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The US is at War With Itself

Photo by Paul Siarkowski | CC BY 2.0

The United States is at war with itself. It is actually a function of the nation’s heritage—the past contesting specific aspects of a modern present. This results in traditions in flux. Some examples of this are the racism, the pseudo-frontier mentality, and the religious fundamentalism that persist into the present moment. These are traditions that characterized the first half of the nation’s history, and while some of these may have retreated into latency over the past fifty years, they are back with us now. As a result, Americans are in the midst of an ongoing culture war that in many ways is as old as the nation itself.

Let’s take look at the issue of racism, the latest display of which is the infamous Roseanne Barr tweet. Roseanne’s racist opinions are nothing new. Nor, since the advent of Donald Trump, is their public display. Here is how I contextualize the nation’s growing racist revival based on an updated earlier analysis entitled Civil Rights Takes a Hit, posted 5 March 2013 on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s ill-advised weakening of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

(1) A culture of racism shaped the American way of life since before the founding of the United States. This culture became particularly deep-rooted in the southern colonies/states, where slavery became not only a foundational economic institution but one that shaped the South’s self-image. In the North, a racist culture was also pervasive and society was segregated. The significant difference here was that the North’s labor system was not based on slavery.

(2) In the South, this deeply embedded culture of racism was briefly interrupted when, following the Civil War, a short period of “Reconstruction” (1865 to 1877) took place. During this time a U.S. military occupation of the conquered Confederacy suppressed most racist laws. The main reason for this was political and not social. Under the North’s occupation regime Blacks were recognized as citizens and could vote. Doing so, they of course supported the party of Abraham Lincoln. This helped the abolitionist Republicans maintain control of Congress. Reconstruction lasted only as long as did the dominance of the abolitionist faction. That ended in 1877.

In that year the U.S. army was withdrawn from the southern states. Almost immediately there was a region-wide reversion to a racially dictated way of life wherein the oppression of slavery was replaced with a variety of “Jim Crow” laws legitimizing segregation and all manner of discrimination against Black Americans.

(3) This state of affairs lasted close to another one hundred years, until the 1960s, when a massive movement of civil disobedience known as the Civil Rights Movement, finally led to the outlawing of racist practices in both the South and the North within the public sphere – for instance, hotels, bars, public schools, shopping centers, hotels and the like. It also discouraged the public display of racist attitudes. I emphasize the public sphere because, at the time of the passage of national civil rights legislation, little was done to change racist perceptions and behavior within the private sphere. For instance, no effort was made to mandate the teaching of tolerance in the public schools so as to better erode private racist perceptions. The private sphere was left to itself.

(4) Thus, until 1965, with only a hiatus of 12 years following the Civil War (the effects of which were felt mostly in the South), U.S. law validated racial discrimination and segregation as a guide to acceptable citizen’s views and behavior. Against this 200-plus years of cultural shaping we can put the last 50-plus years of limited counter-shaping of the public sphere.

Given the protracted period that an overt culture of racism was allowed to work on the American mind, it can be argued that 50 years (approximately two generations) of public sector law is not enough time for the message that racial prejudice is wrong to be fully assimilated in the private lives of citizens.

(5) As a result there has developed an unstable cultural scenario wherein white Americans are begrudgingly accepting of racial mixing in public spaces, as well as the workplace. Privately, however, many are less tolerant and continue to resist such levels of intimacy as racially mixed friendship circles, neighborhoods, or intermarriage.

This continuing divide becomes even more complicated in the U.S. South. A quarter of the U.S. white population identifies themselves as southerners, and of those an active subgroup have never reconciled to the notion of colorblind civil rights. This subgroup has never given up a sentimental loyalty to Confederate Civil War heroes and symbols (the Confederate flag, for instance). These have become signs of resistance to federal hegemony and emblems of identity which, in some cases, are stronger than those representing the U.S. as a nation.

Other Aspects of the Cultural Civil War

Racism is a major theme in the nation’s ongoing cultural civil war, but it is not the only one. Another is the fight over gun laws, which presently are inadequate to provide for public safety.

Guns: The prevailing gun culture is a combination of the romanticization of the country’s frontier tradition, and a fear of any authority that might interfere with an open-ended, almost anarchistic, definition of freedom. In terms of the frontier, the gun enthusiast’s portrayal is distorted for a reason explained below. The prevalence of guns on the frontier was, in truth, in direct proportion to the absence of the rule of law. Where there was law, the “gun-toting” was restrained or just prohibited.

The myth of the rugged, and armed, individual is actually a product of the television and movie distortion of the history of the “old West.” It wasn’t really a place of heroes who valued “freedom.” Until it was “tamed” by law and regulation, It was a place of murder and mayhem. Predictably, today’s effort to replicate the frontier myth of rugged individualism through promoting an armed and largely unregulated citizenry has resulted, not in freedom, but in a resurgence of murder and mayhem.

Religion: Finally, we should note the survival of 19th century-style of Christian fundamentalism. While this certainly does not include all U.S. Christians, it is the case that millions of Americans still adhere to the “faith of their fathers” in a fashion that encourages social inequality and undermines the secular nature of the state. It is also a faith riddled with racial and gender bigotry, self-righteous egocentrism, and shameful hypocrisy.

That makes it easy for the Christian Right to support President Donald Trump, whose public and private behavior should make him anathema to even pseudo-Christians. Here is how one opinion writer in the New York Times put it: “the politicized sectors” of the Christian right “have been associated with bigotry, selfishness and deception for a long time. Trump has simply revealed the movement’s priorities. It values the preservation of traditional racial and sexual hierarchies over fuzzier notions of wholesomeness.” A key word here is “politicized.” The Christian right wants to decisively influence the government, local and federal.

The Trump Connection

The Christian right, along with the gun rights enthusiasts, and those who privately support a diffused undercurrent of racist traditionalism, believe that modern movements for equal rights, as well as for the community’s need for safety and security through law and regulation, are threats to genuine American culture. They threaten traditions of “freedom” that makes their world ideologically comfortable. The current president has become their champion.

That puts Donald Trump front and center in the ongoing cultural civil war. Against this backdrop it becomes clear what the president means when he says “make American great again.” He means the country has to return to the behavioral patterns that existed before the Civil Rights Movement, before the Great Depression, and before the Second World War. It is not only possible that this regression can be approximated, it is already being attempted! A sure sign of this is the fact that Trump’s ascendency to office has encouraged a return of public displays of racist opinions—just like those of Roseanne Barr.

Clearly, the American embrace of things like gender and racial equality is superficial and fragile. It’s superficial because civil rights legislation was restricted to the public sphere—and even that legislation has proved too much for large numbers of white Americans steeped in a cultural history which, in truth, was and is ethically wretched. The past now rises up to challenge those fragile improvements of the recent present.

James McFadden, who participated in the original, 25 February 1960, restaurant counter sit-in that helped initiate the Civil Rights Movement, recognizes this resurgence of the past. He “sees a frightening similarity to those days … the way [some] talk and dehumanize people who are different. It’s the same kind of dehumanization we received. I’m very fearful today, almost as much today as 1960.” Listening to the tweets of Roseanne Barr and Donald Trump, one can understand why. It’s a war—a cultural civil war.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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