Trump’s post-DNC meltdown has been spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that in a week he collected about as many major gaffes as gaffe-prone politicians like Joe Biden can make in their entire careers.
It’s also telling, though. Trump gaffes aren’t like Biden gaffes. Biden gaffes are relatively harmless and occasionally funny, and he has been able to turn them into their own sort of political capital in the past. No, Trump gaffes are dark insights into a man whose worldview is fundamentally un-American.
And it is because they are rooted in this mindset that is utterly at odds of American self-conception that the vast majority of people have no choice but to react with abject shock. It is not as if politicians haven’t previously made successful Presidential runs based on little to no political experience (see, for example, Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama).
But even then, these politicians have collectively made a social contract — bought into our shared values. Trump clearly has not and is unlikely to ever do so, and so outside the relatively small regressive-populist base he appeals to has next to zero wider appeal.
Understanding the American metanation
Most nations are ethnic. Indeed, the typical definition of nation — Dictionary.com gives it as “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a governmentpeculiarly its own” — can be distilled to landed ethnicity. This is fundamental to understanding European issues: Greeks, Italians, Slovenes, Spaniards, Dutch, Germans, French- and Englishmen, and so forth all consider themselves distinct and unique nations. Indeed, the modern Western notion of “nationhood” arose in large part to explain what made these places different.
Americans have historically not subscribed to this notion. We are, we are reminded in school, a nation of immigrants. And the history of American nationhood is one of assimilation as different waves of migration from different places work hard and enter the middle class (often despite fierce resistance). Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian-Americans, and Slavic Americans have all fully assimilated; Asian-Americans are relatively late in the assimilation process (with Indian-Americans lagging about a generation behind East Asian-Americans); Latin-Americans in the middle; and West Indians and African immigrants in the first stage. And from there, they subdivide into the dozen or so American nations.
This is why we can talk about the peoples of the United States being united by a metanation,* which here I am defining as “a grouping of nations united by a sense of shared ethnicity”. While the idea is relatively new — Google “metanation” and the top hit is this book — one can fairly argue that post-Roman Europe is its own metanation, and Chinese identity can be thought of as essentially metanational rather than national. There is also evidence that the largest-scale long-term trend in the world today is the reorganization of economy and polity from something associated with antropological nations to metanational blocs.
The metanational ties that bind us are deep and developed in two primary phases, both marked by war: a high sense of personal liberty, a pervasive distrust of political authority, commitments to freedoms of speech and religion and a deep desire for equality of opportunity … and a fundamental sense of un-landedness. That is, while individual American nations are be clearly landed — Northerners and Southerners are clearly quite different — there is a deep sense that the American metanation has no such ties.
My friend puts it as: American identity is creedal rather than ethnic in origin. And because it is a fundamentally creedal conception, Americans believe — deeply — that a diversity of peoples, values, and opinions is a good thing, because out of that diversity grows a richness of experience of the shared creed.
That is why this chart exists: no matter where in Europe one is, immigrants are in some other entrenched nation whose national identity comes first and foremost. Not so in the US: because we are all the descendants of immigrants, the vast majority of us believe in a metanational identity that welcomes new ones.
Even so, there is an interesting trend — one that has spontaneously developed in a few places (mostly rural) but is strongly associated with the Appalachian nation — and that is of people who claim an “American” ethnicity. Recall here that the Appalachia is a classic nation, a landed ethicity that first developed** in the heart of the Appalachians and subsequently spread across the Tennessee Valley and into the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.
It’s also important to remember here that Appalachia functions as a buffer between the broader North and South, that there is no American nation less urban and more rural, and finally that — historically — the region was the most persistently underdeveloped part of the country. (That “honor” has shifted south into the Mississippi lowlands.) In short, unlike most other parts of the country, Appalachia received relatively few immigrants, and so, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, began to develop a skepticism that immigration really was a good thing.
Every American nation is marked by deviations from the metanation. It is not at all a coincidence that what fires up Trump’s base and disgusts everybody else is the deviations which mark the Appalachian nation, namely an atavistic stringently role-based culture, from which Appalachians’ increased comfort with authoritarianism derives, and the development of an independent ethnic identity. The mainstream does not see itself as at all “ethnically American” — such a thing feels deeply and fundamentally alien to us.
