It was August 1984, and Ronald Reagan was seeking reelection. The Democrats had held their convention in July, in San Francisco (a choice that would haunt them for years), where they nominated Walter Mondale, a former senator from Minnesota and Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Mondale was respected but didn’t exactly inspire ardor. It was understood to be his “turn,” so most of the unions and special interests hopped on the wagon.
Now it was the Republicans’ move. They chose a city equally totemic, in culture-war terms, even if the culture war didn’t really exist yet: Dallas. Reagan, after weathering a recession, was perfectly lined up to win reelection easily. His approval rating was 54 percent and climbing. His slogan that year—“It’s Morning Again in America,” replete with the kinds of gauzy ads you can imagine—has gone down in campaign history as one of the most effective ever, and indeed that slogan probably had more to do with positioning the Republicans as the party of optimism, a key element of their prevailing reputation at the time, than any other single factor, perhaps save Reagan’s personality.
The Republicans didn’t really have to accomplish much at their convention, in other words: just not scare people away. As the culture war hadn’t started, there wasn’t much risk of that. But they still did what political parties normally do at their conventions vis-à-vis the other party, which was to try to define it in negative terms. Mondale gave them some material to work with: In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he pledged to raise taxes. He added the caveat that he would do so only on the rich, that the middle class was squeezed enough. In fact, the speech in full was an attempt to reassure Americans that Democrats had learned the lesson of their 1980 drubbing. But no one remembered those parts.
Democrats were known to be vulnerable on defense and foreign policy issues as well as taxes, so in Dallas the Republicans pulled out a guest speaker, a lifelong Democrat, to drive it all home: Jeane D. Kirkpatrick, whose grandfather had helped found the populist and socialist parties of Oklahoma, and who herself had joined a Young People’s Socialist League at college (it broke up, she noted at a 2002 forum, over a picnic, which she found “rather discouraging”). Kirkpatrick had been so committed a Democrat that she’d served on the party’s platform committee as recently as 1976. But her views on foreign affairs always tended toward the hawkish, and her famous 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” caught Reagan’s eye. She advised his campaign and, after he won, became his ambassador to the United Nations. Because of her political history, her rather stern visage, and the mere fact that she was a woman, she became one of the better-known of Reagan’s Cabinet members; so it made sense that the Republicans would want her to speak.
It was Monday, the convention’s first night. Kirkpatrick had a prime-time slot, back in the days when the networks carried the proceedings for hours and millions watched. She produced one of the most memorable phrases in the recent history of American political speechmaking, repeated over and over (aside from “San Francisco Democrats,” which she also invoked constantly, and which Republicans still say to this day). Of Democrats, she said:
They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do. They didn’t blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians. They blamed the United States instead.
But then, somehow, they always blame America first.
When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the “blame America first crowd” didn’t blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines. They blamed the United States.
But then, they always blame America first.
And so on, and so on. She used the word “blame” 14 times, and it stuck. Hard. Reagan picked it up, as did Republicans generally. And while Kirkpatrick’s focus was on foreign policy, over the course of the Reagan years, the indictment was broadened. Domestically, the charge revolved, inevitably, around race. The “Reagan Democrats” famously identified by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in Macomb County, Michigan—which voted 63 percent for John Kennedy in 1960 but 67 percent for Reagan in 1984—were repelled by what they saw as a Democratic elite that blamed America for continuing racial inequality.
Many Republicans spent the bulk of the 1980s leveling the charge that the Democrats were “out of touch with middle America.” The Roosevelt New Deal coalition of working-class whites, urban liberals, and Black voters had already started to crack in the late 1960s and early 1970s, over Vietnam and race and McGovernism. But Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter sealed the deal. Now, even a lot of Democrats began to argue that maybe the Republicans had a point about how Democrats had lost the plot. For instance, loyal Democrats William Galston and Elaine Kamarck—both of whom had worked on Mondale’s campaign, he as issues director and she as director of delegate selection—had, by 1989, after the third presidential loss in a row, seen enough. They wrote in a famous paper that Democrats needed to grapple with the reality that “too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
Thus was born the perception of Democrats as blaming America, being out of touch with America, even hating America—and, conversely, the idea of the Republicans as the party both of optimism and of middle-American values. Was it really true? Reality was more complicated, of course. The Republican Party, then as now, was the party of the rich; in fact, the wealthiest Americans skewed even more Republican back then. The Reagans flaunted their associations with rich friends, several of whom bought them a mansion in posh Bel-Air, adjacent to the majestic home that was used as the exterior on The Beverly Hillbillies (purchased in 2019 by, wait for it, Lachlan Murdoch), where they lived after leaving the White House.
