The Great American Myth – Trump’s Version
by Ada Wallace
As Trump took to the podium at Mount Rushmore on July 4th, he told a tale of the Great American Myth – a story of abundant prosperity, freedom, equality, and, most importantly, the US as a heroic victor in the perpetual battle of good vs. evil.
Every good fiction needs both a hero and a villain. It’s no surprise, then, that he would use the platform to announce the newest threat to American democracy: The ‘far left.’ It’s also no coincidence that this “far left” happens to encompass Trump’s own political enemies in 2020.
Of course, Trump’s far left is pretty amorphous here. Nor is it necessarily “far.” It would appear that Trump’s boogeymen encompasses Black Lives Matter protesters and white liberals on Facebook as much as it does anarchists, communists, and other advocates of radical change.
He would go on to say that the left, in its “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children” is “the very definition of totalitarianism.”
He took the stage to applaud the nation’s founders and the progress of the past while, in the same breath, condemning those working to achieve progress today. He celebrated the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., while criminalizing today’s civil rights protesters, saying that “Their goal is not a better America; their goal is the end of America.” Perhaps he missed the parts of civil rights history that criminalized Dr. King just as much as he criminalized today’s BLM protesters.
But then, it’s obvious that a lot of what Trump said is contradictory to the true history of the United States. As a privileged white man, born of wealth, he shares very little in common with Dr. King who was born working class and black in the midst of Jim Crow and oppression in the American south. But Trump’s reality is not in contradiction with the spirit of US history as written by privileged white men. The Americanism that Trump champions is, rather, in the spirit of the Myth of Americanism that has fueled politics in the US since its inception.
Make America Great… Again?
There is a reason Trump’s 2016 campaign promise of “Make America Great Again” was so successful and a reason why he expects this new strategy to see similar success. Throughout history, the United States has been seen by its people and many others in the world at large, not only as “virtuous,” but also as heroic, battling King George III, Native Americans, conquering the “Wild West,” battling dictators and terrorists in wars of honor for all of the downtrodden.
The Myth has historically been irresistible. It’s a narrative that requires little introspection from most of us and releases us from any responsibility to think about the deeper motivations for the actions of the past. Or to act on a personal level against injustices today. But as the ugly truths of the daily police terror, murder, and repression that has plagued the black community forever are shown on social media through the use of personal cell phone cameras, suddenly the Myth has come under closer scrutiny, a scrutiny that has shown it up for the fantasy that it is and has always been.
The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution have never really been a part of the US experience if you’re black, indigenous, a first generation immigrant, a worker fighting for your rights, or a part of any minority in the US.
In his Mt. Rushmore speech Trump would say of the left, “This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore. They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.”
The irony of admonishing his political opponents for obscuring history, while conveniently leaving out the portions of history that don’t suit his narrative, is not lost on us.
He goes on to say, “Our people have a great memory. They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.”
Yes, our people have a great memory, at least for what they’ve been told through the centuries, yet in many cases they have either not known or chosen to ignore the fact that our founding fathers were slavers. That while many parts of the North were taking steps to abolish slavery, George Washington was taking steps to maneuver around those laws. That while in the original version of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson authored a passage admonishing King George’s participation in the slave trade, he kept his own children enslaved. That while Theodore Roosevelt wrote laws to the benefit of white laborers, he also touted the American Eugenics movement and believed immigrants were leading to a “race suicide.” And that even the “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln, only freed the slaves in the rebellious southern states and then only as a means of ending the Civil War, not out of any great altruistic insight about the evils of slavery.
So while Trump takes great creative liberties to align himself with the abolitionists, revolutionaries, progressives, and activists of the past, his message is filled with painfully obvious contradictions in the present. As shown by the continuing protests over the George Floyd killing, the citizenry of the US is seemingly waking up to the fact that our history, just like our society, is rarely as black and white as Trump and the Myth has previously presented.
Most now have realized that the founders knew full well when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” that those words did not apply to black men. Nor did it apply to Native Americans, nor women, nor non-land owners. From the 3/5ths Compromise to the Electoral College, we now are coming to the realization that the ruling class always intended to keep themselves and their descendants in a position of authority over the masses and that “democracy” was always intended only for an elite few. And that they hard-wired this attitude into the founding document of the new United States.
