Putin’s Patriots and the Death of the American Dream
This is from my 2013 book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. In it, I write about the Borderers, the people of much of my ancestry, the Scots-Irish who descended upon the established English colonies in North America in enormous numbers during the 18th century. They weren’t liked and were pushed west, where they created a buffer between the “proper” settlers and the Native Americans. They continued to be loathed by many Americans, up to and including Richard Hofstadter, whose book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I quote in this passage:
Generally, the Borderers have been defined by what they are not or, more accurately, by what others imagine they lack. At the same time, they are usually described in terms of class structures better suited to older, more stratified European societies than to America. Rather than being seen as a distinct culture, the Borderers become, in many minds, nothing more than American versions of European lower classes. Richard Hofstadter, a case in point, finds them to be the lack of all that a gentleman should be. He cannot even name them, not more than by calling them things like “unschooled” and “western squatters” whose leaders “were pushed up from the bottom [rather] than selected from the top.” In the 19th century, he writes, the better sort of people
were born in the Northeast—mainly in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania—although a scattered few lived in those parts of the Middle West which had been colonized by Yankees and New Yorkers. Morally and intellectually these men were the heirs of New England, and for the most part its heirs by descent. They carried on the philosophical concerns of Unitarianism and transcendentalism, the moral animus of Puritanism, the crusading heritage of the free-soil movement, the New England reverence for education and intellectualism, the Yankee passion for public duty and civil reform.
In his eyes, these were all things the Borderers, most clearly, were not. These were the hallmarks of an eastern elite, of the secular liberals, the people who were the only hope for civilizing the unwashed masses who had settled the rest of the country.
The divide between Blue States and Red States goes way back (one of the points of my book). It was the children of the Enlightenment versus the children of Calvinism–also an ownership class versus a tenant class. It got further complicated by the inclusion of the children of Africa, owned by one class and managed by the other. It was a toxic and brutal mix, and we are living with its legacy today.
Both white cultures in America (they can be broken down further, but it really has come to be just two) are filled with hypocrisy, self-justification and pride–even today. They have both succeeded mightily in America (though too often on the backs of enslaved and then exploited Africans) but they both carry loads of resentment and even hatred.
During the Civil War, the greatest conflict so far between these two cultures, the South showed ascendancy until July of 1863 when the vast might of the North arrived slowly at Gettysburg and demonstrated that the South could never win. Up until that point, the pride of the South provided an enthusiasm that the North could not match. After that, the population and industrial might of the North proved stronger than anything the South could dredge up.
That’s going to happen again, though I am not sure when. It may be this fall, during the off-year election. It may be in 2020, or even 2024. But the power of the Blue States will prove too great for this “new” South, no matter how successful it is at gerrymandering or voter suppression.
Lincoln (a Borderer, by the way, though he led the North, and a better man than any of those Hofstadter lauds), at the end of the Civil War, saw what was likely to happen, that the divisions between Americans would not be healed, that racial animosity would continue, as would the hatreds between the two white Americas. But he was killed before he could even try to do anything about it.
With President Trump giving new legitimacy to the hatreds of the heirs of the Borderers, we’re seeing, today, new power in the antisemitism that has lain hidden in much of America for generations and to the racism so at the core of the American experience. We’re seeing nasty people rise to prominence across the country.
The natural inclination of those opposed to Trump is to find their own champion, someone who can out-nasty him. That’s not going to be needed for victory. Just as in the Civil War, there’s too much power in the Blue States for them to be denied for long. The question is going to be, how are we going to act once we win? Not, can we be as bad as they are.
We have almost half of an American population that no longer believes in the basic tenets of the United States, certainly not as they have developed over the last 250 years. These people no longer care about their country, only about their power. I think that calling them “Putin’s Patriots,” given what went on during the 2016 election and that continues to go on today, is not far from the mark. They feel they have come as close to the American Dream as they are going to get and that there is no room for anyone else on the cloud.
What are we, who still claim to believe in the American Dream, going to do once we have overcome them? Are we going to beat them down to the point where the Dream can never again be theirs, too? Are we going to feel as smugly superior to them then as many of us do already?
At the end of the Civil War, my great-great-grandfather was released from the Point Lookout POW camp in Maryland (he had been captured during the breakout at Petersburg a few months earlier). He pretended to be illiterate, not wishing to sign the document ensuring his release (my uncle still has it), instead simply marking it with an “X” (we know he could read and write; he was soon named postmaster at his home). Defeat had not changed him any more than defeat will change Americans who say, in the modern version of “better dead than red,” that they would rather be Russians than Democrats.
What do we do, then, once we win? Do we set things up for another century of American strife? Or to we work to somehow convince those wannabe Russians that being a Democrat might not be such a bad thing, after all?
If we do the latter, it is going to have to start with how we act towards all others, not just the descendants of the Borderers, but within our diversity of Blue State America. We hate, too, though not in the visual and visceral way of the Trump supporters at his rallies.
What are we going to do about that?
If we stick to the vanity and pride of our own hatreds (and they are certainly real), nothing is really going to change and the American Dream really will be dead.
Victory is meaningless without a plan for the afterwards.