So they were partly myths, these storylines; but myths are how we live, how we order the world around us and thread together narratives that help us make sense of things. Republicans—again, then as now—understood this better than Democrats.
Who Blames America Today?
Ranking Donald Trump’s most alarming speeches would not be a task for the faint of heart. There’s January 6, 2021, for starters, when Trump, as sitting president, instructed his audience on the need to “fight like hell” so Mike Pence would do “the right thing.” It had all started with the speech of 2015, when he announced his candidacy, which deservedly became known as the “Mexican rapists” speech, but which was also a harangue against many manifestations, as he saw it, of American weakness (pitting U.S. leaders against Chinese leaders, he said, was like lining up “the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team”). There was his 2016 convention speech with the infamous sentence: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” That was followed by the “American Carnage” inaugural address. And so many more—most recently the late March Waco rally, a matter to which we will return.
Even in that crush of competition, though, the video the Trump campaign released on March 16 stands out. Future historians, I’m certain, will take special note of it. Trump normally rambles, contradicts himself, loses his place. But this text was taut and sinewy; his delivery unusually crisp. It was also the frankest and most chilling expression of his current worldview as he mounts his 2024 campaign, a worldview that even at his worst he hadn’t quite embraced—until now.
The ostensible topic was the Russian war on Ukraine and the need to resolve it quickly. “We have never been closer to World War III than we are today under Joe Biden,” Trump said. Sounding at times like a latter-day William Sloane Coffin inveighing against the Vietnam War, he invoked the need for “peace without delay” and “a total secession” (OK, the delivery wasn’t uniformly crisp) of hostilities. He called for dismantling “the entire globalist neocon establishment that is perpetually dragging us into endless wars.”
Certain phrases, like the critique of neoconservative foreign policy goals, were more or less unobjectionable (although he stretched the point to absurdity by accusing the neoconservatives of imposing “a third world dictatorship” in the United States). Others were less so; it sounds nice, this call for peace, but the implication is that Vladimir Putin gets some portion of eastern Ukraine and of course Crimea, and that is not, at this point, an acceptable position to the West, nor should it be. It’s not for nothing that the “peace” position is embraced by openly pro-Putin far rightists and by far leftists who place American crimes at the center of their foreign policy analysis, even on the occasions when those crimes are in short supply. Trump also spoke of “fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission,” which every knowledgeable person understands to be his call for disbanding NATO and giving Putin a free hand in what the Russian dictator calls the “near abroad”—the former Soviet Socialist Republics that until 1991 were ruled from Moscow.
So far: offensive, morally monstrous, but nothing new. Next, however, came the passage that made me, and many people, bolt up in our seats and wonder if he’d really said that. The foreign policy establishment, he said, keeps peddling the “lie” that Russia is our greatest threat. Then he got to the point: “But the greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia. It’s probably, more than anything else, ourselves, and some of the horrible, U.S.A.-hating people that represent us.” The mortal threat, he went on to say, reposes in our crime-infested cities, along the border, in the persons of the deep staters who are destroying the rule of law, in the collapse of the nuclear family, and in “fertility rates like nobody can believe is [sic] happening.”
(Wait, what? Fertility rates? Why did that merit inclusion in this rather economical and tightly edited address that was mostly about foreign policy? The Christian right, you may not be shocked to learn, is deeply alarmed about decreasing fertility rates, which have fallen from 3.44 births per woman in 1960 to 1.78 today. An August 2022 article in Christianity Today surveys the data and concludes that, while fertility rates are higher among the religious, the decline in religious affiliation among Americans means that, on balance, “the next few generations are likely to see a considerable decline in American religion.”)
Trump then invoked the “Marxists” who want us “worshipping at the altar of race and gender and environment.” He concluded: “These forces are doing more damage to America than Russia and China could ever have dreamed. Evicting the sick and corrupt establishment is the monumental task for the next president, and I’m the only one who can do it.… I know exactly what has to be done.”
Trump’s outrages blur because they are so numerous, and so simultaneously terrifying and laughable. But this was new. When he said outrageous things in 2015 and 2016, he was just a private citizen who few thought would actually become president. But now, he is a former president, saying—not off the cuff, but in a rehearsed speech; and by the way, check out the lighting; someone decided that the lighting, too, needed to be dark and ominous—that the half (or more) of America that disagrees with him is the greatest existential threat to the polity of which it is a part. It goads the brain toward certain obvious questions: What might he do to that half, should he regain power? Will it be enough to disperse and isolate them, or will more dramatic measures be called for?
