What does nationalism mean to Americans and for the United States? Does the State and the Constitution embody different values from a large number of its citizens? Are there two forms of nationalism in the USA destined for perennial conflict? Are there deeper reasons for an obsession with owning guns than the National Rifle Association (NRA)?
After the killings in El Paso White House advisers spotted that Trump had become vulnerable. The murders in an 80% Hispanic town after his “send them back” speech at a North Carolina rally suggested an obvious conclusion: Trump’s racist rhetoric and white supremacist ideology were condoning, encouraging, possibly inspiring, violence. The President’s own initial inclination was to attribute the mass murder to “gruesome video games” and “mentally ill monsters”, the latter a sub-set of the NRA’s refrain “the gun’s not the problem; it’s the person holding it”. Such was Trump’s close attention to the killings in Dayton, Ohio, which occurred a few hours after those in El Paso, he confused the town with Toledo. But he later delivered a well-crafted and presidential speech against hate-crime. Only Trump supporters were deceived. The Washington Post said his robotic delivery, eyes riveted on the autocue, was reminiscent of a “hostage video”.
Trump’s dissociation of the killings from any mind-set or motivating ideas rang a bell with me. When Martin Luther King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis is April 1968, I’d been living two years in the USA. The white-faced television’s announcer’s expression was unforgettable: deep shock and fear.
The next day my boss at the Rockefeller University called me into his office. The late Paul Weiss was a world famous scientist who had left Vienna in the 1920s, very much the old fashioned Professor. He wanted me to know that the killing of Reverend King was a matter of statistics. In a large population it was inevitable that someone prominent and contentious in public life would be at risk of assassination. America was not a racist society, he assured me, a breath-taking denial of evidence to the contrary. Looking back, I see his denial as an interesting variant on Trump’s blaming mental illness. In reality, only a small fraction of the prodigious number of gun-killings involving more than four persons, excluding the perpetrator, (nearly one a day during 2017 according to the Gun Violence Archive as reported by CBS) did the perpetrator have a recognisable or definable mental illness. When Martin Luther King told his wife after JFK’s assassination that America was “a sick society”, and that he too was at risk, he did not mean that its members were mentally ill or that the statistics were against him.
There are at least two reasons such extraordinary peacetime slaughter continues in the USA. The obvious, proximate cause is widespread gun ownership that the NRA has spent billions of dollars defending. Greg Abbott, the Republican Governor of Texas, financially supported by the NRA, has repeatedly used his veto against restrictive legislation. The last occasion was two months before the 22 El Paso killings and the wounding of many more.
The NRA itself was careful to deflect blame. It responded to the shocking death toll in El Paso and Dayton with a call to seek the “root causes” and control “those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others”, though they were too smart to use the words “mental illness”.
The second reason why mass slaughter continues is Americans’ belief that the Second Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” based on the need for “a well regulated militia” necessary for a “free State”, ratifies all gun ownship. The context of a necessary militia is ignored. Neither James Earl Ray, who alone, shot Martin Luther King – a questionable assumption - nor Patrick Crusius suspected of the mass murder in El Paso, were part of a “militia”, least of all a well-regulated one.
The gun-loving NRA which opposes even the banning of semi-automatic and military-style assault rifles have never explained how their literalist reading of the constitution would permit more than a right to keep and bear a musket, sword and cannon. The Second Amendment is a red herring as well as an anachronism, its invocation a convenient distraction which paralyses debate about public safety.
Harvard Professor Jill Lepore, who writes for The New Yorker, digs much deeper for causes in her book This America: The Case for the Nation. She makes two illuminating distinctions between the “nation-state”, implying a State with some sort of ethnic and/or homogeneous culture and what she calls the “State-nation”, and between “Americans” and “citizens of the United States”. In the few State-nations, such as the multi-ethnic USA, nationality is detached from ethnicity and resides in sharing the values inherent in a constitution and in supporting the State’s adherence to the values of liberal democracy: notably to human dignity and equality. Tellingly, nowhere in the Constitution of the United States does the word nation appear. But as Joseph O’Neill puts it in his reflections on Lepore’s work (in the excellent 15 August 2019 edition of The New York Review of Books), the myth of a “Primordial America” lingers in the American imagination, a place where Americans are “white, Christian and English-speaking”, the contours of an alternative nationalism.
The distinction between Americans and citizens of the United States sounds like an academic affectation. But it is insightful. The Texan owner of the AK-47, with his Stetson for high days and holidays, is an American. He goes off each morning to his office, works hard, probably goes to church, and sees himself defending his wife and daughter with his gun/s from “the invader”, those other citizens of the USA that don’t look or sound like him. His sense of nationality, his fear of “the invader”, is nurtured by Trump; he knows that those whom he calls the “swamp dwellers” of Washington, a cosmopolitan elite, call his ideas “white supremacy”. Unfortunately, Lepore asserts, the swamp-dwellers are too bogged down to compellingly articulate their alternative form of nationalism. As we watch and listen to the Democrat contenders jockeying for nomination as Presidential candidate, who’s to disagree?
Americans don’t live in 1791 with muskets and marauding “Indians”, they are not political escapees from an overbearing State across the Atlantic. They do not need semi-automatic and automatic rifles, more guns in the hands of civilians than any other country in the world. They do not need the NRA. Security is the responsibility of the State. But above all they do not need Trump and his brand of nationalism, hostage to clever advisers, or free-range and his true racist self.
Americans do need to reclaim the values of their state-nation, and to do so fast before it is too late. And so do we British.