Today, “niceness” is not a word that most people associate with Americans. The bombastic chauvinism of the Ugly American seems to be everywhere, as personified by our president, who called MSNBC presenters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski “Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” in a Thursday morning Twitter rant. This was only the latest in a long line of insults the president has leveled at rivals, enemies and other public figures.
And yet President Trump has insisted on numerous occasions that he is actually a “nice person” — a friendly kind of guy you would like if you knew him.
The paradox of Trump’s insisting on his own niceness even while engaging in distinctly nasty conduct (political and otherwise) has a long history in the United States. In fact, Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us. (Or, as the office of first lady Melania Trump put it in response to the president’s latest Twitter tirade: “When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)
In a sense, this is quintessential American niceness: a tendency to insist on one’s own affability and friendliness while dismissing all unwarranted or unnecessary acts of cruelty as necessary evils. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life. On the other hand, Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to comment on American amiability, comparing it with the “unsociable mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, who couldn’t imagine an Englishman being happy living in the United States, nonetheless described Americans as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th century, the link between Americans and niceness had become accepted tradition, with Rudyard Kipling noting in 1891: “It is perfectly impossible to go to war with these people, whatever they may do. They are much too nice.”
Americans themselves regarded their famed niceness as the cornerstone of a democratic personality. The actress and writer Kate Field remarked in 1873: “To try to please everybody, is democratic; to be indifferent to everybody is aristocratic: consequently, Americans, men and women, are the best bred people in the world.” As a refreshing alternative to European stuffiness, American niceness conveys democratic informality while sustaining the myth of American exceptionalism: Americans are not just nice but the nicest people on earth. As Walt Whitman once put it, Americans are “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”
Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.
In 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson supervised the mutilation of the corpses of more than 800 Creek Native Americans killed at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama during the Creek War. The desecration of the bodies involved cutting off the tip of each Indian’s nose to count the number of victims, and taking long strips of skin from the dead to use as bridle reins.
Infuriated at these abuses, American author Washington Irving demanded that white America blush with shame at its ongoing legacy of Indian-hating. Likewise, in 1836, William Apess, a Methodist minister of mixed Anglo-Pequod ancestry, electrified his Boston audience, stating: “No gratitude to Indians is shown, from people saved by them alone.” Like Irving, Apess’s “Eulogy on King Philip” understood American brutality toward Native Americans as not only unjust but un-American in its cruelty: It was, after all, a betrayal of Indian hospitality. Taught how to grow corn and catch eel, the Puritans survived thanks to their Native American neighbors. Thus the mistreatment of Indians wasn’t only a political problem but a profound failure on white Americans’ part to live up to their Christian reputation for courtesy, respect and kindness.
This same conflict could be seen in the issue of slavery. In the 19th century, pro-slavery sentiment had long claimed that the practice in the United States was milder than in the Caribbean. Southern niceness, as imagined under slavery, fed this myth of American exceptionalism, leading Northerners such as the physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to claim that slavery in the United States was practiced “in its best and mildest form.”
Yet former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass dismissed the myth of the kind slaveowner as “most absurd.” How can kindness play any role in slavery, Douglass asked, when one is “robbed of wife, of children, of his hard earnings, of home, of friends”? If kindness were the rule in the master-slave relationship, Douglass argued, then Southern newspapers would not be filled with runaway-slave notices describing branding with irons and scarring from whips.
What lessons do these different versions, one self-serving, the other truth-telling, of American niceness have for us today? One is based on historical forgetting, on empty gestures and cliches, on refusing to own up to American errors; the other connects niceness with ethics and justice by recognizing Americans’ failures to be the kind people we imagine ourselves to be, both in the past and the present. If the legacy of the former can be seen in Trump’s self-image as a “nice guy” who happens to harass people on Twitter and promote ruthless policies at home and abroad (such as the latest incarnation of his travel ban, which doesn’t consider fiances or grandparents to be “close family”), then the latter is evident in the grass-roots reaction against such policies.
Soon after the election, pop star Lady Gaga tweeted: “Stand up for kindness, equality and love. Nothing will stop us.” At mass protests such as the Women’s March, signs read: “Empathy,” “Be Nice,” “Make America Kind Again.” As author and model Padma Lakshmi put it when referring to the Women’s March: “This is not an anti-Trump rally for me. This is about decency and having a moral core.”
In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously described how we are all connected in “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In our current climate, when cruelty and cavalier meanness seem increasingly common, it is more important than ever to emphasize that Americans can and should live up to our long-standing self-image as kind, open, democratic people.
In 2016, we witnessed veterans at Standing Rock apologizing to the Lakota people for the atrocities that the U.S. military had committed against them, while Native Americans continued their tradition of hospitality by greeting thousands of protesters demonstrating against the Dakota Access pipeline. These actions of pure kindness — neither compelled nor transactional — continue the legacy of American niceness. Today, we must protect that legacy as if our future depends on it. Because it does.