Historically, American political institutions have largely been free of major political distress, including revolutions or dictatorships. However, there is a lot to be said about the country’s distinct political culture, what it values in politics, and what it looks for in its leaders, and the first place to start is with Alexis de Tocqueville.  

Tocqueville, a French national, observed American democracy in its infancy. Tocqueville defined three primary features that maintain democracy in the United States: vast resources, legislative system and laws, and “customs,” or, vaguely, the culture. He marvelled at the power of the masses, the belief that power directly emanates from the people, and the fact that it is the people, as a majority, who are to make decisions of governance. The majority establishes truth, a creed, that determines who is in and who is out. This majority is not racial or ethnic or class-based; it is the majority of those who hold a belief in American democracy.

American democracy also birthed a new form of tyranny, one in which dissent from the public opinion is severely punished, and the influence of mass media keeps a strong part of the government going. The one who holds power is not the one who holds the keys to the prison or the whip, it is the one who holds public opinion. The tyranny is ideological, and whoever rejects what the public opinion holds is the pariah, the excluded, the oppressed. As Trump manages to consolidate his restriction on media by banning reporters from rallies and from briefings, he acquires a dominion over mass media that creates an epistemological rupture. Notoriously, Kellyann Conway coined the term “alternative facts” referring to Sean Spicer’s statements that exaggerated the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Conway was banned in media sources because of this defense of provable falsehoods as “alternative facts.” She was even corrected by the Merriam Webster's dictionary on Twitter. The Trump administration is building a reality in which those who fact-check are cut out and those who who are controlling the mass media can tell falsehoods disguised as truths.

The United States was founded by a Christian people, upon the principle of equality. This is the equality from which each person has an individuality that participates in politics. Although it was originally meant for white men, it has spread to all citizens of the country. Christian ideals are the moral justification of American democracy. The people who make up the American majority are so convinced of their power, the guidelines within which they use it, and their moral justifications for doing so that any form of opposition to that creed is simply out of the question. The person who does not follow the American creed is simply “un-American.”

So what exactly is this American creed? It is, in brief, a statement of the most basic democratic values. The official text was written by William Tyler Page and registered in the Congressional Report in April 1918. It reads:

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my Country to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag and to defend it against all enemies.

The United States, from its very foundation, has been deemed exceptional. Tocqueville recognized that exceptionalism in his analysis of American democracy and of how the nation was formed and kept together. More recently, the notion of American exceptionalism has been explored by sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. His notion of exceptionalism is bound to a morally neutral understanding of uniqueness; it is a “double-edged sword” with both negative and positive features. Lipset’s theory is based on an enhanced notion of the American creed. First, he proposes that America’s notion of citizenship is not bound to a national-historical tradition as many European countries are. “Being an American … is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American.” In other words, it is not the legitimacy of one’s ancestry or how many generations one’s family has lived here that make one American. It is not having great-grandparents who fought in the Civil War or founded the nation. What makes people American is believing in American values—following the American creed.

Lipset revises the American creed and defines it as a combination of five values: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire, the first three of which are the most relevant to an analysis of what it is to be American in the Trump era. Liberty refers to respect for individual action, which forms the basis for the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of association. Equality refers to fair treatment and access to opportunities. This disregards more traditional forms of stratification like those created through feudal or monarchical systems. Thirdly, Americans are highly individualistic, politically above all. This means that individuals’ opinions are respected, that there is great political empowerment in the population, in grassroot associations and a bottom-up approach to politics. The rights and duties of the individual are emphasized. Americans are firm believers in the stability of their institutions and in the importance of the people deciding who is to govern. The very idea of the American Dream is to make us believe that those who work hard can make it on their own. And as long as they don’t get into anyone else’s hair, the government will be there to protect their individual rights.

Americans are moralistic. Protestantism, despite being separated from the state long ago, has been pervasive throughout American culture, fostering sectarianism, associationalism, and a deep concern for doing what is “right.” When Michelle Obama famously claimed “when they go low, we go high,” or when Hillary Clinton said “I’m sorry that we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country” and quoted Scripture in her concession speech, they were pointing toward a strong moral compass in politics, a strong notion of doing what is right. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s speech exemplified the moralism of American politics. Her speech began with a moving appeal to vote for Clinton because the presidency is a moral position. “This election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” she said. The same moralism was evident when she claimed that “Hillary understands that the president is about one thing and one thing only, it's about leaving something better for our kids. That's how we've always moved this country forward, by all of us coming together on behalf of our children, folks who volunteer to coach that team, to teach that Sunday school class, because they know it takes a village.” The presidency is not political, it is not about leading nations into war, labor, poverty, immigration. Primarily, the presidency is about role models, about being a morally admirable human being.

From this brief description of what makes the United States exceptional, according to social scientists, we can now observe with bewilderment how the actions of President Trump have interfered with the cultural notions of Americanness that have existed since the foundation of the country.

