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Fight for the Meaning of America

Von Drehle is an editor-at-large for TIME, where he has covered politics, breaking news and the Supreme Court since 2007. He is the author of four books, including Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, published in 2012, and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

Are we defined by openness or by borders?

The idea of nationalism is at least as old as Genesis, where the sons of Noah divide the earth between them after the flood. But as the presidential campaign has made clear, Americans have not quite settled on what it is that defines us as a nation.

Are we defined by openness, a belonging, at least potentially, to people everywhere? Hillary Clinton has advanced that idea throughout the campaign. “We don’t hide from change. We harness it,” she declared in her campaign launch speech. Her vision was of an “inclusive society,” she continued: “What I once called ‘a village’ that has a place for everyone.”

Or are we defined, as most nations have been throughout history, by geography and a common culture? Does our nationhood depend on what we keep out as well as what we include? Donald Trump has answered Clinton’s calls for togetherness by demanding sharper divisions, between domestic and foreign, undocumented and citizens, Muslim and non-­Muslim. “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” he often says.

Trump’s rhetoric of great walls, trade wars and crackdowns on outsiders make him a textbook nationalist in a year when nationalism is surging around the world. From Putin’s Russia to the France of ­Marine Le Pen, from anti-­immigrant marches in Germany to the U.K.’s Brexit surprise, from defiant Turkey to nostalgic Japan, influential leaders are stoking powerful movements of us-against-them.
Perhaps this is an inevitable reaction to the boundary-­blurring power of globalism. Rapid transportation and wireless communication allow nearly effortless spread of people and ideas. Multitudes of refugees cross continents and oceans. Murders dreamed up in war-torn Africa or Asia come true in faraway Paris or San Bernardino.

Even so, the American brand of nationalism has perplexed scholars from the nation’s beginnings. Old World nations hold fast to ethnic, racial or cultural ­identity—a particular people tied to a particular place. America, by contrast, has long perceived itself as a voluntary association of many races and ethnicities and cultures.

The U.S. has no official church and no official language. Only half of the residents of America’s largest city speak En­glish exclusively at home, according to the Census Bureau. Americans come in every conceivable genetic mash-up. They don’t even need to have American parents. Trump, for example, is the son of a woman raised on a windswept Scottish island. Though “her loyalty to Scotland was incredible,” as he recalled earlier this year, Mary Mac­Leod Trump nonetheless achieved American citizenship in 1942 and bred an American original.

Princeton sociology professor Paul DiMaggio has written that the American self-image comes very close to denying the very existence of “such a thing as ‘American nationalism’” at all. Ancient Greeks developed cosmopolitan philosophy, which holds that all people are members of a single human society, regardless of their tribe or nation. A strong dose of this notion shapes Clinton’s thinking: real Americans are precisely those people who recoil from the idea of “real Americans.”

How far can this notion go before it crumbles under its own weight, though? Critics of the cosmopolitan ideal fear that it leads inexorably to the loss of national identity. And American nationhood is no small birthright in today’s world, as World Bank economist Branko Milanovic has shown.

Examining the link between nationality and prosperity in the age of globalism, Milanovic has concluded that a human being’s place and culture have become the dominant factor in determining standard of living. Internal class differences within nations matter less than differences in wealth between nations. “The poorest Americans are relatively well-off by world standards,” Milanovic has noted. Americans “are lucky to have been born in a country that is rich.”

Many Trump supporters embrace the idea that a specifically American culture is the root of the nation’s good fortune. Fundamentally capitalist, self-­reliant, English-­speaking and descended from Protestant Europe, this culture welcomes ­newcomers—but only if they adopt cultural values and existing norms.

At a Trump rally in North Carolina not long ago, Jim and Sylvia Auten gave voice to this version of nationalism. “It’s hard for me to figure out what our culture is anymore,” said Jim, an octogenarian from Wilmington. “Immigrants and refugees, they come here and they don’t want to assimilate, they just want the benefits.”

Cosmopolitan vs. cultural, open vs. closed: in times of turmoil, the conflict tends to sharpen, observes Harvard sociologist Bart Bonikowski. Debates “about legitimate membership in the American nation” intensify when the country is “perceived to be threatened.”

This election has brought the tension to a head and let slip the dogs of a new culture war. Where once we fought over abortion and school prayer, this year the fight is over the very meaning of America.

Von Drehle is an editor-at-large for TIME, where he has covered politics, breaking news and the Supreme Court since 2007. He is the author of four books, including Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, published in 2012, and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

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