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Real Americans

Mosammat Rasheda Akter reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while holding her daughter after becoming a US citizen during a naturalization ceremony, 2018
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Mosammat Rasheda Akter (center), originally from Bangladesh, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while holding her daughter after becoming a US citizen during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 2018

A poignant quality of anachronism threatens these exigent, idealistic books by the writer-professors Jill Lepore and Suketu Mehta. The product of admirable research and serious reflection, they appear at a time when the very project of carefully acquiring and disseminating insights about the world, and the United States in particular, has been marginalized by the historic momentum of Republican authoritarianism. Presumably these manuscripts were completed by January 2019. Since then, things have moved at an extraordinary speed into extraordinary terrain. The House of Representatives, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Legal Counsel, the United States Geological Survey: each of these historically sturdy institutions has been stunned by the Trump administration like a cow in a slaughterhouse; numerous states have criminalized abortion services; the US Navy has proved willing to conceal the name “McCain” from the sight of the president.

These and other autocratic advances have been met by an anguished storm of theories and speech acts—including the very words you are reading. Countless books, think pieces, Twitter threads, comedy shows, and podcasts have scrutinized the diseased body politic down to its smallest, rottenest internal part. The insight industry is booming. Interesting forms of expertise and cultural capital have been developed. Stars of analysis, wit, and protestation have been born. We are alert as never before to the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, the rules of Congress, racial and economic injustice, the techniques of propaganda, the elements of malignant narcissism. The ship may be about to hit the iceberg, but we have excellent hypotheses about the captain’s complex childhood and the shortcomings of the hull design. We know who the commerce secretary is.

Jill Lepore’s new “little book” is a historian’s attempt to mobilize her knowledge to political effect. Last year Lepore published These Truths: A History of the United States, a monumental and brilliantly assembled work of political history that “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions.” The ideological essence of that work has been distilled in This America: The Case for the Nation. In a New York Times Op-Ed that accompanied its publication, Lepore urged Democratic presidential candidates to “speak with clarity and purpose about what’s at stake: the liberal nation-state itself.” Lepore went on:

The hard work isn’t condemning nationalism; it’s making the case for the liberal nation-state.

This is an argument of political necessity and moral urgency. So far, Democrats haven’t made it. Instead, in much the same way that they gave up the word “liberalism” in the 1980s, they’ve gotten skittish about the word “nation,” as if fearing that to use it means descending into nationalism.

Whether it is electorally efficient, in the short term, to revamp our use of the word “nation” is of course debatable. But the argument, as I understand it, is that icebergs of nationalism have been an ever-present, indeed defining feature of American history; and that to avoid them we must resolutely navigate by our best national ideals—“a revolutionary, generous, and deeply moral commitment to human equality and dignity.”

This deceptively subtle contention begins with a historiographic point. A generation or so ago, academics abandoned the study of the nation and concentrated instead on “peoples within nations and ties across nations…. Appalled by nationalism, they disavowed national history as nationalism’s handmaiden.” They scorned patriotism. (Patriotism, for Lepore, is a natural and virtuous love of one’s country and not to be confused with nationalism, which involves hatred of foreigners, immigrants, and minorities.) This abandonment, Lepore says, created an opening for nationalistic demagogues.

As Lepore acknowledges, the equation of “nationalism” with hate and bigotry is far from universal: in postcolonial countries, the term is benignly connected to the enlightened (if mythic) conception of nationhood as the starting point of self-determination. America was once a colonial place, too, but its sense of itself as a nation, Lepore believes, was developed ex post facto. Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution is the United States described as a nation. (Contrast this with, for example, the Republic of Ireland: the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and the 1937 Constitution begin with powerful assertions of Irish nationhood.) It took a great effort of politicking to unite states that did not much identify with one another, in spite of having in common the English language, whiteness, and Christianity. The US, Lepore says, is that rare thing: a state-nation.

American nationalism grew rapidly starting in the 1830s. It involved, on the one hand, nobly cosmopolitan and universalist ideals; on the other hand, slavery, the destruction of indigenous nations, wars of conquest, and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which held that no person of African descent could become a US citizen. Lepore’s exposition of this contradictory terrain is brisk, equitable, dispassionate, and hair-raising. Any suspicion that she was going to advocate for a kind of upbeat revisionism of the American past is dispelled. The question, as it always is for the historian, is one of selection and salience, and the injustices suffered by African-Americans, Native Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians, Mexicans, women, and immigrants (of every race) are accorded prominence. Pioneers, entrepreneurs, and generals figure barely or not at all, and neither do the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The liberal lens, always focused on the most vulnerable subjects of power, remains purposefully in place.

