After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, then-Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (from my home state!) called for a McCarthy-esque investigation into which members of congress were “Pro-America or Anti-America”. She was largely considered bitter because Republicans got their keisters whooped in the election just two weeks prior, but this was just another incident in one of the most annoying rhetorical strategies in politics today: saying that any policy you disagree with is “un-American”. In this election cycle, this line of attack has once again reared its ugly head. This othering of different ideas contributes to the deadening of American political discourse. All you need to do is look at the accused un-American-ness of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
First, Bernie Sanders has been the victim of a huge proportion of the “un-American” accusations. One of the most infuriating things to read on Facebook is an article from the website Bookworm Room entitled “I don’t like Bernie because he’s a Socialist”. Re-posted by one of my young conservative friends, this article boils down to the thesis that socialism is bad. Using guilt by association, the author states that Bernie Sanders shouldn’t be president because Stalin was bad, and that North Korea and the Nazis are basically Bernie Sanders’ heroes. It also asserts “socialism doesn’t work” like it’s a quantifiable, uncontested fact. This article asserts that Bernie wanting public universities to be tuition-free is basically the same as starving up to 7.5 million Ukrainians. Socialism is presented as the very antithesis of Americanism, and Bernie Sanders is, therefore, “un-American”.
This makes the assumption that the current economic system is decidedly pro-America. But, upon further inspection, this idea quickly falls apart. Free-market capitalism as we know it was popularized by UK native Adam Smith in the eighteenth century. Strictly speaking, capitalism is just as much of a “European nightmare” as communism would be. The founding fathers did not “reject socialism” because Marxism did not exist in 1776. Socialist ideas have been employed throughout American history, with massive public work projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Interstate Highway System. Nixon and Eisenhower’s tax rates would make Bernie look comparatively conservative. Bernie’s tax plan isn’t going to destroy the idea of America. Whether you agree with this policy or not, don’t make it sound like higher taxes would bring about the End Times.
Next, while his demagoguery has deserved much of the criticism that he received, calling Donald Trump anti-America is incorrect. His policy on Muslims has received a lion’s share of the controversy when he proposed that there should be a religious test given to all immigrants, and then the Muslim immigrants would be turned away “until we figure out what’s going on.” Detractors insist that such a test is not only unconstitutional, but against the founding principles of this nation. Additionally, his policy to deport eleven million illegal immigrants and (somehow) get Mexico to pay for a massive border wall has drummed up the “un-American” criticism. Critics claim that this is a nation built upon immigrants, and that a mass exodus of new immigrants would be very “un-American”.
Once again, upon further inspection, these claims don’t check out. Its constitutionality notwithstanding, both historical and contemporary Americans are in favor of banning Muslims. There is the famous case in 1939 when a ship full of Jewish refugees trying to escape from Nazism were turned away due to Americans’ suspicion about these immigrants. While this is largely seen as a mistake by historians, the sentiment persists. Polls show that 50% of Americans (not just Republicans) support Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. Like it or not, the idea of religious prejudice is a constant tenant of American-ism. With regard to his immigration policy, the story remains largely the same. There is virtually no time period in American history that intense xenophobia played no role in policy. From the Trail of Tears to Irish need not apply, there has always been a fear of the “other” throughout American history. Donald Trump says that Hispanics are taking over the country and that they need to be stopped, and similar sentiment has permeated American policy for years.
The conclusion that I’ve come to is that whenever we disagree with something, we can’t simply voice our disagreement. We need to characterize that thing as fundamentally other. Disliking something because it’s “un-American” isn’t a real reason to dislike something. If you think Bernie Sanders would be bad for the country because you think that the economy works best if wealth stays in the hands of those who first own it, that’s okay! If you think Donald Trump’s immigration policies would hamstring the economy and worsen America’s image abroad, that’s okay too! Just make sure you have an actual reason for your opposition. Otherwise, serious discussion about these candidates will only continue to devolve.