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Two Nations, One Republic

Director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University

While a mob of Trump supporters rampaged in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, the Chinese government used its new security law to round up 53 pro-democracy activists and officials in Hong Kong. In one city, dissenters took to the streets and stormed the Capitol; in the other, they got dragged to prison. At first blush, this is an unfair contrast. Hong Kong’s democrats represented a gasping struggle for the rule of law and open elections. Washington’s crowd represented the opposite.

But the contrast highlights how two large nations are grappling with their divides. Beijing used the cold force of law to fuse two nations into one regime. Trump’s mob used the hot force of outrage to reveal how the United States has fractured into two nations under one, republican, roof. Two nations, one Republic; two countries seemingly moving in opposite directions - one to a fisted consolidation, the other to spectacular decomposition.

The United States is not breaking up. At least not yet. Nor is it locked in some authoritarian spiral, despite the anxious analogizing to dark moments of the past. The likenesses to Germany in 1933 or Spain in 1936 are simply overdrawn. But what the world watched last week was the opening of a chasm between two folk, two bundles of values, icons, and stories.

For alarmists, this is the end, an abyss even. But what’s often forgotten in the doomsday prophecies is that the US has wrestled from birth with the pressures of divergence. Nor is it alone: nations always struggle with diversity. Since nations are fictions - often good ones - imagined to bind citizens together as co-members of self-governing polities to replace bloodline claims of monarchs or nobles, they need functional stories of peoplehood to hold them together.

Trump’s mob used the hot force of outrage to reveal how the United States has fractured into two nations under one, republican, roof.

The problem in America is that patriots have always had access to multiple stories of peoplehood. The birth of the Republic was itself a birthing moment for rival narratives. While the textbook version of history that’s taught to schoolchildren in the US focuses on the heavy weight of British policies and the growing sense of apartness in the colonies, what it omits is the internal divide between the secessionist cause and the other side: the loyalists. The American Revolution was, in fact, a civil war within the British Empire between and among its colonists.

Many loyalists would flee their homes, terrified by what they saw as mob rule, to Nova Scotia, the Cape Colony, India. Many colonies, like Canada and the Caribbean islands refused to go along with the rebels. British North America fractured and fought. One part became the United States of America.

For the first eight decades of the young Republic’s life, it was known as the United States of America in the plural. That is: the United States are free, not is free. There was little agreement on much beyond loathing of Native peoples, disinterest in world affairs, and frontier opportunity. But as the country began to merge into a nation, to go singular, thanks in large part to changes in the integrative effects of the telegraph and railways, it split - and eventually went to war with itself. Ultimately, it was the Second Civil War that fused the two nations into one Republic. After 1865, the United States was free, not were free. 

But the union only went so far. Becoming singular, fusing the pluribus into the unum, came at a price. It meant turning a blind eye to people who did not identify with the narrative of oneness. It meant erecting statues to Confederate leaders in Richmond or flying the secessionist banner over statehouses across the Deep South. It meant not scratching too deeply below the surface of the icons of each storyline. Things were OK as long as one didn’t probe too much in order to hang on to the fiction of the unified nation. 

Splintering began again in the 1960s as the Cold War consensus unraveled and as civil rights movements brought to the fore a different narrative of peoplehood, one that appealed to freedom as an unfinished quest. Great speeches and earth-moving legislation summoned a vision of the nation that would be more inclusive. But they also stoked a reaction. Those rebel statues and those flags of the Second Civil War got purposed decades later, in the 1950s and 1960s. They represented a narrative of nationhood threatened by the drive for union under the banner of a rising story of peoplehood for those who had not been allowed to belong. It was in the 1960s that the Confederate flag and its strange, polysemic, powers - as rebellious and conformist, liberty-loving and oppressive - got retrieved to flap over the statehouse in Columbus, South Carolina.

The undoing of the fiction of the singular nation, therefore, did not happen with the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. It has been long incoming. Paradoxically, it was under President Barack Obama, the man who most exemplified the idea of a new post-racial, cosmopolitan unity, that the split flowered into the open, with the snarling Sarah Palin, the rise of the Tea Party, and the tribalization of political identities. The official symbolic split was, one might say, declared the day that the Confederate flag was lowered from the statehouse grounds in Columbus, South Carolina. After decades of protest against the banner, and after a white nationalist named Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers on June 17, 2015, it was no longer possible to sustain the idea of this degree of pluribus in the unum

Roof’s goal? To spark a "race war" to re-purify the - his - nation. The then-governor Nikki Haley - later US ambassador to the United Nations and soon-to-be front runner in the struggle to rebuild the Republican Party with a mobilized Trumpist movement - signed an order to have the Confederate flag removed. State troopers marched to the flagpole. On July 10, 2015, protestors chanted "na na, hey hey, goodbye", as guards cranked down the flag and escorted it to its new resting place in the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. James Clyburn, the African-American Congressman who, almost five years later would pull the Joe Biden candidacy out of its torpor in the Democratic Party primary contest and who threw his weight behind the candidate to swing millions of Black voters to Biden - declared: "I look forward to the citizens of South Carolina being under one flag, the American flag".