To call oneself “ethnically American” implies there is a “real America”, i.e. an American nation in the anthropological sense, which in its turn implies that people who aren’t part of that nation are not and cannot ever be “real Americans”.*** But this is utterly contradictory with the creedal sense of identity that binds the rest of the American metanation! People with this worldview, which in the US are largely limited to Appalachians, share sensibilities with European nationalists, not their cousins elsewhere in the United States.
The Rise of Trump
A trend towards political populism and charismatic politicians (or at least politicians that were charismatic in their time) marks Appalachia. And, while the region was part of the Democrats’ Solid South until the civil rights movement brought about the collapse of the Progressive coalition, the Appalachian trend towards populism deeply fragmented the region even as the Southern Strategy recaptured Tidewater and the Deep South for Republicans. Bill Clinton, for example, made a career out of being charismatic during this fractured era — for a time, we could speak of Appalachians as being either progressive populist or regressive populist, depending on whether they hued left or right.
The development of the Big Tent, Mr. Clinton’s most lasting contribution to American politics, was arguably the progressive-populists’ high-water mark. Obama used it as the foundation of his governing coalition, and the Big Tent remains Hillary’s base.
However, even as it developed a strong national presence, the progressive-populist movement rapidly aged and died, replaced by an increasingly-solid regressive-populist Appalachia. Remember the execrable “real America” from above? Throughout this era, that phrase was used time and again — a dog whistle, as it turns out, meant to appeal to self-styled “ethnic American” Appalachians, but a phrase that the rest of us didn’t have the mental equipment to handle — if we are all immigrants’ descendants, then what the hell is a “real America”?
The post-Reagan Republican governing (or opposition when the Big Tent governed) coalition became fundamentally Southern and often focused on Texas.++ But this coalition was assembled in the late 1970s, right as Baby Boomers first came of age, and proved unable to recruit Gen X’ers in the ’90s or early 2000s or Millennials today. Because it was a direct outgrowth of racially tinged politics, the post-Reaganites were also unable to attract minority votes+++ and this lack of growth vectors in the formative period has led to the post-Reaganites steadily losing power as their poor white Southern^ base grew older and became increasingly important voices in the party, even as the Big Tent quite literally gobbled up all of the growth vectors.
Suddenly we see the Tea Party in a new light. It was a Republican watershed — the collapse of the post-Reaganite coalition as an internal rebellion, led by regressive populists and subsequently the charismatic politicians they put into power, scoured the coalition’s more moderate branches (the last remnants of the small-government Northeasterners that once formed the party’s core). There is enormous irony here: The post-Reagan coalition, like the Solid South before them, used the South as a votes engine to power the North’s opposition party into a position of dominance.
And so, as the Reaganites evolved into the post-Reaganites — that is, as the coalition’s center moved from the Northern opposition party to Texas politics — the party began to slowly strip away the Northern elements. The Tea Party was the point when the Republican Party transformed from a coalition itself governed by Northern or North-allied interests into a truly Southern party. Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat is part and parcel of this, as a Southern regional party is effectively toothless at the national level.
But the party has become fundamentally ideologically opposed to what they have to do to be relevant (i.e. redefine its values and principles). This is because the party’s post-Reaganite losses are also of those whose politics it needs most desperately to attract to become relevant once again — that is, libertarians (especially as it becomes increasingly clear that libertarianism vs. progressivism is the dominant Millennial ideological conflict), antimachine urban Northerners, and minorities — and neither their leadership nor their base has any appetite for developing an agenda that can appeal on a national level. Libertarian views conflict with social conservatives’ in culture wars and those same culture wars soured Northerners on the Republicans, and of course the whitewash is peeling and the racism (dressed up, once again, as nationalism) is quite visible.
