Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s tough, broadly of the center, has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has proved she is not averse to risk. She has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.