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Can nineteenth-century literature explain the rise of Donald Trump?

Historians and political scientists have quite the task ahead in making sense of the bizarre 2016 presidential race. Fissures in both major parties betray pervasive hostilities. The rise of Donald Trump from investment mogul to television personality to presidential candidate—a process that once horrified GOP insiders—has produced one kind of theater: the spectacle of anger and resentment. During primary debates, Trump dismissed his opponents as “losers.” He has exploited frustrations over immigration, multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and terrorism. He wants a Judeo-Christian America to “win,” that is, to become dominant by imposing its military will and its sweeping view of “national interests” on the rest of the world.

Hillary Clinton, on other hand, has had to fend off radical populist Bernie Sanders, who wants to redistribute the nation’s wealth and cut mega-banks down to size. Clinton has called this economic “extremism,” aligning herself with Wall Street even as she decries poverty. Her service as senator and Secretary of State brands her as a candidate of the establishment, forced to defend the mixed legacy of a president much disliked in historically red states. She intends to become the first female president but lacks broad support from women. Decisions made during her service as Secretary of State remain controversial; her vexed marriage to a tarnished former president still casts shadows.

In Trump and Clinton, we have two outsized candidates despised by large segments of the body politic. Will the two-party system endure? Which candidate is less odious? What does this weirdness signify?

So much outrage pervades this shining republic: we see that anger in recurrent episodes of random mass violence—troubled individuals with automatic weapons “getting even” with unknown victims. This social horror seems unique to the United States, but we seldom ask why. We see widespread anger also in the proliferation of Confederate Flags across the North, Midwest, and West, signifying not Southern pride but white supremacy and scorn for the federal government. We see indignation in the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the volatile, bloody confrontations between law enforcement officers and young African Americans who feel stigmatized and scapegoated. We see it in the fury provoked by the attack on the World Trade Towers—the seething anger toward jihadi Muslims that has long threatened to erupt into general hatred for all followers of Mohammed. A mindless bumper sticker—“I learned everything I need to know about Islam on 9/11”—says it all.

It turns out that the stories and myths essential to a heroic national self-concept emerged in the nineteenth century, when much of our identity as a nation was being formed, in the midst of horrific injustices and cultural conflicts that subverted a sanitized idea of “America.” So the gleaming identity we devised for ourselves then masked a nexus of egregious problems, like slavery, racism, Indian removal, nativism, and—beginning around 1839—the ethnocentric delusion that Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans were destined to conquer the continent by seizing land owned by Hispanic and Catholic Mexico.

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“Edgar Allan Poe mocked literary nationalism and ridiculed the expansionist jingoism it had fomented by the mid-1840s.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But as Freud observed, the repressed always return, whether in the individual or the political unconscious. These crimes—and every nation commits them—disturbed the smooth dissemination of national narratives. Tales and novels by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Catharine Sedgwick, and others help us to see both the construction of national identity and the inconvenient, sometimes inadvertent, eruption of jarring social or historical realities. Counter-narratives by fugitive slaves, abolitionists, reformers, indignant Indians, and outspoken women simultaneously pushed against official versions of America’s story. And during this messy invention of a national idea, Edgar Allan Poe mocked literary nationalism and ridiculed the expansionist jingoism it had fomented by the mid-1840s. His eye for the grotesque enabled him to see the cultural strangeness that American nationalism concealed.

All nations are strange in their own ways, creating glowing public images of imagined, idealized communities quite at odds with documentable evidence. This all seems easier to observe in the hyper-nationalism of American rivals; think of the heartwarming national symbolism created for the Russian Winter Olympics in 2014, just before the invasion of the Crimea. As Ernest Gellner remarked, “Nationalism is not what it seems, and above all it is not what it seems to itself.”

That insight has propelled my enquiry into American nationalism, not as an exercise in liberal guilt but as an effort to differentiate nationalism (nowadays indistinguishable from jingoism) from patriotism. Nationalism incites aggression through its appeal to birth, blood, and consanguinity; patriotism excites defensive pride, the urge to protect the land as well as its founding principles. American nationhood has from the outset been complicated by these conflicting notions of belonging—one tied to race, ethnicity, and righteous Puritan notions of founding a city on a hill, the other rooted in civic allegiance, love of liberty, and defense of inalienable rights. The clash between these inimical concepts erupts—as it has in election-year warnings about immigration—whenever we ask who really “belongs” to the nation.

In 1776, the Declaration’s founding contradiction between liberty and slavery also left, as Robert Kagan has remarked, a “split personality” rooted in racial difference that bedevils our national life to this day. Think Ferguson. The terrible “holocaust” that nearly exterminated the Native tribes symbolically associated with America remains an unrequited atrocity too shameful to be acknowledged. Meanwhile the threat to build a wall across the Southwest recalls the still-unfolding consequences of the U.S.-Mexico War. These are some of the more obvious sources of the latter-day American anger that we attempt to exorcise by identifying enemies and lashing out. Perhaps not until we confront our strangeness as a nation, our unresolved contradictions, will these self-destructive patterns cease to hold us in thrall.

Featured image credit: Donald Trump declares his loyalty to the Republican Party in a speech on 3 September 2015 at Trump Tower. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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