It’s hardly breaking news that, in this era of culture war and polarization, an awful lot of self-styled patriots on the political right seem to have a very low opinion of the country they profess to adore. Many openly hate the commander-in-chief, everyone who voted for him, and anyone who represents the corrosive forces — from relativism to feminism to the welfare state — that are transforming America into an alien land. What makes Donald Trump distinctive is that he’s extended disdain for godless secular-socialist liberals to the entire national leadership of both political parties and to the chumps who let them rule their lives. If you listen to Trump often enough, you get the sense he believes we are a nation of “losers” who half-deserve the beating we are getting from the far superior societies that regularly dupe and exploit pathetic old Uncle Sam. Every time he promises to “make America great again” it becomes more obvious how far he thinks we currently are from greatness or even respectability.
It’s pretty well understood that Trump is appealing to angry and frustrated people. But the extent to which their views lie outside the mainstream of conventional American values can come as a shock. A Public Policy Polling survey of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina released earlier this week showed a lot of contempt throughout the GOP electorate for the First Amendment and any idea of tolerance and inclusion. But even in this skewed universe, Trump’s people stand out. Eighty percent of them support Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration — and 31 percent would extend the ban to gay people. Even more strikingly, two-thirds support tracking American Muslims through a national database. Only 44 percent of Trump fans in South Carolina can bring themselves to stand up for keeping Islam legal in this country. These attitudes extend to other reactionary ground: 70 percent of Trump supporters would reverse the recent bipartisan action that removed the Confederate battle flag from its historic perch at the state capitol. And a plurality — 38 percent to 24 percent — wish the traitorous Confederacy had won the Civil War. All in all, it’s pretty clear these folks are still engaged in their own civil war.
Egregious as they are, Trump and his supporters are hardly alone in combining patriotic motifs with savage attitudes toward America as it actually is today. Ben Carson regularly echoes Glenn Beck in the conviction that the president and “liberals” generally are an Marxist/Alinskyite fifth column consciously working to transform America into a socialist tyranny (“Establishment” favorite Marco Rubio was almost certainly signalling sympathy for this conspiracy theory in his “robotic” insistence during the New Hampshire candidate debate that Obama is consciously evil rather than incompetent). Ted Cruz’s father and campaign sidekick, the Reverend Rafael Cruz, subscribes to a dominionist theology whereby conservative Christians must systematically conquer key institutions of American life in order to trigger the Kingdom of God. Former candidate Mike Huckabee can’t seem to stop himself from comparing legalized abortion to the Nazi Holocaust. And, for decades now, Christian-right leaders have compared themselves to the anti-Hitler resistance in Germany.
One way to overcome this dichotomy of loving America while hating Americans, of course, is to identify the Americans you hate with non-American threats to the “true” — i.e., right-wing — national interests. And that’s why it’s so useful and common on the right to find assertions that liberals are consciously working with America’s enemies to remake the U.S. in their heathenish image.
To the extent Donald Trump represents any coherent body of thought, it’s this fascinating knife-edge balance between the fable of America as a lost ideal civilization and the reality of America as a bitter disappointment to its betrayed heirs. It will be interesting to see what happens to this constituency of the self-damned if Trump falters on the campaign trail.