Criticism, especially from Republicans and former Republicans, came swiftly. Olivia Troye, a former aide to Mike Pence, called it a “Horrifying Pro-Putin message” and wrote that “Republicans need to rebuke this. Full stop.” Joe Scarborough, on his morning show, said, “It’s boring to me. What’s boring to me is the hatred for America, the hatred for America that you hear spewing from Donald Trump’s mouth.” David Frum tweeted: “To paraphrase a famous saying, I like the guys who don’t blame America first.”
It was Frum’s tweet that got me thinking. In my mind, I went back to Kirkpatrick’s speech, and those days in the 1980s and 1990s when Republicans convinced middle America that Democrats were out of touch and hated America. Because now, that is reversed. Donald Trump is out of touch. He doesn’t love America. Neither do his followers, neither do Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, neither do the shrill media voices who toe the MAGA line. They may love an America of their imaginations or memories. But they hate and fear, and are dramatically out of step with, the America that actually exists.
You could say, “Well, he’s just condemning his political foes—there’s nothing new in that.” But Trump’s rhetoric is different, in two ways. First, it’s different in degree. Richard Nixon’s list of political enemies (and he had a literal list) consisted mainly of elite liberals who were deeply involved in politics. Trump’s list of political foes is so long that it ends up taking in a large majority of the country: Black Americans, many immigrants, city dwellers, the nonreligious, women who want to have the right to choose an abortion or use mifepristone, people who support NATO, people pulling for Ukraine in the war, everyone who thinks regular citizens should not have access to military weapons designed to rip human bodies to pieces, political independents who aren’t motivated by hatred, neoconservative foreign policy specialists, most federal law enforcement officials, and, while we’re at it, most nonpolitical federal bureaucrats (the collective “deep state”), and even Republicans who won’t wear MAGA hats (which is most Republicans—most recent polling shows that well below half identify with the term).
And the rhetoric is different in kind. This new Trump of 2023 is all but promising that, if elected, he would use the presidency as a political weapon against these enemies. That’s terrifying on its own terms, as it will entail the demolition of democratic norms and safeguards that survived Trump I. But it’s also illuminating, as it bespeaks a deep fear on the part of Trump and his followers of the polyglot America that is beyond their reach.
It’s not just Trump, of course. Marjorie Taylor Greene called for a “national divorce” so that MAGA America could liberate itself from the rest of the country—an idea endorsed by 66 percent of Southern Republicans in a June 2021 survey. Mike Pompeo, once this nation’s leading diplomat and representative to the world, has said—more than once—that the greatest threat to the republic is not Xi Jinping or Kim Jong Un, but teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten. Pompeo declared himself angry about the “filth” children are being taught in the schools as reading and math scores drop. That last part happens to be true: After 50 years of steady progress in both areas, scores have fallen since 2020, but experts attribute that largely to the pandemic, not louche morals imposed upon children by Randi Weingarten. But Pompeo knew exactly what kind of target he was choosing—an openly gay, Jewish New York City dweller whose wife is the senior rabbi of the city’s leading LGBTQ synagogue.
Trump, Greene, Pompeo, so many others—they are out of touch with a country that, as this essay will show, is diverse, reasonably tolerant, not driven by hatred and bigotry, broadly supportive of abortion and LGBTQ rights, repulsed by the gun culture, and more. And deep down, they know it. And they know that, from their perspective, it’s only going to get worse, as they are helpless to stop the changes they fear and despise. They are the new Blame America Firsters.
Liberals, Conservatives, and Human Nature
The Reagan-Kirkpatrick-led redefinition of who was and wasn’t in touch with America was, in some sense, a role reversal and a shock to the liberal system. Going back to the Depression, Democrats had been the optimists—FDR’s great theme song, after all, was “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He buoyed Americans’ spirits over dozens of addresses, including some 30 Fireside Chats, through Depression and war. Kennedy said we could go to the moon. The Democrats were the party of accomplishment.
But let’s go even deeper. The Democrats, I would argue, were the party of optimism in those long-ago days because liberalism itself is rooted in a kind of optimism. The modern liberal—I use the modifier to distinguish modern liberalism (what we generally think of when we use the word “liberal” today) from “classical” liberalism (free-market conservatism, going back to Adam Smith)—has a rather optimistic view of human nature. Liberals believe—a principle first articulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau—that people are naturally good, or at least that their better angels can be summoned. And while they believe in individual autonomy and liberty, and they acknowledge that people are naturally competitive and self-interested, they hold that people are more complex than that and are, or can be, reciprocal and cooperative.
