Although many people remain fixated on Trump’s bad policy, corruption, self-dealing, or isolationism—or even in his bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to climate change—the real danger of this administration lies in how it has unleashed a new, powerful imagination of what it means to be American. The constant denials of reality uttered by Trump and his administration, their “alternative facts”, and discounting truth as “fake news” serves not only to confuse reality, but to redefine reality for those who want to believe. It gives the supporters and followers of this new imagination a different story to tell, argue, and believe. It gives them a way to see themselves. It helps them see where they belong, and it changes the culture. Truth and reality are not relevant; the appeal of the story is.
Who Are “All of Our People”?
That story is exactly and precisely the problem. When Trump says, “All of our people…” he means white middle class men—not women, Mexican Americans, intellects and artists, African Americans, gays or lesbians. His supporters understand that. They believe the story to reclaim the purity of American-ness as he defines it. They identify with it. They identify with a “great America.” And that enables the imagination of the pure, white, great America.
This Trumpian imagination is the basis for persecution. Societies that carry out persecution rarely do so exclusively from the top down—actions begin and are carried out at the local, community level. The top cultivates, they do not direct. They foster an environment in which persecution occurs, but most actions happen at the local level. And, they take actions to reinforce the cultural norm that they are creating. People don’t participate because they take orders; they participate because they believe in the vision. Actions are fueled by a collective imagination of purity and greatness.
We saw this local level empowerment in the many terrible acts of bullying that occurred within a few days of the election—in schools, against Muslim Americans, Mexican Americans, gay and lesbian Americans, and anyone else who does not fit Trump’s American imagination. People took this persecution into their own hands, thereby creating an environment in which the people who do not fit the imagination are discouraged from participating, speaking, entering the country, or re-unifying their families. The fear that ripples through these communities is tangible, and it is also pleasing to those cultivating it.
Trump’s top advisor, Steve Bannon, recently described the effort beginning with the travel ban as a “long term demographic-reshaping project.” This is code for keeping the white middle class in the majority. The effort is not a single-policy effort, but rather a comprehensive one including government, culture, society, and individual actors. News of the bullying of people in the target groups is exactly what they want. The news of such actions creates an atmosphere of hostility that discourages other would-be immigrants from coming. It pushes people, whether legal or not, into the corners. Everyone gets the message that you should not speak out against these things. That is the Trumpian imagination at work.
Yet the Trump administration is also reinforcing this reshaped imagination with policy. The travel ban is only a start. There are four things governments and societies do to accomplish demographic goals: Disallow entry by the targeted communities, disempower the targeted communities, deport the targeted communities, and destroy the targeted communities. We can expect more of these steps against Muslim-, Mexican-, African-, gay-lesbian-, and other groups that don’t fit the Trumpian imagination.
Fear of Being Outnumbered
The problem with this imagination is that it runs into a literal conflict—the white middle class is about to be outnumbered in America. Although history shows that multiple racial, religious, and ethnic groups have all contributed to the foundation of the country going all the way back to decades before the Revolution, a fundament of the American way seems to be a “pecking order” defined either by recency of arrival if you are European, or by race if you are not. And yet, all of these stories are part of the American origin myth.
Expunge the Old Story
So, underlying the problem of a new American story are two things that must be addressed. First, to actually recreate an American origin based on the white middle class, that story, the history, and the reality of the multi-ethnic make-up of our foundations need to be expunged. White immigration needs to be imagined as a natural order of things, whereas the immigration of all others must be understood as unnatural—unless coerced, as in slavery. For modern liberals, such an idea is understood as preposterous, but for white economic nationalists, it is viewed as an essential insight into the recovery of American greatness.
To this end, such alternative fact histories have been in circulation for many years. Christian homeschoolers use specially designed curricula to teach alternative views of American history—that the founding fathers were all Christians, that God ordained the Constitution, or that Thomas Jefferson was a minor figure. Liberty University teaches that the principles of the Bible come before the principles of the Constitution in its law school. We can expect to see far more of these alternative fact approaches funded and sanctioned by a Trump government because they understand the need to change the story of American greatness.
Maintain White Middle Class Hegemony
Second, demographic hegemony must be maintained. The great fear of white middle class America is that when it becomes a minority, the tides will turn against it. Revenge could occur. Consider, for example, the fear that drove white South Africa to create Apartheid—it was a method of maintaining minority rule and ensuring that the huge majority black population could not turn against a small minority. Apartheid kept whites safe, even if they were still afraid.
If this imagination continues to grow in America, we will see escalating attempts to control the population levels of the non-white groups. This is what Bannon means by his “long term demographic-reshaping project.” Continue and enhance the mass incarceration of blacks to neutralize their power. Deport the Mexicans as fast as possible to prevent a growing Hispanic population. Prevent the Muslims from entering to control their numbers. And do it at least fast enough to ensure that middle class whites remain the majority so as to keep other middle class whites in power.
The Big Picture Is Our Imagination
As the resistance focuses on one horror, scandal, or stupidity or another, we miss the big picture—which is that the national imagination—our imagination of ourselves—is changing and begin affected by Trump. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter if you are supporting or resisting because our self-perception is being changed. The fear is real and tangible in the targeted communities, and that changes all of us. The bullying actions and bullying ideas are real, and that changes all of us. The fight can focus on each issue, but it will be better and more effective when we assert and effect a countervailing imagination. If we fail, the Trumpian imagination will define the country and the future.