The celebration of American independence is supposed to be a unifying national ritual. But we are a country with profound differences over the meaning of nationhood itself.
People in more typical countries — such as Belgium, Japan and Russia — are attached primarily to a unique piece of earth, a unique language, a unique culture and (perhaps) a unique ethnicity. Their celebration of nationhood is the celebration of particularity. One may become a naturalized citizen of such a country, but it is less clear what it means to become Belgian, Japanese or Russian. If possible, it would require total immersion in national distinctiveness.
This is how the current U.S. president appears to view his native land. President Trump’s Fourth of July remarks did make reference to the abstract promises of the Declaration of Independence, but he mainly praised his nation as a place and a power. Like in his inaugural address, Trump presented America as a strong country, but not a country with a special historical role that grows out of certain moral commitments. He talked about the nation’s military victories, but not much about the nation’s character. He seems to love America because it is his country and a powerful country, but not because it is a country with a calling.
Contrast this with the national story told by Ronald Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush. American ideals — while growing out of a specific culture — are transcendent and universal. Though military power is essential, the nation advances on the strength of democratic hopes. It wins a global competition of ideals because it accords most closely with the durable dreams of humanity for liberty and justice.
This differing emphasis has dramatic implications. If the United States is primarily a normal nation, united by a common culture, then it is diluted by outsiders and weakened by diversity. In this circumstance, cultural differences lead inexorably to conflict and disunity. A nation defined primarily by culture or ethnicity is a fortress to be defended.
But if the United States somehow embodies the best and highest of human aspirations — separate from culture and ethnicity — then there is hope of mutual progress. “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” said George W. Bush in his first inaugural address. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”
In this view, immigrants are not a contagion. By embracing national aspirations they actually strengthen our national identity.
These contrasting attitudes make a large political difference in a country that is (by Census Bureau estimates) approximately 14 percent foreign-born. This constitutes about 44 million people. If this historically large number of migrants is seen as a problem — bringing crime, threatening national security and changing the nature of our country — then it makes sense to cut immigration (both legal and illegal), end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, slash refugee admissions and build a wall across a continent.
And if our main source of national unity is cultural, then the composition of America’s foreign-born population would matter greatly. According to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Trump expressed disdain for immigrants from countries such as Haiti and said, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” It is difficult to separate such statements from their racial context. In this view, a national culture largely shaped by white European migrants is better carried forward by white European migrants.
This conception of nationhood can descend quickly into dehumanization. If Hispanic migrants are defined as a threat to national security and national identity, then it becomes easier to separate crying children from their parents. It becomes easier to store migrants in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. And it becomes easier — following the tragic drowning of a father and daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande — to blame migrants for their own desperation.
A broader definition of American identity does not require the decriminalization of all border crossings, or the abolition of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It does require the construction of a humane asylum system that treats oppressed and frightened people with respect. It forbids the dehumanization or cruel treatment of migrants under any circumstance. And it embodies the generosity of spirit on which American greatness depends.