The Muslim ban is an attack on freedom of belief, on individualism, and on liberty. An entire group of people from seven countries, targeted by religion, have been banned from entering the United States, even if they have the right to do so. There is an argument to be made about travelers having a right to enter with their visas. Visas are permits issued by governments that allow the ingress of foreigners into their borders. Countries reserve the right to revoke or restrict ingress, increase regulations for ingress, or ban ingress of people of different countries. The violation to the right of those affected by the Muslim ban was that the grounds for banning their entrance were ambiguous at best (and very possibly religious). The procedure to enact the executive order that gave rise to the ban is, to say the least, rash. The violation to travelers’ rights lies in the fact that Trump banned their entry on the grounds of religion, and in doing so, changed the conditions to an agreement travelers had with the US government.

Sally Yates, the US attorney general who declared that she “did not believe the travel ban was lawful” was fired because she opposed the Muslim ban. This is an attack on individualism and moralism. It violates individualism because a person's capacity to perform her job correctly was undermined by a difference in ideology. Meritocracy was derogated by an ideological statement. Her hard and good work did not let her stay ahead, despite the American work ethic. It actually set her behind. Yates’s firing violates moralism because she was fired for doing what she, and many others, thought was right. Trump used moral rhetoric to defend his position, but his ideals do not represent American ideals because they counter moral and individual principles of American exceptionalism.

Here’s the twist: Trump’s moralistic discourse seems to resonate with the words of the American creed. It sounds like he is defending American moralism, but he is going against its spirit. Trump’s rhetoric asserts that he is defending the interests of the American people.

Consider his inauguration speech. He began by calling out the political “establishment,” claiming that it “protected itself, but not the citizens of the country.” He argued that he was defending the country of and for the people. Trump carried on with his account of the “American carnage” embodied in the security and economic crises. There was a call to protect Americans’ jobs and wealth by making America first. He claimed, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” and quoted the Bible. In his final remarks he called for unity: “Never forget that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the great American flag.” His speech reflects an effort to bring egalitarianism under the heading of patriotism, the protection of individualistic rights of those at the bottom, and to do this because it is right and just.

In this way, Trump is embodying the Jeffersonian paradox. Thomas Jefferson is proudly regarded as a champion of rights for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. The abolitionist slave-owner held deeply racist opinions, claiming whites were of “superior beauty” and claiming that African-Americans were “in reason much inferior” to whites (as quoted by Anthony Appiah in Color Conscious). The paradox is that even while Jefferson embraced advocacy for individualistic rights and protecting them, he held onto a blatant injustice. The same paradox existed with Jim Crow. Despite the American discourse of egalitarianism and individualism, of the protection of individual political rights, etc. Jim Crow laws blatantly kept segregation in place. The issue of Trump’s moralism is that it is easy to get behind because it abides by Page’s creed, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Constitution. The problem is that, like Jim Crow and like slavery, it does not apply to all.

The extremely dangerous part of Trump’s moralism is that it goes against historical progress in the acquisition of rights by women and minorities. The spirit of the American constitution, in its creed of egalitarianism and its protection of individuals from tyranny, is the basis on which minorities have fought for their rights. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution have laid out the path for minority empowerment. It has been a long and arduous journey, but the Civil Rights Act and Title IX are landmarks in the expansion of the population included in that egalitarianism and individualistic protection of rights. Trump has taken the historical momentum of the progressive endorsement of the socially liberal mentality that has extended rights to communities not even considered to be subjects of rights in 1787, and has halted it. His comments have progressively disenfranchised populations that have earned their rights, justifying their marginalization with American patriotism and moralism. Despite his moralist rhetoric, Trump’s behavior is a message to the American community that there are people who are less worthy of democratic rights. His discourse appeals to morality, but its spirit conflicts with that of the spirit and evolution of American democracy. His recent political activity has promoted a surge in hate crimes.

Putting aside for a moment the ethical concerns over his comments regarding women and the disabled, Trump has been accused and found guilty of fraudulent behaviors, specifically regarding Trump University and several of his real estate developments. In over four thousand lawsuits, he has had to face 208 dispute cases, many of which he lost. Additionally, he has faced lawsuits for sexual assault. He even refused to make his tax returns public, being the first presidential candidate to do so in decades. The moralism that has undermined political clientelism, that made Nixon resign, and that risked Clinton’s presidency for his love affairs was cast aside in the election of Trump.

Trump perpetuates dangerous stereotypes about immigrants in the employment of moralist rhetoric. He promised to publish a list of the crimes committed by illegal immigrants on a weekly basis. This stereotype cripples individualism, by associating people of a certain ethnicity with criminality and by hindering their access to meritocratic benefits. Advocating for people to believe that certain nationalities breed criminals is not only logically unsound (a clear ad hominem fallacy), but it also creates a title that hinders people from individual advancement. It holds individuals back from achieving their full potential by treating them as a criminal class for belonging to a certain group. It also weakens egalitarianism, by condemning an entire race to be shamed or treated with less dignity because of its wrongful association with excessive criminality.

Donald Trump really is the anti-establishment figurehead, fundamentally because he is attacking the American creed unlike any other politician has ever done before. His actions undermine the foundational values of the United States. Trump has taken the American creed, the ideology that generates American citizenship, and has spun it, turned it, manipulated it, and attacked it. Instead of making America great, his policies, if anything show anti-Americanism.   

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Patricia Van Hissenhoven Florez