Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2020. Photo credit: Valerio Pucci / Shutterstock.com
I suppose we should give the president a round of applause. Donald Trump has done something no Democrat (and no liberal) could have done — demonstrate to a voting majority the anti-American animus of the “conservative” project of the last 40 years.
“Anti-American” might sound strange. This is, after all, the same president who vowed in 2016 to “Make America Great Again.” But if the incumbent has taught the majority nothing else, it’s the “America” of his famed campaign slogan is not the United States.
That “America” is a nation within a nation. It is an imagined community in which “real Americans” understand they are chosen by God to rule a country given by God. This birthright does not recognize the legitimacy of liberty and justice for all, because it cannot recognize them. The chosen do not have equals. The more you insist on equality, the more confederates insist your salvation comes only from submitting to their rule.
When this president calls himself a nationalist, he’s not talking about the United States. When he talks about borders, he’s not talking about US borders. He’s talking about himself as the leader of a “nation” defining itself less for what it is than for what it isn’t — less by its own values than by the values of its perceived domestic enemies.
In 1981, newly elected President Ronald Reagan said famously, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Most Americans gave him the benefit of the doubt. Most chose to believe he meant high taxes on the wealthy and high federal regulation of business and private enterprise. A government that does less of these things is a government that promotes greater liberty and broader prosperity.
The nation within a nation heard a different message. The “real Americans” heard a president saying the federal government would not push (especially southern) states into obeying Constitutional requirements to administer equal justice to their non-white residents. You could say Reagan’s inaugural speech became a mantra for four decades of anti-government politics. That’s not wrong, but that doesn’t arrive at its logical conclusion. It was the beginning of the Republican Party’s soft civil war.
To be sure, Reagan wasn’t anti-American. In the same speech, he said: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” (Thanks to David Lazarus for digging up that quote.)
To be sure, the remaining small-government conservatives in existence still believe that the federal government plays a legitimate role in regulating and coordinating responses to national crises, such as a pandemic that has killed, as of this writing, more than 68,500 people and put 30 million others on the jobless rolls. But a small-government conservative is not the same thing as an anti-American confederate.
During the financial panic and its aftermath, the Republicans discovered they could get the upper-hand on the newly elected Democratic president by ignoring Reagan’s conservatism. They stopped making government work at all. That caused massive suffering, even for GOP voters, but a chance to sabotage Barack Obama was worth it.
During the pandemic, the confederates took things a step further. They not only ignored Donald Trump’s gross negligence and dereliction of duty, but they also skimmed as much public money as possible for corporate friends and allies by passing huge coronavirus relief bills. At the same time, they saw a new opportunity to sabotage their domestic enemies even more by holding the rest of the country for ransom.
GOP leaders say they want to shield businesses against coronavirus-related lawsuits in exchange for bailing out cities and blue states fighting the worst of the pandemic. Democrats say that would incentivize GOP governors to “reopen” before it’s safe to, thus potentially sacrificing lives for the president’s benefit. (“Reopening” as soon as possible is thought to improve the economy, which is thought to be better for Trump.)
This isn’t what you do when you believe we’re one nation, indivisible. This isn’t what you do when you believe, as Reagan did, that “government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” This is what you do, however, when one’s loyalty is to a nation within a nation — when treason is an option.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.