"This election is not, however, about the same old fights between Democrats and Republicans. This election is different. It really is about who we are as a nation. It's about millions of Americans coming together to say: We are better than this. We won't let this happen in America." -- Hillary Clinton
She's right. On the one hand, of course every election is about who we are as a nation, as expressed in terms of the laws and policies we enact at home, as well as the actions we take abroad. But this one is different. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, in covering Clinton's Tuesday night victory speech, recognized that she had characterized the coming campaign as a "national identity" election.
When Barack Obama became the first African-American president, it was a historic milestone, just as the election of the first female president would be. On the one hand, in addition to what he represents by the mere fact of his presidency, Obama has long spoken about our national identity in a more inclusive way than other political figures. This has had a profound effect on the way many Americans -- in particular those who are members of minority groups -- understand their relationship to their country.
However, his 2008 opponent, John McCain, did not reject the idea of America as a place where we judge people, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or their faith. Remember that one of McCain's own supporters, at a rally less than a month before the election, declared to the crowd: "I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not, he's not, uh -- he's an Arab." The Republican nominee took the microphone back, corrected the previous speaker, and praised his opponent as "a decent family man [and] citizen."
Rather than heighten -- and use for his own political gain -- the fear of the 'other' that animates too many in our country, McCain did the exact opposite. In response, his own erstwhile supporters booed him for it and called out, in reference to then-Sen. Obama: "Terrorist!" Fast forward eight years, and ask yourself what Donald Trump would have done.
Actually, we don't have to. Trump spent March and April of 2011 soaking up media attention as the country's birther-in-chief, taking advantage of the very same racial anxieties to make himself a major figure on the right. Trump's birther campaign, without question, helped lay the groundwork for his 2016 run by giving him credibility among those seeking a president who refuses to be "politically correct." His entire campaign rests on the notion that expressing bigotry is really just telling it like it is.
When being questioned about his comments that he might not receive fair treatment from the "Mexican" judge presiding over the lawsuit filed against Trump University, his fraudulent scheme of a scam, the GOP nominee only doubled down:
Dickerson: Isn't there sort of a tradition, though, in America that we don't judge people by who their parents were and where they came from?
Trump: I'm not talking about tradition -- I'm talking about common sense, OK?
[snip] Dickerson: Yeah, I guess I'm just still confused how -- what his Mexican parents have to do with that. Let me --
Trump: Excuse me. I want to build a wall. I mean, I don't think it's very confusing.
Trump: Has nothing to do with anything except common sense. You know, we have to stop being so politically correct in this country.
In other words, screw our tradition and our core values -- bear in mind that it took almost two centuries of fighting after we stated our belief in equality to finally enact civil rights and full voting rights into law --Trump would replace those traditions and values with "common sense." To Trump, fighting for equality really just equals being politically correct. And that's what we have to stop being, he says. Excuse me, indeed.
Democrats offer a different approach. Our party is wrapping up a tough nomination battle, one that centered on substantive clashes between the candidates. But there was no difference on that most important core value: A commitment to equality. To return to Clinton's Tuesday speech, she drew a bright line underneath the fundamental contradiction between our understanding of national identity and Trump's:
[Trump's] not just trying to build a wall between America and Mexico - he's trying to wall off Americans from each other. When he says, 'Let's make America great again,' that is code for, 'Let's take America backwards.' Back to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for some, not all.
[snip] When Donald Trump says a distinguished judge born in Indiana can't do his job because of his Mexican heritage - or he mocks a reporter with disabilities - or calls women 'pigs'- it goes against everything we stand for. Because we want an America where everyone is treated with respect and where their work is valued.
It's clear that Donald Trump doesn't believe we are stronger together. He has....denigrated Muslims and immigrants. He wants to win by stoking fear and rubbing salt in wounds....We teach our children that this is one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Not just for people who look a certain way or worship a certain way or love a certain way. For all. Indivisible.
By contrasting Trump's bigotry and attempts to divide us with what America really stands for, Secretary Clinton has offered something more than merely a politically effective attack -- she's offered Americans a choice about how we want to define our nation.
Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for this kind of approach by consistently and constantly defining America in the manner he has: As a country centered around the notions of the common good, unity, and empathy across lines of race, culture, religion, sexual identity and more, as well as the principles of equality and freedom. By emphasizing that Americans are Stronger Together, Hillary Clinton has placed that definition of our national identity at the heart of her campaign for the White House.
If there's anything good that can come from having a Republican nominee who actually places hate front and center rather than use a dog whistle to play on racial anxieties, maybe it will come from forcing Americans to choose what kind of people we want to be. Hillary Clinton will certainly make sure voters understand exactly the consequences of that decision.