The United States seems as divided today as it has ever been. Racial, economic, religious, and intellectual divisions have spread us further and further apart. And while it’s in the country’s DNA to be divisive, things are seemingly at a breaking point.
Politicians call for the country to come together. Is it even possible?
Is it possible for there to be “one” America?
Or maybe a better question is, has there ever been one America? A country founded on dissent, based on bringing different cultures together. The term “melting pot” has been used over and over.
When imagining the “great” America that Donald Trump seeks to return to, something painted by Norman Rockwell comes to mind. That is one part of the U.S., and it is the one that dominated politics and society for much of recent memory. This is where the problems arise. The idealistic/idyllic white families sitting around a dinner table and discussing swap meets with a dog dreaming at their feet and a white picket fence around the front yard only worked for one portion of the country. That is not the predominant culture (whether symbolically or otherwise) of this country.
The painting pictured above, aptly titled Freedom From Want, depicts the only piece of the country that could actually afford freedom from want. This is the demographic that had it all/everything, and they feel as though it is slipping away.
As in the video posted by the Atlantic, the U.S. is no longer a white, Christian nation.
But the notion that it is only the subjects of those paintings struggling with the social progress and equality embraced by modern society doesn’t tell the whole story either. It’s easy to pigeonhole Trump voters simply as diversity-averse, salty white people mad about social change (though that is certainly a good portion of the Trump demographic). The political machine has in general left a formerly thriving section of the country without answers.
The government certainly isn’t to blame for tech progress taking away factory jobs that once produced home-owning, happy families free from want.
(As we discuss in Those jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back)
Nor is it to be blame for asking a large group of people who weren’t ready to share majority status to accept progress, change, and equality. Who weren’t ready to lose their predetermined designation as beneficiaries of the American Dream. But, the reality is that this group of people is now fighting back with everything they’ve got, while Latinx and black Americans, while refugees and immigrants in general, while so many other groups are still trying to find footing in a country where the government has turned against them.
The meaning of country
The divisiveness we are experiencing seems, in hindsight, inevitable. The vitriol that overflowed from left and right throughout presidential campaign wasn’t simply going to disappear after the election.
Country, by definition, is a simple set of borders. It’s land mass with a particular government.
The notion of country has been perverted into a symbol of identity, rather than place. What the United States of America means to me matters more than what it means to you, is often at the core of argument. This was made clear, for example, during Tomi Lahren’s recent discussion with Trevor Noah. Everyone has a different notion of what their country represents depending on personal experience, history, and relationship to that country and its laws. What needs to be fixed changes based on these factors.
To the descendants of slaves, it is a country still tilted against them. To the descendants of slave holders, it is a country tilting too much in favor of the descendants of slaves. And then everyone else in the middle with their hands up like, I just came to make a better life, what happened to that?
Those are vastly simplistic generalizations. But that’s the point. This is the brush we are painting with now, evidenced by the xenophobia against immigrants (Muslims in particular) and the caricature-ization of people from every walk of life. If you’re _____, then you must be _____, which creates a world of strawmen. And if we only look at brush strokes without seeing the full portrait, how can the country ever come together?
But there are groups actively fighting against inclusion and equality, against the changing of the tides. Fighting against “coming together” for anyone other than cis white Americans. The alt-right, watered down or straight up (the term was coined by self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer), is the largest such group.
No country for old men
It’s easy to dismiss the movement as white supremacists with keyboards – the left won the culture war, after all (read the National Review’s take on that here), so if they are white supremacists then they will surely be called out, wiped out, kicked out soon enough. A racist in this era is a tangible enemy.
But it’s not that simple.
Yes, the alt-right being portrayed in a growing number of headlines (google search alt-right) looks a lot like the Nazis did in 1930’s Germany. They want to do to America what Hitler wanted to do to the Fatherland. Clear out the immigrants. Establish a pure, white, lawful America. Blame groups that look a different way for the problems facing the collective.
Then everyone says, Oh, well that’s evil. Evil never wins. Look at history, what happened to Hitler. It will go away soon enough. We make progress here. Look at women’s suffrage and civil rights and same-sex marriage...
Yes, we should stop calling them the alt-right and start calling them white supremacists, racists, bigots, etc. But to do so stops short and misses the larger picture. To do so is to miss what the movement is really about, and it’s much more chilling and much less tangible than the media would like to believe.
To discredit the alt-right as such is to make the same mistake as was made with Trump. It doesn’t take the problem, or it’s followers, seriously.
But why, you ask, would we take the movement seriously? Why would we give any credit or attention to such hateful, backwards, immoral assholes?
Because it is here, it is growing, and it has gained power.
The problem with “one America” is that there never was, and there never should be, just one America. Not that way, at least.
The name alt-right has been embraced by anyone with a MAGA hat, and even many of them do not truly understand what the movement is about. The movement goes much deeper, and is much more frightening, than disgruntled factory workers or those frustrated by liberal elitism. Or even those with a (perhaps even subconscious) rejection of a black or female POTUS.
With Trump’s presidential victory, the alt-right celebrated a victory no one saw coming.
