What if Donald Trump is what America is all about?


President Donald Trump walks away after stepping off Marine One, on the South Lawn of the White House, Sunday, November 11, 2018, in Washington, DC PHOTO/AP/Alex Brandon

There is a widely accepted idea among some Americans that Trump does not reflect American values. They are wrong.

In an erudite and timely piece for the New York Times, published just a few days before the midterm elections in early November 2018, my distinguished Columbia University colleague Andrew Delbanco wrote a poignant essay about “The Long Struggle for America’s Soul.”

In this learned piece, Professor Delbanco writes passionately about the long US history of human suffering that had come before the cruel behaviours and policies of the democratically elected President Donald Trump, focusing specifically on slavery.

“Even free black people in the North …” we learn in this piece, “found their lives infused with terror of being seized and deported on the pretext that they had once belonged to someone in the South. The Fugitive Slave Act forced them to dread every footstep on the stairs and every knock on the door. As for the millions still in bondage in the South, it deepened the despair of the already desperate.”

Delbanco also points to some crucial events in the later history of the United States, such as Abraham Lincoln’s call for “re-adoption” of to the Declaration of Independence, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Civil Rights Movement as attempts to right the terrorising wrongs of slavery.

His excellent essay and his recent book from which it is drawn, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War (2018), seem to rest on the assumption that the “American Soul” is something quintessentially good and even noble, sublime, and beautiful to behold, and yet there are dark forces trying to take it over and spoil it.

But with due diligence and persistent struggle and perhaps even the grace of God, so this assumption goes, Americans will someday get there and win the noble battle for the “American Soul”.
Might the opposite be true?

This widely accepted idea of the benign essence of the “American soul”, however, has never been questioned and the opposite assumption – that it is not intrinsically good – has never been critically examined.

So might it be that exactly the opposite proposition is true: That this “American soul” might, in fact, be precisely what we now see in Trump and Trumpism, institutionalised not just in the heinous history of slavery but even earlier than that – in the genocidal history of American conquest and slaughter of native peoples?

And that the whole sustained history of US thuggish militarism on almost every continent on planet earth, waging wars, toppling regimes, instigating military coups is its natural manifestation?

We may, in fact, be hard pressed to find a single moment in American history when hateful racism, sexism, militarism, and xenophobia have not been entirely definitive to this “American soul”.

Could this “American soul” perhaps be something entirely diabolical, perturbed, vicious, vindictive, monstrously greedy from the get-go?

With far less historical erudition and far more political rhetoric liberal politicians ranging from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders keep telling Americans what Trump is doing “is not what America is all about.”

Campaigning against Donald Trump during the midterm elections, Obama went out and loudly declared: “We helped spread a commitment to certain values and principles like the rule of law and human rights and democracy and the notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.”

Really? Is that what the US has done around the globe? Who exactly is this “We”? Would that “We” include the US president who gave billions of dollars to Israel to slaughter Palestinians with ease and to the Saudis to commit war crimes in Yemen; and would it include the president before him who left Iraq and Afghanistan in ruins?

We seriously need to examine this American soul business and wonder what makes it so murderously detrimental to world peace, and while we are at it rediscover what is this “America really about”.

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