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The South Carolina Republican was right to rebuke Trump. But the U.S. is a nation, not a set of ideals.
President Donald Trump had just made his infamous, if contested, remarks about not desiring immigrants from certain countries when Senator Lindsey Graham expressed disagreement.
“America is an idea, not a race,” the South Carolina Republican said, adding that diversity is a strength and not a weakness. The senator reiterated these sentiments in a statement released as the controversy over the president’s words grew. “I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”
Graham deserves credit for rebuking the president, however mildly, given that Trump is the head of Graham’s party and extremely popular among South Carolina Republicans. Trump’s remark was obnoxious, especially given his history on race. But while most of our attention was rightly focused on Trump’s part of this exchange, it is worth mentioning that Graham wasn’t quite right.
America isn’t a race. But it’s not an idea either. It is, rather, a nation. It is a nation whose identity is more bound up with political ideals than most nations: ideals such as equality before the law, self-government and freedom of religion. But those ideals are part of a national culture that is not reducible to them.
The ideological conception of American nationhood runs into several problems. First, many people who are not Americans can and do believe in American ideals. Second, many Americans historically have rejected some of those ideals, while others have not lived up to them. Even today, our occasional fellow citizen explicitly repudiates American ideals. We treat these people, be they Marxists or monarchists, as misguided eccentrics rather than traitors.
Third, disagreement about the application of those ideals persists. To define Americanness purely by those ideals is to make routine political disagreement a threat to the integrity of the nation. Political disagreement is hard enough for a society to handle without that. Fourth, if these ideals form the country’s very identity, it becomes difficult to resist a missionary foreign policy that requires us to export them, by force of arms if necessary.
It is no coincidence that Graham made his comments about the meaning of America during a discussion of immigration policy. Different conceptions of nationhood have different implications for immigration. If the American experience is reducible to American political ideals, then the only assimilation that should concern us is to those ideals: As long as new immigrants are no threat to freedom of speech and the rest, all is well.
If a common culture is important too, though, we will want immigrants to assimilate to it, even as they also change it. We will want natives and newcomers alike to see themselves as belonging, together, to it. And we might decide that we want a smaller influx of immigrants in order to encourage that kind of assimilation.
Graham is wrong, as well, to treat America’s ideals as superior to its people. What makes the ideals valuable, after all, is that they are conducive to the flourishing of those people. American nationalism, as Yuval Levin has written, is simultaneously abstract and concrete: “It is a devotion to a people devoted to a set of ideas.”
This sense of what holds America together does not currently have a political champion. President Trump is often described as a nationalist, but he is a deficient one, less inclined than most of his predecessors either to celebrate American ideals or to make it clear that his vision of the country includes all Americans.
Here is what Graham should have said to him: “Mr. President, people from all over the world, whatever their race or religion, have come here and joined our neighborhoods, our churches, our armed forces, and even our families. We can argue about how to change immigration policy so it better serves our country. But it shouldn’t matter where you came from as long as you’re willing to become an American.”
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