The key is that the alt-right rejects traditional conservatism. Fox News is no better than NPR to many of them. Breitbart adherents even have a name for those conservatives: “Cucks” meaning cuckolds, meaning they’ve had their manhood taken from them in an attempt to embrace globalism and the social status quo.
The Neoreactionaries (NRx), for example, are not concerned with party lines, or red state vs. blue state, or even liberal vs. conservative. It’s not about your grandfather’s views (as the tagline on the prominent NRx site Social Matter will tell you). It’s about a new world order that seeks to reverse the social progress we have made, or rather, claims that none has been made at all and to undo the years of working toward equality. It’s a movement that embraces monarchy as superior. Democracy has failed and equality isn’t possible. One America of white intelligents under the rule of a single, business-minded king.
(Mencius Moldbug, the thought leader behind the Neoreactionaries, wants that king to be Elon Musk, proving just how different they are from the uneducated, blue-collar whites typically associated with Trump supporters)
It’s not just a backwoods racist with a Twitter account ranting about the confederate flag. It’s an ideology that has now been legitimized, normalized and, on some level, accepted. Yes, there is an aging, less-educated, prejudiced portion of the country embracing Trump’s big league mantra. But they are fading away. They are not the biggest issue.
A troll future
Perhaps the most effective way in which the alt-right has reached the average voter (the more moderate voter, at least) is through rejection of the current politically-correct standard of speech.
This goes back to the earlier point about backlash. In recent memory, taking the lord’s name in vain, using curse words, and talking openly about sex and race were frowned upon. Now, it is the same population that is decrying the “PC police” for trying to limit hate speech and derogatory language. Like when Clint Eastwood, one of the last living standards of old-world American cool, said that Donald Trump is
“…onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up… We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”
Thank you for making racist, limiting, bullying speech great again?
There are two sides: Say and do the “right” thing (i.e. use speech that does not subjugate or marginalize communities not-a-part-of the cultural majority), or don’t say do the right thing. But then there is the third – a devil’s advocate with a sick sense of humor, maybe, or just someone looking to stir up trouble, sure. More than that, trolls represent the rejection of accepted social society. If the left won the culture war, if gay marriage is now legal and black lives do matter, then it isn’t enough to simply disagree – that just makes you a freak. Instead, you troll.
Trolling, in seeking only to confuse, fluster, mock, and rile up for no other purpose than to rile up, is an incredibly effective way to halt any sort of positive discourse.
Like at the University of Missouri, when professional troll and self-described neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin trolled students protesting the mishandling of a rape case by spreading fake news, promoting racism, and confusing the issue at hand.
(Learn more about Anglin and trolling: How the extremist right hijacked ‘Star Wars,’ Taylor Swift and the Mizzou student protests to promote racism)
Though – you can find trolls on almost any forum or message board online.
(Read more: My Journey to the Center of the Alt-Right)
Milo Yiannopoulos, the formerly-famous face of the alt-right describes trolls as, “The only ones telling the truth,” because they’re not limiting themselves with PC speech. But even if you put that sort of lovely bow on it, it’s still an ugly thing.
Communication has always been, and will always be, crucial to positive change. The internet, what had (and perhaps still has) the potential to be a tool for better communication, has only been getting in the way. Discourse does not thrive in this environment.
As was published in Democracy&Nature, way back in 2000,
“Virtual communities beget virtual democracies, and in the void of public discourse, common values and geographical communities that virtuality requires, we will lose some of our most cherished and irreplaceable values.”
This has never been more true. And thus there is no country to bring together. There are only separate groups, growing further and further apart mentally while living side by side, together within the defined borders of the nation.
Whatever happened to positivity?
“And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.”
– Wendell Berry.
That isn’t to say we must avoid the internet if we ever want to bridge these gaps. But people will say anything from behind a screen. Hiding behind the dark cloud of anonymity, with no accountability (especially not to the person to which they are speaking) for their words. This happens in the comment sections and discussion boards of virtually any/every topic on the internet, and especially on completely anonymous forums such as 4chan, 8chan, et al.
Education comes from history’s rights and wrongs, from schoolbooks and schoolteachers, from respectable figureheads and their representatives, yes. But education must also happen on back roads and the sidewalks of city streets, in restaurants and grocery stores, in the backyards and living rooms of our homes. Education must come side by side, together.
(Read up on the Center for the Study of Social Progress’s Policy’s Making a difference in your neighborhood, or check out this article we published by St. Paul rapper Felix Wilbourn, We already have some of the answers)
Because it is then that we see the alt-right mantra is actually, demonstrably, false. Equality is possible. Immigrants have already made America great. We can be one big melting pot. It is only as we continue to view our fellow countrymen as “Others” that this will never happen.
We’ve always been a country divided. Dissent has led to the highest highs and lowest lows the world has ever seen. Dissent is what has made this country what it is; without dissent there would be no progress, no challenge to the wrongs of society. Without dissent we would still be a country of slaves and slaveholders (1863), a country with women unable vote (1920), and an LGBTQ+ community unable to marry (2013).
We must remember that this country can be represented by liberty, freedom, equality for all. That, despite evidence to the contrary, the United States can still be a country calling for
“…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And if history is any example, we know that we make mistakes, but (most of us) learn from them.
Read this next: A brief history of Black Lives Matter