In theory, there was a lot to like about the United States of America. But by the time Donald Trump assumed the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he couldn’t find much to praise.
According to Trump, the country’s institutions were “rigged” against the “forgotten men and women” who had been “ignored, neglected, and abandoned” by elites ensconced in every sector of society. It was a nation plagued by violence. Its official statistics were fraudulent. Its elected officials and corporate interests actively sought to undermine the prospects of the less well-off. It’s foreign economic, political, and military relations amounted to a conspiracy against the public. The president didn’t change his tune when the nation elected him to its highest office either. The portrait Trump painted of America in his inaugural address was a place of hardship, persecution, and “carnage.”
The patriotism to which Trump professed perfunctory fealty was the shallow sort that is enamored with symbols—undulating flags, soldiers in uniform, majestic scenery, and the like. Absent from the president’s mind was the country’s foundational principles and the ideological convictions of the Founding generation that gave birth to a remarkably durable compact of states. And why would they be present? If the products of their inventiveness and sacrifices are so loathsome, why are they worth celebrating at all? This conceit is not limited to the nationalist right. It is a nearly religious conviction of the left, and it is remarkably dangerous.
The number of Americans who view patriotism as an essential value is on the wane, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. The decline is most pronounced among Millennials between 18 and 34 years old, for whom patriotism is unsophisticated and indistinguishable from jingoism. “If you believe in the values that your country is expressing and following and you want to support those, then, sure,” 31-year-old Megan Clark told the Wall Street Journal. “But just as a blind association with wherever you happen to be from, that just doesn’t seem logical.”
Fewer and fewer Americans describe themselves as proud to be citizens of the Republic, but the source of their anxiety about the country is limited almost exclusively to its politics. The decline is universal but most pronounced among self-identified Democrats and liberals and the younger voters who gravitate toward those affiliations. But in those who are disappointed or ashamed, one hears echoes of Trump’s critique: the “system,” they profess, is rigged. Increasingly, the legitimacy of that system is under attack.
The Atlantic’s Andrew Ferguson illustrates the condition in a dispatch from Broadway, where the play, What the Constitution Means to Me, has received rave reviews and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In Ferguson’s telling, playwright and performer Heidi Schreck’s estimation of the Constitution—the analysis of which she limits exclusively to its amendments—is so low because she believes it was established only “to protect the interest of a small number of rich white men.”
Schreck laments the failure of the American political system to guarantee “positive rights” in the form of the compulsory labor of others to provide citizens with certain services. But it is the Constitution’s failure to provide for and preserve the rights of women that is most central to her indictment. “[T]here are no constitutional protections for women against sexual violence,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. As Ferguson demonstrated, this assertion is based on a profound misunderstanding of the legal arguments in the 7-2 Supreme Court decision in 2005’s Castle Rock v. Gonzales, but Schreck isn’t interested in law as much as sentiment. And the sentiment she is expressing is unmistakable: The nation’s founding document is predicated upon a set of antiquated and prejudicial philosophies. How could such an odious document retain any legitimacy?
If the Constitution is so flawed that even the 14th Amendment is an instrument of persecution, then America’s foundational document is all but irredeemable. But then, so, too, were the ideals to which the Founding Fathers adhered, according to the New York Times. The paper’s symposium of essays evaluating the legacy of American slavery roughly 400 years after its inception explicitly contends as much. The project’s stated mission is to demonstrate that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” As one essay’s title contends, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” If that immoral and illegitimate institution pervades every aspect of America’s character, the country isn’t unique so much as aberrant.
A staggering number of prominent Democrats appear to agree with the need to question the legitimacy of America’s foundational philosophies and institutions. “This country was founded on white supremacy,” Beto O’Rourke averred. According to Joe Biden, the precepts of English common law—little things like the equitable resolution of disputes, a hierarchy of courts, and the localization of jury trials—disenfranchise women and minorities. “This is English jurisprudential culture—a white man’s culture—it’s got to change,” the former vice president insisted. “To me, capitalism is irredeemable,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of the conduct of commerce and profit-seeking that is as native to America as the Virginia Company of London and the Massachusetts Bay Company—early 17th-century firms that first settled those two colonies.
Like Donald Trump’s conditional patriotism, the United States may once again find redemption in the eyes of its Democratic critics if American voters oust Republicans from office in 2020. But as shifting national attitudes suggest, the attacks on the legitimacy of the country’s foundational institutions from its governing class are not anathema to most Americans. Just the opposite, in fact; they seem to agree. That’s a precarious condition. When political unions are viewed by their sworn stewards as illegitimate, they are not long for this world.