The following post is part of a symposium titled "Multiculturalism vs Patriotism," featuring an essay by Thomas D. Klingenstein and responses by David Azerrad, Matthew Continetti, Allen C. Guelzo, and Roger Kimball. The symposium appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books and is available for immediate access here.
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"Trump," writes Thomas Klingenstein in his wide-ranging and fascinating essay, "points the way forward." But in which direction? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
The president seems eager to embody the "energy in the executive" that The Federalist describes as "a leading character in the definition of good government." He bounds from one decision, policy, controversy, fight, Tweet, rally, and provocation to the next. He rarely pauses for breath, or for sleep. His influence extends throughout the economy, the courts, the media, the globe, and even into outer space. Somehow he still finds time to comment on the Oscars and cable news. This activity is consequential. It is also, for some of us, exasperating.
Klingenstein says the through-line to Trump’s presidency is his resistance to multiculturalism. "He has allowed us to see that we are engaged in a contest between two understandings of justice, one built on the principle that all human beings are equal—the other on the principle that all ‘marginalized’ identity groups are equal, and all are oppressed by white males."
Multiculturalism and its offspring, identity politics and political correctness, are worth opposing because they divide and undermine a country "based on natural rights, individual freedom, and republican government." Where Trump knows "in his soul" that Americans are, in Lincoln’s phrase, the "almost chosen people," multiculturalism offers only "an insane exercise in self-flagellation."
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You don’t need access to the presidential soul to believe Klingenstein is on to something. Neither multiculturalism nor the idea of equal natural rights began with Donald Trump, but his rise has brought the opposition of these two worldviews into stark relief.
Trump and the multiculturalists have different understandings of the nation’s past. Trump looks proudly at American history. It’s why he wants to make us great "again." His opponents are much more hostile. For Stacey Abrams, "marginalized groups" are "finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity." For Governor Andrew Cuomo, America "was never that great." Former Attorney General Eric Holder asks: "Exactly when did you think America was great?"
A lot follows from such attitudes. If you take pride in America’s heritage, you wish to see the country recapture its glory. If you think American history is reducible to a centuries-old struggle between oppressors and oppressed, you wish, in the words of Abrams, "[t]o seek redress and inclusion." The Trump supporters I know desire the equal protection of individual rights under the law. Multiculturalists desire substantive equality, or at least proportional representation, which necessitates the unequal treatment of individuals based on group characteristics.
"Opposition to multiculturalism," Klingenstein writes, "should become the center of the conservative movement, the basis for a political coalition, the principle on which to build a rhetorical strategy and the conceptual framework for interpreting events, for organizing and tying together the domestic dangers we face." Rather than re-grounding the conservative movement in opposition to multiculturalism, Trump supporters might find it more useful to advance a positive argument for American nationalism, rightly understood.
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Trump defends the constituent elements of the American nation: its borders, its language, its holidays (including Christmas), its symbols (the flag and the national anthem), its industries, and its people. Unlike multiculturalists, he draws a line between citizens of this nation and all others. Except for a few excellent prepared speeches, though, he has spent less time than I would like on the qualities that make American nationalism unique: the principles of equal natural right established in our country’s founding documents.
These are the ideas that make America exceptional. They are the reason membership in the national community is not a matter of race or ethnicity or sect but fidelity to the law and to a shared cultural understanding. They are what Lincoln referred to when he described "a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."
It might not be Donald Trump’s sole responsibility to give his program coherence. But he could help! Integrating into his rhetoric the themes and quotations of Thomas Klingenstein’s important essay would be a great place to start.