Conservatives take a darker view of human nature. They believe that people are self-interested to the point of being selfish, and they think this is just fine. They accept the view of Thomas Hobbes that man’s natural state is “warre of every man against every man.” Human beings, say conservatives, are neither wholly good nor wholly evil—but whatever else they may be, they are certainly not perfectible, and efforts to improve them can only prove catastrophic. (Donald Trump, of course, has the darkest view of human nature imaginable—everyone is a ruthless, selfish cheater operating in a lawless jungle, and the entire point of life is to screw the other guy before he screws you.)
It’s not hard to see how these warring conceptions of human nature produced the political postures they did in the mid–twentieth century. If you believe that people are good, then it follows that you believe that they can be prodded toward collective ends, toward thinking about something other than their own self-interest. And so, you … tinker. You try stuff. FDR’s famous quote about his method is the quintessence of twentieth-century liberalism: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
To the conservative mind of the time, this was horrifying. The conservative motto was: Try nothing. Not only is man not perfectible; he’s not even particularly improvable. Leave him alone, to his own devices. This is the main lesson conservatives take from Adam Smith, and it’s why he remains such a godhead to them today, even though he wasn’t quite as conservative as they claim (he would loathe, for example, Robert Bork’s consumerist position on monopoly power, which the modern right in this country has adopted whole hog). Let each, Smith said, pursue his self-interest, and it will add up to the common interest. This sentiment soothes the conservative mind, as it carries the obvious implication that the state should do nothing to interfere with said pursuit.
There was real intellectual warfare over these positions in the 1930s and ’40s. The stock market collapse of 1929 had shown, more dramatically than ever before, that laissez-faire maybe wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe the state did need to intervene to manage the market. John Maynard Keynes, over in London, had been saying so since the mid-1920s, starting with a 1926 pamphlet called The End of Laissez-Faire (the ’20s in England, in contrast to the United States, were a decade of immiseration and misery). He rebutted Smith directly: “It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest.” Roosevelt, propelled by Keynes and American thinkers like William T. Foster and Marriner Eccles, gathered his famous brain trusters and built a large federal bureaucracy. Conservatives fought back with everything at their disposal, but to no avail—FDR’s 1936 victory remains the most lopsided in history in Electoral College terms.
Remember, this was at a time when Hitler had taken power in Germany on the right and Stalin in the Soviet Union on the left. To the “classical liberal,” i.e., the free marketeer, the New Deal was scarcely distinguishable from either German National Socialism or Russian collectivism. Ludwig von Mises, the libertarian economist, acknowledged that the New Deal was small-d democratic in the narrowly electoral sense, but argued that “it is obvious that delegation of power can be used as a quasi-constitutional disguise for a dictatorship.” Mises and other like-minded fellows met in Paris in 1938 at something called the Colloque Lippmann, named in honor of their special American guest who had by then become a fierce New Deal critic, and resolved that this Hitler-Stalin-Roosevelt march toward slavery had to be arrested.
Well—Roosevelt won. Modern liberalism won. Roosevelt knew the public mood; the conservatives did not. The sentences that surround the famous FDR quote above, from a speech he gave while campaigning in 1932 at Oglethorpe University in Georgia, are indicative: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.… The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.” The American people were pretty happy with Social Security, rural electrification, vast public works, and the rest. And they remained so for decades. Reality supported the liberal worldview.
Then came the 1970s—the OPEC crisis, stagflation, deindustrialization. Also, sharp divisions over Vietnam, race, gender, and what was called the “generation gap.” Now reality wasn’t being so kind to liberalism, which took an inward and pessimistic turn. Jimmy Carter—not really a liberal, but a Democrat, running an administration filled with liberals—told Americans to make do with less. Prices rose, and rose again. Our cars shrunk—and don’t underestimate the American love affair with the car, and the large car in particular, still on ample display today. Our cities were Wild Wests. Times Square movie marquees graphically advertised pornographic films, one after the other. I remember in the early 1980s walking along 42nd Street from Eighth to Seventh Avenue—one block—and being offered pot, hash, coke, and a switchblade.