And yet, when the drama ends and the players (most notably Douglass, Du Bois, and Lincoln) have vacated the stage, we’re left with the impression of a status quo in which a WASP people are repeatedly disturbed by shocks to their political-ethnic predominance. This leads to paradoxical and somewhat unwelcome conclusions. Yes, the United States was founded on distinctly liberal ideals that it has durably if spasmodically embraced (the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Statue of Liberty, the civil rights movement, the election of Barack Obama). But also, to the extent that it is possible to conceive of the United States as an orthodox nation-state (rather than a demographically mutable state-nation underwritten by a code of abstract values), the nation in question would be majority white, ancestrally northwest European, and Christian. In 1924 the United States officially preferred immigrants of “Nordic” ethnicity and drastically reduced its intake of Jewish and Southern European immigrants. Asian or African immigration was largely out of the question. This regime more or less persisted until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. It’s not only liberals who will find sustenance in Lepore’s book. If you’re an ethno-nationalist, you too could wave around This America in support of your claims.

Lepore is aware of this fact—there’s little she isn’t aware of, one senses—and makes it integral to her argument, which is that the age-old struggle between illiberal and liberal tendencies is constitutive of the nation. Nationalism is currently thriving, she believes, because the discourse of American liberalism is deficient. First, that discourse undervalues the radicality and relevance of the country’s founding ideals; second, the preoccupation with the rights of subgroups is essential, certainly, but politically inadequate; third, and here I put the matter much more crudely than Lepore would, liberals must in some sense do battle for possession of the Stars and Stripes. However gauche or complicit it may seem, they must understand and unapologetically frame their values—which currently have a niche, somewhat subversive emphasis—as our core national values:

This America is a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and by the force of our disagreements. A nation founded on universal ideas will never stop fighting over the meaning of its past and the direction of the future…. The nation, as ever, is the fight.

When I moved to the United States in 1998, the nation was fighting with itself. My introduction to the country was framed by the televised impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. It was all very gripping—a kind of crash course in politics and government. Then came the 2000 election. What struck me, in the chaos that followed, was that the Republican Party enjoyed a mystifying presumption of legitimacy. Bush had prematurely positioned himself as the president-elect, and the media had largely deferred to him in this. It made no sense. Gore had won the popular vote by more than half a million; there were strong reasons to believe that the Democratic tally in Florida had been erroneously reduced by a faulty ballot design; black Floridians had experienced outrageous voting problems; and, astonishingly, the Republicans were actually trying to prevent an accurate count of the vote.

Why had Gore so quickly phoned Bush to concede an undecided election (a concession he soon retracted)? Why the curious timidity of Democrats in Florida and the unaccountable self-righteousness of their aggressive Republican counterparts? Were my eyes and ears fooling me, or was everybody somewhat scared of the Republicans? The penny finally dropped when the Republican majority in the Supreme Court incoherently decided, in Bush v. Gore, to halt the vote-counting while their candidate still held a lead. Oh, I thought to myself. It’s a deep-state thing.

Jack Spencer
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2016; photograph by Jack Spencer from his book This Land: An American Portrait, published by University of Texas Press

The concept of the deep state has gained notoriety in America in the last couple of years. It has been deployed by Republicans to attack Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The investigation, they assert, is part of a plot, conducted by powerful, pro-Democrat national security functionaries, to undo the 2016 election. The people making this allegation most loudly—they include Ted Malloch, author of The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russian Dossier to Subvert the President; the Infowars founder Alex Jones; and Roger Stone—are intellectual frauds. Nonetheless, or perhaps consequently, “deep state” is now a resonant catch-phrase in Republican circles.

The term originates in Turkey. Like the United States, Turkey is a constitutional republic. Its democratic progress has been something of a bumpy ride. There have been three military coups since 1961, each more or less accepted by the Turkish people. They understood (if sometimes disputed) that the armed forces enjoyed an extralegal, almost spiritual authority to safeguard the legacy of Kemal Atatürk and, if necessary, to suspend the constitutional order when that legacy was threatened by civil unrest or dangerous political developments. The military—together with its allies in the state security and legal apparatus—came to be described as constituting, and acting on behalf of, the “deep state.”

The United States has secretive agencies that do legally dubious things, but it doesn’t have a deep state in the Turkish sense. It may be said to have a deep state in another sense, however: America. America preceded, and brought into being, the republic we now live in—the United States of America. Almost everyone still talks about America, not about the United States; about Americans, not USAers. America, in short, was not extinguished by the United States. It persists as a buried, residual homeland—the patria that would be exposed if the USA were to dissolve. Primordial America (at least in the popular imagination) was where folks prayed hard, worked hard on the land, and had rightful recourse to violence. In this imaginary place, people were white, Christian, English-speaking. They had God-given dominion over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. All of this inevitably informs the way American nationals apprehend one another and their country. They feel in their bones that some people are Americans and other people are merely citizens of the United States.

