I've got Americanitis. 4th of July Edition.
Newsletter for July 6
Throughout the circles of those who identify as “Patriots” – the term I use for a political movement that is something further right than Mitt Romney Republican and something a smidge below, and often not that, of a complete, self-aware, far-right troll – I hear the same cries: The Constitution came from God Himself.
The Philadephia Inquirer, 1897. The battle over God and the Constitution has been ongoing since its inception.
Interestingly, the first “Americanitis” seems to be used to connote “excessive nervous tension” peculiar to American strivers.
“I believe in the Constitution, and the divinity and the sanctity of this country and America,” one sheriff said at a Tea Party meeting I crashed. The Constitution was written by God, he continued. It’s not a surprise that sheriffs, especially “constitutional sheriffs” have focused on this divine source of the Constitution as a way to assert their power and invoke a “patriotic” rebellion. As I have written before and will again, sheriffs use the Constitution and the Revolutionary War as a way to rewrite their own history, just as many other groups have done.
I’m reading Catherine McNicol Stock’s Rural Radicals, and I have been fascinated by the sections about the “producers,” yeoman farmers who saw themselves as the means of production. I had not thought of it this way, but, apparently, it wasn’t clear who the Revolutionary War was for. It obviously wasn’t for people of color, those enslaved or Native Americans. But which white people? Was it for the fancy elites, the Alexander Hamiltons who wanted a bank and taxes and some sort of educated disagreement? Or was it for the Thomas Jefferson soon-to-be-supplanted with Andrew Jackson (and then, perchance, Ronald Regan?): the disgruntled farmer who saw himself as disenfranchised and at war with the world?
It’s not that I think that one needs to understand and sympathize with the Patriot movement, but I do think that some journalists write off this conflict as irrational thought born of a mass fever dream, caused by a lack of Medicaid expansion and too many guns, the white rage that causes suicide among white, working-class men. It is that, but it’s something else, too. It’s a completely different understanding of what the country means and what it means to govern as a democratic group. As Robert Tsai writes, “[A]ll saw themselves, like the Founders, as bravely asserting their right to rule themselves.” (Tsai casts a more optimistic net, focusing on the positives of reinvention, citing rebels like John Brown and Malcolm X as well as the Aryan Nation.)
Throughout reporting on sheriffs, I have spoken to many people who believe themselves to be Patriots and whose focus, when asked, isn’t about concrete policies, but rather the ambiguous “culture war.” It’s an interesting way to see one’s politics, to think of it in terms of how one engages in capitalism. There is of course something to this, one which explains why the same people object to transgender rights, “critical race theory,” and the modern liberal arts college. There are people making this a coordinated campaign, producing framing and words for the discontented to use. But there is also a long-running link to old fights, the kind that the American Revolution never settled — who is democracy for?
In his book The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits talks about the ways in which the upper-class, well-educated, and mostly urban Americans, have adopted the values of diversity as part of their lexicon to justify capitalist striving. In other words, diversity is used to explain why it’s okay to hire SAT tutors, send kids to expensive camps, and focus on the teaching of upper-class children with the care and concern of running a Fortune 500 company. This all resonated with me. I come from a family of Eastern European immigrant strivers. Education was presented to me as the key to rising above my station. Many of the markers of the so-called meritocracy were my aspirational ideal: unpaid Harper’s internships (never did), graduate school, a professional degree, a career, moving far far away from my hometown, not just as geographic space but also in politics and ideas.
The “meritocracy” isn’t race-neutral and nor, indeed, is my life experience. Unwinding racial inequalities is work that requires attention and dedication as well as a constant state of questioning and thinking and listening. But what is agreed upon (even by corporate behemoths like Amazon) is that diversity and inclusion are a value. Now whether it’s born of a genuine desire to subvert the racial order or a need to ignore structural inequalities, the terms themselves and the values they purport to represent are something many meritocratic elites would claim. (Those that don’t start substacks, I guess.)
(It is a fascinating project to think about “diversity” as a capitalistic value — whether it’s the actual value or whether it’s about the significance of the absence of that value.)
The people I see at far-right rallies and the like are deeply threatened by this collision of the potential for racial justice and the value of the aspiration. I have heard about the “new math” (which is simply intended to focus on practical skills) and, of course, the now-ubiquitous “critical race theory” anxieties. Much of the media has focused on the individuals who invented the framing of this “problem”, but I think those protests and blog-style panics do capture something that many people believe, that it justifies why they feel under attack — they are feeling the betrayal of elite urbanite white people alongside a sense of losing majoritarian value.
Focusing on the Constitution as a document — “originalism,” so to speak — makes the discussion about exclusion and inclusion appear neutral. In other words, it’s easier to justify racism and prejudice and violence when you can use the “neutral” terms of the Constitution as a document. “The government has betrayed the Constitution,” means “you white people in power are betraying us (whether in actuality or in perception).” (There are, of course, intense racist and sexist overtone — one only needs to look to the anti-fans of AOC — but I mean here that the sense of betrayal is more intense and bigger because of its perceived source.)
The Constitution for many who identify as Patriot is something more than a founding document; it’s a screed, a tract, a divine interdiction. This makes its violation a breaking of divine, natural law, not a thoughtful judgment call. Certain acts then must follow. Take those that participated in January 6, which video shows was a coordinated attack on the government. Perhaps the goal of “what to do” after infiltrating the Capitol building was unclear, but the video shows that people were armed with weapons and protective gear and engaged in classic military moves, like scrums and breaking windows to gain access. This is the Constitution as a divine value. It’s worth fighting and dying for.
Many of these memes I saw over the weekend focused on the 2nd Amendment and gun rights, one of the many flashpoints that have come to represent a particular form of Patriot. (It also hearkens to January 6 and war-like methods of getting one’s way.)
For many sheriffs and their Patriot-aligned fans, the 4th of July is the celebration of the American Revolution (all the more 1776-oriented because of the fights over “when American began”) that is still being fought, especially by local elections and state Republican parties. It’s also a time for sheriffs to remind people who really represent their communities. As one sheriff said at an anti-immigration rally: “Sheriffs are the people you see in the grocery store.” And they are also the leaders of a movement that isn’t going away — one focused on individual rights that come from a divine entity. The federal government is the enemy, the one getting in the way of the Constitution. The concern I have now is, where do we go from there? I don’t think this is a movement that can be ignored.