Vast quantities of ink have been spilled over the astonishing rise of Donald Trump. The explanations for the Trump phenomenon are now legion, ranging from an economy that has been unkind to many Americans to generational conflict to a media-savvy candidate in a supremely media-fixated age. The one perspective that deserves more attention is the way the Trump campaign, knowingly or not, has posed a direct challenge to a long established and still vital aspect of American national identity.
Though most Americans may not realize it, their country entered the twentieth century a white male republic. White men dominated the electorate; virtually everyone else was excluded from full citizenship and in some cases flatly denied citizenship. By the 1960s the outsiders who had gained or were claiming a fuller place in national life included women, native Americans, and Americans of Asian, Jewish, Italian, and African descent. The pressure for inclusivity has persisted down to the present, with the most recent wave of change evident in LBGTQ demands for rights enjoyed by others. Immigration legislation passed in 1965 further diluted the dominance of white males by opening the doors to peoples from all around the world to a degree not seen since the influx of newcomers that peaked around the start of the twentieth century. Collectively, these changes in status and demography have transformed the country and especially its understanding of citizenship in ways more dramatic than anything earlier in U.S. history.
How and why this happened is an important story. The short version is that the American state came increasingly under pressure during World War II and the Cold War to make good on its much vaunted international claims to embody a fully functioning democracy free of racism and prejudice and devoted to opportunity for all. That pressure was generated by citizens demanding change. It was also generated by political leaders such as Truman and Johnson who were determined to make good on claims to global leadership by closing the gap between the promise and reality of American democracy.
The consequences were the rise of an inclusive, multi-cultural polity and society but also the marginalization of white males as once subordinate groups made good on calls for equality. In short, as women, ethnics, blacks, and others have claimed a full place as citizens, white male privilege has inevitably suffered. A black man in the White House and a woman trying to follow him there are galling reminders of the continued deterioration of the old order. They pose the question “How far to the margins will white males ultimately be pushed?”
What is surprising is how long this transformation in our understanding of citizenship has taken to generate a full blown challenge. The Tea Party was a harbinger; the Trump candidacy is its full fledged expression. Skillfully Trump has managed to tap white male resentment by demeaning talk of women plagued by periods, Muslims bent on harming the homeland, Mexican criminals and spongers, and African Americans who don’t grasp their own interests. While always careful to leave room for retreat or denial, Trump has played on old, still potent ethnic, gender, and racial stereotypes.
We would all do well to recognize what is at stake in this presidential election. It is nothing less than the reconfiguration of American nationalism. Trump should admit that his claim to the presidency rests on renegotiating the terms of citizenship in what would amount to a reversal of the long-term trend toward inclusion and to a restoration of at least a modicum of white male privilege. Hillary Clinton for her part should directly confront the magnitude of this challenge and make explicit its long-term meaning for all Americans. She needs to explain what she means by her bland claim that we are “stronger together.” Perhaps most important of all, Americans of all political persuasions should recognize that they like other peoples operate within an envelop of their own nationalism and that nationalism is not fixed but undergoes changes, sometimes dramatically for better or worse. We now may be approaching one of those times of change and the consequences could be momentous.