A party rapidly losing clout while suffering internecine squabbles leading to a vacuum of leadership? For the first time, perhaps ever, in American history, an opportunity has arisen for a fascist politician — a charismatic playing on regressive-populism nationalism — to take the reins. Enter Trump, a man whose supporters (largely confined to Appalachia) revere for being a “brash outsider” and who literally everybody else sees as a dangerous, toxic windbag.
It’s also important to note that the Republicans’ leadership have consistently, and subtly, distanced themselves from Trump. They were even doing it at the RNC, the moment when the party is ostensibly supposed to unify behind a candidate. Major donors, such as the Koch brothers, have refused to fund Trump, instead focusing on downticket races. And then Trump gets involved …
But this is fundamentally the problem of the Republican Party. Trump is the voice of their base. Up to now, they had been able to find somebody bland enough to run nationally. Trump isn’t. Indeed, his immediate post-DNC meltdown shows a candidate disastrously unfit to be President. Americans will go to the polls in November and tell Trump “Fuck No” and he will implode in a Cheeto-colored financial apocalypse and it will be glorious.^^ But, in thirty years of wondering why they weren’t attracting new voters while stripping away every position new voters would be attracted to, the Republicans have also laid bare a path for other Trumps clear through to their base.
Because it is now clear what their base truly wants. It is ugly, it is authoritarian, it is nationalist, it is fascist, it is dark, and it is deeply and fundamentally the antithesis of what being an American means. And people are reacting exactly the way one would think they would to someone who is existentially opposed to what they believe, in their hearts, to be true.
* Some “grammarian” is inevitably going to whine about the concatenation of Greek and Latin roots. To which I respond: you do realize that “palfrey” comes from a Latin concatenation of Greek and Celtic roots, right? No? Go away, then.
** Generally out of Celtic ancestry. While Pentecostalism’s heartland is associated with the Appalachian nation, their ancestors mainly came from Scottish Presbyterian stock. For example, in the formative stage of the Appalachian nation, Presbyterian frontiersmen in Pennsylvania clashed with the established Quakers in the state’s historic core; the former are now part of the Appalachian nation.
*** This is, by the way, the root of Europe’s problems with Muslim immigrants. Les maghrebbiens cannot ever be French; Turkish immigrants cannot ever be German; their sensibilities are fundamentally alien to those of the — landed, recall; not creedal — French and German identities.
Similar lines showed in Brexit, which essentially amounted to Englishmen wanting to assert control over British identity, something the Scots and Northern Irish balked at so strongly that a full Brexit is all but guaranteed to include Scottish independence and lead to a coin flip over Northern Ireland’s fate.
The modern European metanation is still developing; unlike the American metanation, where the individual American nations develop out of different ideas of which metavalues are most important in different places (realized as local value systems), the modern European metanation must be fundamentally syncretic, a task made increasingly difficult by a new blossoming of European nationalism (some of which is known to be funded by Russians looking to destabilize their western neighbor).+
+ Incidentally, Russians don’t see themselves as “European” at all. Instead, they call themselves northern Eurasians, a region whose outline looks suspiciously similar to old USSR’s.
++ Texas is also a nation with its own unique ethnic identity. Texans (or at least the ones writing the tourist literature) understand this, however, and celebrate themselves for their apartness. (“Texas: It’s Like A Whole ‘Nother Country!”) This ability to celebrate one’s differences while still belonging is also a metanationally American trait, by the way; the reason why Appalachians get into trouble is because claiming an “American ethnicity” presumptively claims the right to speak for all of us when in reality they only speak for their own nation, Appalachia, and not the American metanation as a whole.
+++ Except for the Cubans, which largely defected to the Republicans when Mr. Clinton proposed easing relations with Castro’s Cuba (remember, they were and still are refugees from the Castro regime).
^ Something I don’t really draw attention to in this post is that the American metanation is actually a second-order metanation. (So is the modern European metanation.) Americans have long recognized the North-South split — those are first-order metanations. One can perhaps argue that Appalachia — a Southern nation — is so obsessed with claiming an American ethnic identity because it is also the furtherest removed nation from American metanational norm (related to the region spending 150 years — and counting! — as a buffer rather than a core), i.e. that Appalachia is now the least American American nation in terms of adherence to broader metanational norms.