Along came Reagan to say: Life doesn’t have to be like this! And unlike those dour Democrats, he was optimistic. And he now was in touch with middle America, which in 1980 was overwhelmingly white and Christian. Race loomed large here. Unlike Donald Trump, Reagan didn’t openly embrace racism as a recurring tactic, but he wasn’t above racist signaling, as with his famous “states’ rights” speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in August 1980. This was the dark side of Reagan’s sunny optimism: He freed white Americans from the guilt—about race, poverty, inequality, and so on—that Democrats seemed to want them to feel.
Alas: He was, broadly speaking, in touch with middle America. Bill Clinton and especially Barack Obama campaigned on hope, and they succeeded to varying degrees in reconnecting the Democratic Party with optimism. But they could not win the argument about which party better represented middle America. Republicans, basking in Reagan’s afterglow and continually peddling the notion that they alone know the public mood, have been dining out on that ever since.
But no more. Times have changed. America, middle and otherwise, has changed. And most of all—the Republican Party has changed.
Who’s Out of Touch Now?
Yes, times have changed. Not in every way for the better. But in terms of broad cultural attitudes, Americans are far more open-minded today than they were in Reagan’s time. Gallup started asking people about same-sex marriage in 1996 (it didn’t even register as an issue in the ’80s). In 1996, respondents were opposed by 68 to 27 percent. By 2022, that had flipped almost precisely on its head, with 71 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed. The turning point came in 2011, and the number has basically climbed ever since. It may never get much higher; those 28 percent seem pretty dug-in. But 71 percent support renders something noncontroversial.
The country is dramatically different. In 1985, the United States was 78 percent white (non-Hispanic white, that is, according to the Census Bureau), 12 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic, and just under 3 percent Other (Asian Americans were still just “Others” then). In 2020, the country was 58 percent non-Hispanic white, 19 percent Hispanic, still 12 percent Black, 6 percent Asian, and about 3 percent Native American. In 1985, 19 percent of Americans had completed four or more years of college. In 2021, that number was doubled—23.5 percent had four-year degrees and 14.4 percent had graduate degrees, for a total of nearly 38 percent. In 1984, 76 percent of Americans lived in metropolitan areas; the share of those living in urban areas had nudged up to 80 percent in 2020. In 1980, the share of the U.S. population that was foreign-born was around 6 percent; in 2021, it was 13.6 percent. Finally, in 1990, households headed by married couples made up 55 percent of all households; in 2022, that was down to 47 percent.
Now let’s turn to religion. According to Pew, throughout the 1980s, about 90 percent of Americans were Christian. The 1990s saw a fairly steep decline down to around 80 percent. This century, the erosion has been less sharp, but it’s been steady—the number who said they were Christian dropped to 63 percent in 2021. The number who said they were religious but named another religion has increased slightly from 1972, from 5 to 7 percent. And the number saying they were religiously unaffiliated has zoomed from 5 percent to 29 percent. Young people are abandoning religious belief at high rates. In 1990, just 8 percent of 30- to 34-year-olds who were raised Christian later became religiously unaffiliated. By 2020, that number had shot up to 31 percent. Another Pew study finds that by 2070, as little as 35 percent of America may be Christian.
Less white, less religious (both by a lot), somewhat more metropolitan, far more college-educated, vastly more foreign-born... no wonder Christianity Today is worried.
Now consider the demographics of our two political parties. Again according to a Pew survey, in 2019, 81 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters were white. This is close to—within the margin of error, a pollster might say—the percent of the country that was non-Hispanic white (78) in the middle of Reagan’s term. In the same survey, the share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who were white was 59 percent—almost identical to the percentage of the 2020 population (58) that is white.
The Republican Party looks like the America of 40 years ago. And while it’s a bit of a cliché, because Democrats are so fond of saying it, I guess they say it because it’s true. The Democratic Party looks like America. Somewhat more Black and less Hispanic than America, but white and nonwhite in almost exactly the same measure as the country.
Looked at this way, it shouldn’t shock us to see that, on issue after issue after issue, America—the America that actually exists—rejects the Republican position:
• In February, Gallup found that dissatisfaction with U.S. gun laws, forced upon us by obdurate Republicans, hit an all-time high of 63 percent.
• Last September, a New York Times/Siena College poll found that 62 percent of registered voters disagree with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision taking away a federal right to abortion. Fifty-two percent strongly opposed the ruling. Gallup found Supreme Court approval at 40 percent, a record low for this century.
• According to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in March 2022, support for nondiscrimination measures against LGBTQ Americans hit an all-time high, at roughly 80 percent.
