In Gerstle’s telling, the civic nationalist tradition, which idealizes the American nation as a place where economic opportunity and political freedom are available to “all citizens, irrespective of their racial, religious, or cultural background,” has continually vied with the racial nationalist tradition, which “conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color.”
President Trump is by all indications a devotee of the latter tradition, and his rise has both been powered by and has exacerbated one of those periods in which reactionary racial nationalism is on the rise. In his book, Gerstle discusses that resurgence as a reaction to Barack Obama. The first African American president, Gerstle writes, “reinvigorated the civic nationalist tradition like no other event in the last fifty years,” even as it “also stirred the racial nationalist anxieties of millions of white Americans.”
Yet we are now seeing a major civic backlash to that racial nationalist resurgence: widespread public revulsion at Trump’s immigration agenda and unabashed public racism; the election of an unprecedentedly diverse Democratic House majority; and the Democratic campaigns for president, which are already developing reconstitutive arguments against Trump’s version of racial nationalism.
I interviewed Gerstle about all these dynamics and about the prospects for American renewal after Trump. Interestingly, he drew a parallel to the 1920s and 1930s, noting that turn-of-the-century nativism both produced a civic nationalist backlash among groups then facing exclusion (southern and eastern European immigrants, Catholics and Jews, in addition to African Americans) that redefined the American national identity, and, by energizing excluded groups, also sowed the seeds for the New Deal political and economic transformation that followed.
Gerstle also discussed the possibility that the backlash to Trump, similarly, might contain the seeds of a broader renewal of our politics and political economy, one also involving transformative economic reforms of the sort that progressives are now organizing around. You can listen to audio of our discussion, edited down for length and clarity, right here: