If the American character included the ability to admit that the country’s founding was deeply flawed but aspirational—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as goals we are still trying to achieve for all, not just some—we would not have to admit in 2020 that much of what America believes is simply lies.
Of the many lies at the founding of the U.S. that continue to poison our aspirations for individual liberty and robust democracy, possibly the most disturbing and immediately damning is that people fled England in pursuit of religious liberty.
For some frustrating reason, throughout my 18 years of teaching high school English, students were bombarded by American literature focusing on the Puritans, specifically reading/viewing both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Students tended to recognize after these works that those first Puritans were not so much interested in religious freedom for all, but fled England in order to be no longer the oppressed, but the oppressor.
Chillingly, Hester Prynne and an assortment of women condemned as witches suffer religious tyranny that sends a powerful message to students about the role of religion in misogyny and sexism.
A novel written mid-nineteenth century and a play written mid-twentieth century (during the McCarthy Era), both set in seventeenth century North America, serve in 2020 as stark reminders that religious liberty in the U.S. is not something we aspire to but a bald-faced lie.
That bald-faced lie has no better representative than Mike Pence on the stage with Kamal Harris for the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election.
Pence pandering for Trump and their white evangelical base evoked a false narrative that Christian faith works as a disadvantage in the U.S.—now embodied by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.
This flipping of the oppressor as the oppressed parallels the white nationalist message embraced by Trump; angry white Americans are emboldened under Trump because he echoes and speaks to the lie that being white in the U.S. is some sort of disadvantage.
While a great deal of evidence has supported the idea that mainstream (“moderate”) Democrats and Republicans are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other, the election of Trump has not only exposed a difference but also spurred the last days of American pretense.
If we look carefully at the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, for example, Trump/Pence and the Trump-led Republican Party are pushing a distinctly minority agenda; 60%+ of Americans support waiting to fill Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat until after the election, and nearly 70% of Americans support maintaining Roe v. Wade (one of the goals of the rush to confirm Barrett is allowing states to ban abortion).
Next, consider, for example, legalizing/decriminalizing marijuana, gay marriage, trans rights, laws protecting separation of church and state (such as those governing forced prayer in public schools).
All of these expand religious and individual liberty; and notably, Republicans reject all of these while Democrats support them.
Also consider the #BlackLivesMatter movement as it has been confronted by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and mostly white self-proclaimed militia.
Here a strong and important distinction is needed. #BlackLivesMatter is a call for extending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Black Americans—not a claim that Black people are superior to white people, not a call to take life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from white people.
#BlackLivesMatter, in fact, has some strong similarities with the Black Nationalist movement of the mid-twentieth century that, again, is distinct from white nationalism.
White nationalism (not only but the worst of which includes the KKK and neo-Nazis) argues for white exceptionalism and white purity. These are the vestiges of eugenics, parroted by Trump’s nod to “good genes” in his supporters and his belief in his own superior genes.
Black Nationalism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are not about Black people being superior, but about a recognition that assimilation and equity among races have been and are currently being resisted by white Americans.
Over the past couple weeks, the country has been confronted with the Trump/Biden and Pence/Harris debates; of the four people on those stages, only Harris has displayed the highest standards of preparedness, poise, and respect for the offices, the aspirations of the U.S., and the American people.
Of those four people only Harris has had the highest bar for her performance.
Mediocre white men, Trump and Pence have been uniquely dishonest, even in the context of mainstream U.S. politics.
Like the iron-fisted tyranny of the Puritans, Trump/Pence are poised to use bully politics to impose the minority tyranny of evangelical whites on the U.S. while waving the Bible in one hand and wrapped in the American flag—a warning so compelling that we evoke it like a fact that can’t be confirmed.
We may or may not be witnessing the fall of U.S. democracy, but we are staring directly into the last days of American pretense.
And possibly the greatest pretense of all—or at least the one that best illustrates the anti-democratic aims of the Trump-led Republican Party—is that there is a pro-life movement.
“Pro-life” sloganism is not just a veneer for anti-abortion, but for forced pregnancy and birth.
Overturning Roe v. Wade and denying women reproductive rights are efforts to impose religious dogma above national ideology, an admission that religious tyranny is the goal of the Right in the U.S.—not religious or individual freedom.
Four more years of Trump/Pence may close the door to American aspirations, but it certainly will toss aside American pretense to expose what America is willing to allow for some at the expense of others, once again.