Before I start criticizing anyone, let me start with this: I appreciate any Republican who stands up to criticize this sorry excuse for a president. Two such anti-Trump Republicans are the NYT’s Ross Douthat and David Brooks. My appreciation for their efforts notwithstanding, they both managed to mangle the same topic in recent columns—American national identity.
In a piece titled “Who Are We?” Douthat put the back of his hand to his forehead (just do it and you’ll see what I mean) and lamented that liberalism has crafted a narrative of the American story too focused on oppression, one that ignores the traditionally understood elements—the “heroic founders-and-settlers narrative” of which it once consisted. He recognizes that that traditional story “stopped making as much sense” and that we needed to “correct” it. Douthat’s no extremist on this, he’s not running around waving a red #MAGA cap. He says we need a “unifying story” that includes both heroism and “the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others” in order to “bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump).” Clearly, Douthat supports that goal, so I take his call as a sincere one.
Similarly, just this week, David Brooks called for the revival of something we’ve “lost,” namely our “unifying American story.” This, he says, is the Exodus story, a “narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.” He cited Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr and Langston Hughes (“America never was America to me/And yet I swear this oath—/America will be!”) as all having embraced this narrative.
Brooks blamed the loss of our common story on “radical secularists [who] expunged biblical categories and patriotic celebrations from schools,” and closed by calling out for “somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.” Like Douthat, he also wants to bury Trumpism, and slammed “the jingoistic chauvinists who measure Americanness by blood and want to create a Fortress America keeping the enemy out.” Good on him.
Here’s the thing, gentlemen. Both of you have just described the exact narrative of our history and our national identity that Barack Obama has spent the last dozen years preaching on the national stage.
First, let’s talk about the individuals Brooks cited. President Obama’s approach bears the strong influence of Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Brooks knows it. In fact, he wrote two different opinion pieces about the influence of Niebuhr on Obama (here, and here). For what it’s worth, Douthat wrote one too. On the other people cited, I’ve written extensively about the influence of Rev. King on Obama.
Obama’s story of America is, in fact, just what Brooks called for: “a progressively realized grand narrative.”
More broadly, Obama has repeatedly offered precisely the “unifying story” Douthat and Brooks assert our country needs, one that includes both the traditional heroes from the “older narrative” Douthat says appeals to many, as well as figures representing a much broader cast of characters, i.e., those excluded from the older narrative, and who are pretty heroic as well. The 44th president wove all their stories into a single history of a diverse, yet unified people working to realize the ideals laid out at the founding. Obama’s story of America is, in fact, just what Brooks called for: “a progressively realized grand narrative.”
To the chagrin of some, Obama’s America—rightly, in my view—rejects both the whitewashed narrative that was predominant in the 1950s and the overwhelmingly negative vision Brooks criticized, one “steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation.” To be sure, no one could be elected president running around talking about America in such a negative way. Furthermore, anyone demanding that a progressive candidate must do so in order to earn their vote is only helping elect candidates who espouse the opposite understanding of America. Obama’s narrative describes our progress as uneven, yes, but nonetheless moving toward the goal we as a people set for ourselves.
Of dozens of examples in which Obama lays out his conception of American history and national identity, here are a few that span his time on the national stage. From his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, here’s one that offers a unifying narrative paralleling what Brooks says we need:
[The] Constitution...despite being marred by the original sin of slavery—has at its very core the idea of equal citizenship under the law. . . . Of course racism and nativist sentiments have repeatedly undermined these ideals . . . but in the hands of reformers, from Tubman to Douglass to Chavez to King, these ideals of equality have gradually shaped how we understand ourselves and allowed us to form a multicultural nation the likes of which exists nowhere else on earth.
On the night he won the 2008 Iowa caucuses:
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause.
From the first day of his second term:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
In his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine African Americans murdered by a white supremacist in a Charleston, South Carolina, church:
Removing the Confederate flag from this state’s capitol...would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.
And from his farewell address:
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande, pushed women to reach for the ballot, powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.
Maybe the “blindness” of writers like Douthat and Brooks isn’t blindness at all, but instead strategy. Maybe they feel like they’ll lose their ability to reach anti-Trump Republicans if they acknowledge that Obama has already done what they are calling for someone to do. Part of me can understand that thinking. But another part of me says that the strategic value of a Republican saying: “if it’s a choice between Trumpism and Obamaism, I’ll take Obamaism” would be far better. Plus, just tell the damn truth if you know what Obama has been doing.
Giving Obama credit for putting forth a balanced, inclusive conception of national identity wouldn’t mean endorsing the whole of the Democratic policy platform. Even on the national narrative itself, if Douthat and/or Brooks want to say that Obama hasn’t been effective enough in selling the vision he (and they) have described, that’s a point we can debate as well. But if they honestly believe that he hasn’t been putting that vision out there time and again for years, well, then they just haven’t been listening.