Our deep state doesn’t require conspiracies or coups or even self-awareness. It is a permanent ideological feature, like gravity. It reveals itself in our politics. A common trope—“Imagine if a Democrat did that”—refers to a state of affairs in which one party is bound by norms and rules, and the other party less so. One president must constantly generate his legitimacy, even as he excellently complies with the rules; another president benefits from a legitimacy so profound that his rule-breaking has the effect of rule-making. One group is perceived to be synthetic and unpatriotic, another as authentic and patriotic. This guy is a snowflake, that guy is a victim of persecution. And so on.

The unspoken ratio decidendi of Bush v. Gore is that, when it comes to the crunch, America trumps the United States and its papery constitutional affirmations. Democrats get this as much as Republicans do. Consciously or unconsciously, they know the score. They experience this knowledge mostly as fear.

This has implications for Lepore’s argument. She believes that, as a practical matter, liberal political messaging should vigorously equate our founding ideals with our sense of nationality. If anyone has done that, it is Obama. In 2009 (during a trip to Turkey, as it happens), he declared:

One of the great strengths of the United States is—although, as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population—we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.

This hasn’t quite panned out—neither the thesis, nor the political messaging. The problem isn’t rhetorical. It’s structural.

The cornerstone assertion of the Declaration of Independence is that government exists in order to secure the equal, inalienable rights of persons. This is the formal raison d’être and official ideology of the United States. It follows that those who fully embrace those rights—liberals—have political and patriotic legitimacy, and those who reject them lack legitimacy. Psychically, liberals often don’t seem to believe this. A deference to “Americans” inheres in their worldview, even if the Americans in question aspire to subvert our democracy. The “heartland” and “Middle America” (concepts that bring to mind the idea of la France profonde) still form a crucial part of the liberal political vocabulary, which continues to attach an emphatically American identity to the country’s white provincial population. If, as Lepore urges, we must think hard, even dangerously, about the nation and its history, the distinction between America and the United States should probably be reckoned with.

“I claim the right to the United States, for myself and my children and my uncles and cousins, by manifest destiny.” The claimant is Suketu Mehta, in This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. The reference to manifest destiny isn’t merely trolling. Mehta’s thesis is that extensive migration from poor parts of the globe to the US is as inevitable and justified as the westward migration that built this country. He goes on:

This land is your land, this land is our land, it belongs to you and me. We’re here, we’re not going back, we’re raising our kids here. It’s our country now…. We’re not letting the bastards take it back.

It’s our America now.

You’ll have spotted that Mehta isn’t asking for a benevolent, liberal-American accommodation of the immigrant. He doesn’t even mention the Declaration of Independence (though he does mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Rather, he is asserting a right of migration that can override the right of nation-states to keep people out. His point of view is the migrant’s, not the native’s.

This standpoint is partly autobiographical. The Mehta family immigrated from India to the United States in 1977, when Suketu was a teenager. He has been a US citizen (and a New Yorker) for thirty years: “Here was my home. Here I belonged, because everyone else belonged.” Then came the 2016 election and the extraordinary, and ongoing, Republican assault on “shithole” immigrants and immigration. Mehta—author of the modern classic Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found—was moved to act: “This book is being written in sorrow and rage—as well as hope.”

His immediate priority is to humanize the spectral figure of the migrant. This involves travel. He goes to Friendship Park, on the US–Mexico border, where he meets not only migrants but Border Patrol personnel. He goes to (or recalls trips to) places such as Abu Dhabi, Delhi, New Jersey, and Spain. He talks to Hondurans, Indians, Mexicans, Nigerians, and midwesterners, and becomes privy to their family stories, their plans, their exact income, their working conditions. He turns himself, in effect, into a one-man witness-bearing machine. It is harrowing, heartbreaking, detailed work that does what it sets out to do: illuminate the predicament of specific persons in a universal ethical light.

For example, Mehta travels to Tangier and gets to know a young Guinean married couple with a week-old baby, Isaca, and Isaca’s aunt and great-great-aunt. He learns about this multigenerational family’s journey by truck across the Sahara; about the pseudo-smuggler who scammed €2,500 from them; how the mother gave birth in a Moroccan hospital and what postnatal care she receives; that they will drug Isaca during the nine-mile boat crossing to Spain; that the crossing will happen during Ramadan (when the Moroccan coast guard supposedly sleeps a lot); and what their Facebook photo albums show (family members left behind in Conakry). What happens to this family? Mehta never finds out:

Flashing my American passport, I get on a fast, comfortable ferryboat from Tangier, at the tip of Africa, and disembark on the continent of Europe an hour later. Tarifa is known, thanks to the wind whipping around the southernmost tip of Europe, as the finest kitesurfing destination on the continent.

