Identity or Unity: Discourses Matter

In its January 25 edition, The New York Times reported on late-January anti-abortion marches, a pro-gun rally, and the Women’s March in Washington. For “In 7 Days and 3 Rallies, a Nation’s Divisions on Display,” reporter Sabrina Tavernise interviewed Daryna Yakusha at the Women’s March. Yakusha told the reporter that the Republican Party has become “the party of white nationalists and anti-immigrant people . . . . anti-woman, anti-queer and racist.”

She’s right, but it is also the party of McCarthyism, Watergate, Iran-Contra, spectral WMD, and Trumpism.

These are two different discourses, ways of talking about the same problem—the Republican Party—and it is a difference that matters.. The first is what professor Lillian Mason tells the reporter indicate “visceral” threats while the second evoke fears of a more “cerebral type.”

The cerebral type, characteristic of discourses common to political parties and labor and community organizations, had the Republican rightwing checked going into the late twentieth century. But the rightists’ rhetoric of “race traitors,” “feminazis,” and “Washington insiders” charged, respectively, with race and gender betrayals and the military loss in Viet Nam, changed the game.

A segment of the liberal left, impatient with the long march through institutions, opted to play the Right’s divide-and-conquer games. The result has been that identity politics now fragments the resistance to Trump.

Conversations about a divided America usually focus on pro- and anti-Trump groups. But the splits within the resistance movement that are reified by its self-identifying language are more important because they negate the strength inherent in the unity of their numbers.

The axiom that how we talk things is consequential. Political discourses matter because they can impair or enable the unity necessary to forestall an American descent into barbarism.

Jerry Lembcke is the author of nine books including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998), Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (UMass Press, 2010), and Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (Monthly Review Press, 2021. His The Cult of the Victim Veteran: MAGA Fantasies in Lost-War America came out with Routledge in July 2023. Jerry’s opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been a guest on several NPR programs including On the Media.