We’re a hot mess, this bad-tempered country of ours. More than 40% of Republicans are slouching toward full-blown autocracy, favorably disposed, in one poll, toward a presidency unfettered by constitutional checks and balances. An even greater percentage of the party of Lincoln thinks Donald Trump is a better president than Lincoln.
At the other extreme are those who look out across the fruited plain and see only silos of identity — of race, gender, faith and class — alongside bushels of guilt. It’s shame, shame, shame all the time. Wave a flag at your peril. The founders were not Woke. Cancel them.
There’s no relief from the exhaustion of our national crackup. Even without impeachment, the holidays are a bracket of culture wars, the muted expressions of cheer loaded with political subterfuge. Taking in this eagle with a broken wing, some of our best historians now wonder if any kind of shared national narrative is possible in a nation where so many feel estranged in a strange land.
Yet, if you look again — through obfuscations foreign and domestic, beyond the noise of the social media mob — you find a durable past that may just save us yet. The big story of the American experiment, a nation that is not an ethnic, racial or religious state but an idea, is not dead. It’s not even past.
For starters, despite a presidential policy sourced from the sewers of white supremacy, a nation of immigrants has not turned against immigrants. The consensus, though battered, is intact: About 60% of Americans say openness to outsiders is essential to our identity. The majority says immigrants strengthen the country.
Twice before, this animating idea has been under deadly assault. In the 1850s, as waves of ravaged Irish refugees washed up on our shores, the Know Nothing Party rose to keep them from becoming citizens. The huddled masses were too dirty, too criminal, too foreign, too loud, too clannish, too Catholic. Lincoln despised the Know Nothings; his rise helped lead to their demise.
Then, again, in the early 20th century our better angels were on the run. At a time when upward of 5 million Americans took an oath to the Ku Klux Klan, the America of the 1920s was restructured to the Klan’s design. Black voting had already been wiped out in the South, and the emasculating repression of Jim Crow prevailed even in some Northern states.
With the 1924 immigration bill, the Klan achieved its other top goal: the most restrictive nativist act in history. It was aimed at closing the gate against “undesirables” — mainly Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians and Greeks from Southern Europe and Armenians from Turkey, among others. The Chinese had already been specifically singled out for exclusion. The design was to ensure “pure Americanism,” a nation of white, native-born Protestants.
And yet, here we are again, with the percentage of foreign-born residents at the highest level in more than a hundred years, nearly 14% of the population. And we are all trying to live by the American master narrative — despite pulls from the left and right to go tribal.
“These values my grandparents taught me, they haven’t gone anywhere,” said President Barack Obama in outlining American exceptionalism in 2016. It was one of the great speeches of his presidency, and worth recalling now, in these dark days, as the strongest case ever made for progressive patriotism.
“That’s why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service,” he said. “That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
This is the country, Obama said in another speech, “where you can write your own destiny.” He certainly could not have said that had he landed here, in chains, in 1619.
But 1619 was not predestination, as some would have it. It was followed by the emancipation of 1863, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Obama’s own election in 2008. None of it purged the original sin of enslavement, but it showed that the American people, more often than not, write their destiny for the better.
Today, there is no external enemy to unite us — not the British Crown, Nazi Germany or a Communist Soviet Union. For much of the world, and more than half of the United States, Trump is the uniter — the repellent-in-chief. As we saw again this week in Europe, the president is a laughingstock, mocked for his buffoonery, ignorance and bluster. In just a few days abroad, he made 21 false statements, a microcosm of his presidency.
At home, he wages war on American institutions: the military, the courts, Congress, the press, respect for truth, the Constitution itself. But he also faces certain impeachment, because what he did warrants no other choice. Though he most likely won’t be removed, a majority of Americans say he has committed an impeachable offense. He will be forever remembered for the gross violations of his oath.
We should be loud and proud with this to the rest of the world: L’état, c’est moi is nowhere in the founding documents. That’s another story America can yet tell.
Timothy Egan is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.