The laws the founders wrote supporting life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness served to benefit the property owning aristocracy, not the indentured servant or the slave. Then, as it is now, rights are to be upheld when they benefit the ownership class, and restrictions are to be enforced when exacted upon those below them.
The bourgeois revolution that overthrew George III did extend rights and freedoms further than feudalism did, but it wasn’t ever meant for everybody. There was and still is a ruling class that benefited and still benefits today. And most of us aren’t in it. This is the “greatness” that Trump wants to restore when he says he wants to “Make America Great Again.”
The Myth as a Re-Election Strategy
Trump’s identification of a nebulous enemy, along with his attempt to claim the American Myth for himself, has issued a direct call to action of his supporters and an ominous warning to those who would stand against them:
“My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country… For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes. Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.”
While certainly an escalation of Trump’s brand of reactionary politics, it comes as little surprise to observers of American capitalism. In a moment when America is facing its own mortality, undergoing simultaneous crises of the coronavirus pandemic, impending economic disaster, and a broad, solidarity uprising with Black Lives Matter protesters, it’s no surprise, then, that Trump identified the villain in this week’s episode of the Great American Myth as American citizens themselves.
For what is such a politician as Trump to do when the promises of his campaign have all but fallen flat? When, four years later, the greatness of America has yet to be returned?
In the face of cratering poll numbers, which were never that high to begin with, and the looming threat of being declared a “loser” by the US electorate, there is only one clear solution. That is to rally the troops against a common enemy, and double down on appealing to the vanishing Myth of virtuous Americanism. In this case, the enemy is anyone who opposes Trump which makes “enemies” of millions of US citizens.
Thank God for the protests, or else Trump would really be left empty-handed. Because as critical to Trump’s re-election strategy as this fictional greatness is the fictional foe against which to wage war.
Trump concluded his speech, saying, “Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals…He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.”
Trump’s words, just like those of the founding fathers, are sheltered in comfortable lies. Trump in his grand fiction—displaying dishonesty, racism, and authoritarianism, while virtue signaling for progress, equality, and prosperity—is not the antithesis of American values, but the embodiment of them. Trump wants us all to ignore the 400 years of oppression that is still a fact of life today for black people, while waiting for capitalist “opportunity” to do away with this oppression.
The Great American Myth and the age-old tactic of rallying against a common enemy has been used hundreds upon hundreds of times in the past by both Democrats and Republicans. But the American working class is waking up. They see that Trump is a racist, but that he is certainly not the first racist president as Joe Biden suggests. They see a floundering response to the coronavirus pandemic, but also see Biden standing against the healthcare reforms that would prevent a wave of bankruptcies among the over five million people who have lost their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. They see both parties of capital inflame culture wars among the rest of us while bailing out their corporate masters. They see US and world capitalism foundering at the most basic leadership task of taking care of society under the pressure of multiple crises. And they want to get rid of Trump, but in Biden, don’t really see a legitimate alternative, just a “not Trump” candidate.
As the election campaign heats up, Trump will not be the only bourgeois politician to attempt to use the American Myth to their advantage. Biden is already using “American Exceptionalism” to saber-rattle against China and the Russian Federation, along with threatening Maduro in Venezuela. The working class is willing to fight as shown by the thousands of people of all colors in the streets protesting for making black lives matter. Teachers are threatening strike actions in order to force governments at all levels to reopen schools safely. Recently upper-middle class Amazon employees have stood with their working class peers for safe and clean workplaces, along with other safety “strikes” in regards to the coronavirus crisis in meat packing and food service. Rent strikes are already being organized in response to the coming wave of evictions caused by the collapsing economy. The people are ready.
A greater sense of solidarity and demands for action are accelerating across the country, but what’s lacking is an overarching political organization that can guide and direct disparate actions into a single united strategy and tactics that can turn these defensive struggles into a hammer to strike at the heart of the problem, the capitalist system itself. We need a party of labor instead of two parties of the owners and we needed it yesterday. We call on the unions, DSA and all of the socialist left, along with social justice organizations to come together and debate a plan of action for making this dream of a party for labor and the oppressed into a reality.
Will the Great American Myth prevail? It’s survived for centuries, but it’s also never been under the kind of pressure that it’s facing today. The US is arguably in a pre-revolutionary situation that will be resolved into either a freer society or a more authoritarian one. We have the numbers on our side, but the organization is lacking. The task of organization is monumental, but it is the task of our time. We must not fail.