Mehta’s book is filled with arresting human particulars, but its theoretical thrust can be compressed into three main propositions. First, catastrophic climate change, global inequality, and the ruinous aftermath of colonialism have ensured that “mass migration is the defining human phenomenon of the twenty-first century.” Not since the end of World War II have there been as many displaced persons as there are now. By 2050, up to 30 percent of the planet’s surface, home to 1.5 billion people, could be desert; the population of Africa will double to 2.4 billion; in Bangladesh alone, 20 million could be displaced by rising sea levels. By the century’s end, land populated by 650 million people could be underwater. Mehta has a lot more stuff like this, none of it reassuring.

His second proposition is that migrants from the poorer parts of the world have a right to settle in richer parts of the world. This right is essentially restitutionary: societies that unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of other societies are obligated to make restitution. The argument is most familiar to Americans regarding slavery reparations, with one difference: Mehta expands its scope to include victims of colonial or hegemonic exploitation. The expansion is significant. There are about 42 million Americans of African descent, but there are further millions in the Central American states that, as Mehta demonstrates, the US has destabilized, traumatized, and plundered for its own gain. There are billions of people in postcolonial societies. If you believe, as Mehta does, that restitution is also due to poor countries suffering from the impoverishment and environmental damage caused by rich countries and their predatory multinational corporations, the scope for reparations grows even larger.

Mehta deals with the problem of infinite liability as follows:

Poor countries aren’t seriously suggesting that the rich send sacks of gold bullion or bitcoin every year to India or Nigeria. They’re asking for fairness; for the borders of the rich to be opened to goods and people; to Indian-made suits as well as Nigerian doctors.


Fair immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries. Thus, Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France, for Malians and Tunisians; Belgians, for very large numbers of Congolese.

“Immigration as reparations,” as Mehta terms it, has this peculiarly efficient feature: the remittance economy. In 2017 migrants remitted over $481 billion to the global south (out of total earnings of $3 trillion). That represents a win-win: payback for the country of origin, and tax dollars and economic growth for the “host” country.

Which brings us to the third limb of his argument: the West’s hostility to immigration is not only immoral, it’s self-destructive. Immigrants are crucial in a variety of ways to the well-being of advanced economies. Also, they reduce crime rates, and they introduce culturally valuable sports, social customs, and cuisines.

Mehta’s vision is radically redistributive, but it will be received with suspicion by the patriotic left. For Mehta, there is no good reason to privilege the interests of workers in Michigan, say, over the interests of workers in Baja California. On the contrary, it is the latter who should be privileged. And if Baja Californians are best served by free trade, so be it. This pragmatic approach is not without its contradictions. Mehta holds up Canada as an exemplar, but if Canada’s immigration policies were generally adopted, immigration would largely benefit the highly skilled or rich globetrotter. The “ordinary heroes” of migration—the desperate poor—would be left vulnerable to exploitation and exclusion.

It could also be said, of course, that Mehta is dismissive of the cultural and economic anxieties of the host population. But that is precisely his intention: to dismiss the concerns of white natives about having brown foreigners in their midst. Either their concerns are racist and accordingly without merit, or their concerns have some merit, but not as much merit as the concerns of migrants.

Lepore voices coherent reservations about the academic drift from the study of the American nation to the study of a world “grown global, tied together by intricate webs of trade and accelerating forms of transportation and communication.” To an immigrant like me, however, there is something counterintuitive about the idea that Americans need to focus more than ever on our internal differences. Cultivating at least a basic curiosity about the rest of the world seems to be in order. The geographic ignorance of the citizenry is notorious, but it goes deeper than that. Apparently climate change is such an exotic concept that almost no candidates in the Democratic primary can dwell on the subject. Apparently it is politically untenable for American politicians, even Democrats, to argue against the Iraq War by reference to the tremendous suffering inflicted on Iraqis. Only American casualties seem to count. A national self-examination may be called for, but it must refuse the grotesque introspectiveness that has morally deformed the nation.

Meanwhile, disaster looms ever larger; self-examination begins to seem beside the point. A valuable feature of Mehta’s argument is that it is procedurally radical. It rejects the programmatic self-doubt that is central to American liberalism—and, arguably, central to its defeat by its Republican adversaries, who without hesitation embrace self-righteousness, domination, and the fait accompli. If Lepore is right and the nation is indeed the fight, liberals must understand what a fight involves. That is, you can’t fight performatively when the other side is fighting to win: that kind of fight simply won’t go on for very long. You have no option but to fight to win, too. You want to win because you are right and they are wrong; because you have a moral right to power and they don’t; because you are real Americans and they’re not.