• The picture with regard to transgender rights is a little more complicated, but even there the Republican view is a minority view. A Marist College/PBS/NPR poll found that about 54 percent of respondents oppose laws criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors. That’s unfortunately down from 65 percent two years ago, meaning that some people are hearing a lot of Republican rhetoric in the states and responding to it. But in the long arc, support for transgender rights will rise, just as support for LGBTQ rights has.
• Another recent target of GOP attacks is corporate adherence to environment, social, and governance, or ESG, standards. Are Republicans making inroads in attacking corporate “wokery”? A July 2022 survey by GQR (a Democratic firm) found that Americans support corporations adopting ESG principles by 67 to 32 percent.
• A March 2023 USA Today/Ipsos poll even found that most Americans see “woke” as a positive, not a negative, term. Fifty-six percent saw the term as meaning awareness of social injustice, and just 39 percent said it meant being overly politically correct.
• When Pew asked people in October 2021 whether the federal government should enforce separation of church and state or stop doing so, 54 percent said enforce, and just 19 percent said stop (the rest had no opinion or refused to answer).
These are the cultural issues—the supposed land mines for Democrats. Add to these polls other results like support for the $15 minimum wage (62 percent in a 2021 Pew survey, and I’ve seen higher), for expanding Medicare as Joe Biden hoped to as part of Build Back Better (83 percent), more action on climate change (62 percent), a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (70 percent), and so on. Even on policing, the Republicans’ last trump card, a whopping 89 percent of Americans believe changes are needed to improve policing (50 percent backed major change, and 39 percent minor change; only 11 percent said no changes were needed).
Who’s out of touch now?
The “Real Americans” of Today
Trump followed that mid-March video with a late March rally in Waco, the first of his campaign, in which he extended the themes of revenge and apocalypse (he referred to the 2024 election as “the final battle”) and certain Americans being the greatest threat to Western civilization. The Waco speech was as frankly fascist a speech as he’s ever given—rhetoric that willfully blurred the lines between himself, his followers, and the nation, fusing all into one entity, an entity subordinate to his will.
This is new. He was not saying these things in 2016. He noted the difference himself in Waco, in a line he recycled from a speech he gave earlier in the month: “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: ‘I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.’”
That’s civil war–style talk—those wronged and betrayed people, after all, were wronged and betrayed by someone. And retribution isn’t sought against the weather, it’s sought against people. Which people? Trump names the deep staters, the “Marxists” and “communists” who have “weaponized” the justice system, and a handful of politicians (Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi). But we all know the list of his targets: Black people. Immigrants. Journalists. Schoolchildren (over whom he and his party choose crazed gunmen and women). Anyone who doesn’t worship Trump. Anyone who isn’t, as they might say, a “real American.”
Journalism is a real culprit here in allowing this narrative to harden. Journalism has made the hideous moral error in these Trump years of granting default “real American” status to Trump’s supporters. The blue-collar white guy with the rough hands from Youngstown. Journalists, largely coastal city dwellers with soft hands, reflexively grant authenticity to these people.
Youngstown man might be sincere in his beliefs and might well be, outside the realm of politics, a terrifically nice person. But he is no more “American” than a gay Latina woman from Portland. In fact, she, more than he, is part of the new America that is taking shape, that is so very different from the America in which Reagan triumphed. She, more than he, is a participant in this fantastic and historic experiment that about half of us (I think well more than half) are now conducting: to see if we can align the American reality to the American ideal; to prove to the rest of the world, as so much of it retreats into blood and soil and suspicion, that building a genuinely multiracial democracy is possible. That is an act of love, and a form of patriotism, that they could never understand.
These Americans live in more places than you think, and more places than the media let on. If I told you the list of cities that have banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity, in both public and private employment, includes Boulder, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, you would yawn. But what if I noted that that list—of some 225 cities and counties—also includes Danville, Kentucky; and Whitefish, Montana; and Olivette, Missouri; and Montevallo, Alabama? Or if I mentioned that a town of five people in West Virginia, Thurmond, passed a ban on discrimination against LGBTQ individuals? The vote was unanimous. Back in 2015.
Most of these places are still red on presidential maps. And they’ll remain so, when given just two choices framed for them the way Fox News frames things. But these ordinances, and all those poll numbers I cited above, tell us something. A lot of people don’t fear this new America. They believe in some degree of tolerance. They accept, whether they know it or not, the liberal conception of human nature over the conservative one. And they reject Donald Trump’s account of who is harming America. Trump doesn’t understand how truly out of touch he sounds when he casts his wide-ranging aspersions on millions of Americans and threatens them with retribution. But then, he always blames America first.