Maybe I woke up this morning on the wrong side of the bed, but sometimes my liberal brethren really bug me. On occasions like this, I don’t disagree with them on the merits so much as on a certain attitude taken toward Americans. They sometimes hold this country to imaginary standards, then complain when people don’t live up to them. At the same time, they set themselves apart, as if they were not also enmeshed in the same country.
The context for this occasion was last night’s defeat of the US by Sweden in the Women’s World Cup. The Americans lost on penalty kicks. “It is the earliest exit in tournament history for the United States, four-time winners of the World Cup,” the AP reported. “Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith and Kelley O’Hara missed with kicks from the penalty spot before Lina Hurtig converted to clinch the shootout 5-4 as Sweden knocked the United States out of the World Cup after a scoreless draw in regulation and extra time.”
Defeat is hard but people like Donald Trump, who make defeat seem like a moral failing, make it harder. “The ‘shocking and totally unexpected’ loss by the US Women’s Soccer Team to Sweden is fully emblematic of what is happening to our once great Nation under Crooked Joe Biden,” he said on his social media site. “Many of our players were openly hostile to America – no other country behaved in such a manner, or even close. WOKE EQUALS FAILURE. Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!!! MAGA.”
Yes, this is an asshole thing to say, but we’ve come to expect such statements from the criminal former president over the last eight years. I mean, the man is at the center of four unprecedented presidential crimes. Why wouldn’t he say some asshole things about the women’s soccer team?
But, apparently, Donald Trump continues to surprise Mehdi Hasan, host of MSNBC’s “Mehdi Hasan Show.” He still can’t bring himself to believe that Trump would say the things that Trump makes a habit of saying, nor can he quite believe that lots of Americans still like the asshole things he says.
Here’s Hasan: “I read these statements from Trump [about the US women’s soccer team] and I think 1) who else in politics or public life speaks like this? It’s deranged and vicious and unhinged and mad. 2) how can tens of millions of my fellow Americans be okay with this? How? How? How? How?”
I like watching Hasan work. He’s an aggressive interviewer steeped in the European liberal tradition who has no doubts about the rightness of his political views. The title of his new book, out this year, sums him up well: Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking. Hasan is a product of the UK’s elite collegiate debate clubs. As a dual citizen (he was naturalized in 2020), he brings to American politics the same annoyed sophistication that he used to bring to British and world politics.
But sometimes my liberal brethren really bug me. Hasan is no exception. He said Trump’s statement is “deranged and vicious and unhinged and mad”? Yes, it is! But then he asked “how can tens of millions of my fellow Americans be okay with this? How? How? How? How?” I don’t see the mystery. They like it, because they like it. There is no other standard.
You can say they shouldn’t like it, but that’s a normative statement, not an empirical one. It invites us to examine the country’s history and see if the present is a deviation from the past. When you do, you find that what’s happening now is no deviation from the norm, but instead entirely normal. The true deviation may be the last half century of democratic politics.
According to Jason Opal, in The Conversation, early America was a “settlers’ empire” organized politically and militarily to provide white farmers with more land. “So it went for generations,” Opal said. “With minor changes and variations, parties and presidents flattered and favored the rural majorities of America. American culture identified farm folk and small towns as the most authentic and virtuous parts of the nation — or, as President Andrew Jackson put it in 1837, ‘the bone and sinew of the country’” (my italics).
These Americans, or Realamericans, as I have called them, came to think of themselves as in control, all the way up to the 1960s, when, as Opal writes, “the heirs of Jefferson’s ‘chosen people’ lost their status as the most American of Americans.” From the 1960s onward, he wrote, “the new, diverse America enrages tens of millions of people who predominantly live in small towns and in the South and mostly identify as white, straight and Christian.”
Meanwhile, highly educated people like Mehdi Hasan, who do not appear to have any sense of being chosen or not, because they were never flattered the way political leaders have historically flattered white country folk, have no idea what motivates the Realamericans who are drawn to Donald Trump.
What he said about the defeat of the US women was not, to these people, “deranged and vicious and unhinged and mad.” It was common sense. “How can tens of millions of my fellow Americans be okay with this?” Mehdi Hasan asked. “How? How? How? How?” They believe they are chosen, they believe Trump speaks for them, they believe he’s their savior. That’s how.
What bugs me isn’t that he doesn’t know the history of “the chosen people” as well as he might. (He was born and raised abroad, after all.) What bugs me is his setting himself apart, as if he were not also enmeshed in this country, as if he refuses to be seen in public as being the equal of people who still like asshole things that are “deranged and vicious and unhinged and mad.”
What really bugs me is highly educated people skipping over the fact that Realamericans are still their political equals, however rustic, racist and wrong they may be. What really bugs me is the holding of these people to standards they themselves don’t recognize for the purpose of dismissing them as out of touch, as if that’s going to win every argument. It won’t.
We’re in this together, like it or not.