American history is full of chapters many Americans would rather forget. The theft of land from the Native Americans, followed by introducing them to smallpox and whiskey for example. Writing slavery into the constitution and then suppressing African Americans via Jim Crow laws is another. There’s also the wars, started ostensibly to spread democracy, but actually to spread America’s power. There is also, the propping up of oppressive regimes sympathetic to America, or encouraging anti-democratic rebellions against democratically elected left wing governments.
How any country engages with the darker aspects of its own history is a fraught topic for its citizens. For America, which prides itself on being not just another country but a land of justice and liberty, it’s an even more emotionally explosive process. Americans can be quite sensitive about the times their country has failed to live up to the shining city on the hill it was supposed to be.
This is why I have a lot of respect for President Barack Obama who tried, to some degree, to atone for the terrible episodes of American history. As well as being the first black President and trying to heal America's racial wounds, he visited Laos and acknowledging that they are the most bombed country in history, thanks mainly to America, still dealing with problems today involving unexploded but still very dangerous ordnance. He was the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima during the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and embraced Shigeaki Mori, a survivor of the bombing.
These were the right things to do. Obama was able to show remorse for the terrible parts of American history with a dignity that meant that the country was not brought low by this acknowledgement. He showed that America could engage with its past while trying to live up to what it promised. It was right for Obama to attempt address these historical injustices, not the least because the more America acknowledges its past tragedies, the more likely it is to avoid future tragedies.
It has become clear that many Americans don’t want to acknowledge the troubling episodes in their country’s history. They don’t want to engage with the systemic racial violence that is most of American history, and they certainly don’t want to atone for it. Many Americans are not happy about the spread of liberal ideas, such as: “it’s good that America show some humility towards countries like Laos and Japan that it has treated terribly”. They are also not happy about liberals asking why so many statues were put up to honour Confederate leaders during the Jim Crow era. There has been a cultural backlash against the idea that America has anything to be ashamed of.
America is currently embroiled in a liberal vs. conservative culture war that has dragged in everything from football to Rosie O'Donnell. Even supposedly independent institutions like the US military have been appropriated for this conflict. Part of this culture war is a fight over what America should say about itself. Should it be unashamedly proud of its own history or should it attempt to address historical injustices and atone for its past?
One side of this great divide had their man in the White House, so America briefly showed some shame about all the people it had killed and how it failed to be a shining city on the hill. Now the other side has its man in the White House and America will not admit that it has any flaws. Salute the flag or take a hike. Those are your only choices.
Donald Trump’s unselfconscious patriotism is so uncritical of American history that it goes out of its way to encourage the worst aspects of America: white nationalism. No matter how many Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members claim that they feel emboldened by Trump’s election, Trump still cannot bring himself to criticise anyone who assembles under the Stars and Stripes. He cannot conceive of any flaw with patriotism even when it is emboldening Nazis and thus he cannot believably condemn them.
For Trump, the flag and American history is something to be proud of and not apologise for in any way. He represents an America that is not ashamed of anything it has done, no matter how cruel, bloody, or a betrayal of the values America is supposed to stand for. Trump’s America does not need to show remorse.
This may sound very academic, but if America cannot acknowledge the problems of its past, or what people have done under the name of protecting or loving America, then it cannot avoid problems in the present. If American has done nothing wrong then it can do no wrong, especially when it is looking after its national interests. Trump has also gone out of his way to encourage the worst aspect of other countries. He has praised strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump is creating the associations that future liberal Presidents will have to apologise for and future Conservative Presidents will ignore as they continue the cycle of violence and oppression.
Ignoring the worst aspects of American history won’t make them go away. In fact it will lead to America doing terrible (and avoidable) things in the present. There are many tragedies in America’s history and they need to engage with. Otherwise they will only fester.
Trump can undo a lot of Obama’s work. He is trying his best to do exactly that, but he can’t get rid of America’s past and cannot extinguish the hope that Obama gave us. The hope that America can engage with its past and atone for the terrible things it has done.