Paradoxically, it was under President Barack Obama, the man who most exemplified the idea of a new post-racial, cosmopolitan unity, that the split flowered into the open, with the snarling Sarah Palin, the rise of the Tea Party, and the tribalization of political identities. 

Instead, one might say, there is one flag but there are now two nations. One nation stormed the Capitol and desecrated the symbols of the unum. The other nation flexed its muscles at the polls the day before, sending two Democratic candidates to the Senate from Georgia to swing that chamber. One of the new senators is Rafael G. Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who ran explicitly on a campaign to expand medical coverage of "Obamacare" (the Affordable Care Act), the very same legislation that turbo-charged the Tea Party a decade ago. To underscore the depth of the symbolic rift, Ebenezer Baptist Church was the pastoral base for Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s: it was home for the pulpit from which so many nation-building sermons and stories about justice would flow. 

And so we witness the juxtaposing scenes of a republic that’s losing its unum. Self-fancied rebels clamoring up the steps of the Capitol waving Confederate flags, garbed in MAGA hats and tacticool gear. And Warnock, heir to a different story of peoplehood, the first Black Senator ever elected from Georgia and the second from the Deep South since Reconstruction.

These are not precursors to a Third Civil War. True, this is a country that’s deeply cleaved into rival realities. But the earlier splits in 1776 and 1860 mapped onto geographical divides that are no longer so neat. Despite the rivers of ink devoted to analyzing American polarization, it does not map easily into clear, territorial, lines. Watching the Georgia runoff election results meant watching a divided state, basically 50:50, vote for diametrically opposing alternatives. Georgia, bulwark of the Deep South, is a battleground for competing national imaginaries. The old sectional divides that fueled the First and Second Civil Wars are gone.

If we are watching the pluribus open once again in the United States, we are also witnessing a historic closure in China towards its version of unum. It is more methodical, almost surgical, in contrast to the parody of insurrection in Trumplandia. But when the 1844 Treaty of Nanjing ceded Hong Kong to British authorities, it ushered in a long period of Chinese decomposition, of treaty ports, special concessions, foreign meddling, and eventually invasion and atrocity, a process made into myth, now inscribed in history textbooks approved by Beijing, of a "century of humiliation". We think of 1949 as the year that Mao the Communist seized power. In the recent nationalist mythography, it is also the date that began to roll back the humiliation. Incorporating Hong Kong back into the Chinese unum represents closure of another myth of nationhood, of "one country, two systems", of China fractured from without by Western powers and Japan with greedy eyes fixated on the splendor of the Middle Kingdom. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been swapping out its Marxist coordinates for nationalist ones. 

Biden and his team can blunt the narrative that is now forming around Trumpism after Trump, a narrative of victimhood, replete with its own icons, truths, and martyrs.

What does this mean for the incoming Biden administration? When he gave his victory speech, Biden called the elections of November 3 a triumph of "we the people". He acknowledged the many years of discord and promised to heal, to restore the unum that his predecessor thrived on ruining. It will be a tall order. Biden cannot resort to the same blind-eye tactics of earlier healing moments to paper over the divides; it is no longer possible to create a story of peoplehood that allows the Confederate flag and the Stars and Stripes to flap side by side. What the mobsters did on January 6 was create their own Independence Day, beloved by their now martyred leader, and fueled by conspiracies, they are a force to be reckoned with.

A YouGov Direct poll of 1,397 registered voters taken right after the Capitol storming showed that two thirds (68%) of Republicans declared that the violence was not a threat to democracy. They have their own story about what they think caused and happened on January 6. And while many herald Biden’s 7-million vote margin in the national elections in November, Trump got over 74 million ballots, fully 47% of a cleaved country, in the face of a murderous pandemic he has wantonly spread. 

"Healing" a divide this wide needs more than bandages and ointments; it needs surgery after which comes the healing. Yes, the Democrats command the White House, the House of Representatives, and by a razor-thin margin, the Senate. For now. One lesson from the Obama years, which started with a similar slate, is not to presume a permanent majority and not to presume that history is on the side of ever-more unum. When one Republic can contain within it such diverging stories of peoplehood, there is no arc bending, irrevocably, in any single direction. Biden’s first 100 days should be filled with ideas and proposals whose aim is to integrate, starting with two challenges that have done most to split America into competing factions: ending the pandemic and turning to economic recovery, and making meaningful work and work meaningful. In this way, Biden and his team can blunt the narrative that is now forming around Trumpism after Trump, a narrative of victimhood, replete with its own icons, truths, and martyrs.

What does this mean for the rest of the world? It means getting used to a United States that looks inward before looking outward. Throughout the 2020 election campaign and in the months since, foreign policy all but vaporized from public debate. This is a country whose drama is involuting. Yes, there is talk about creating a global alliance of democracies. That’s a good thing. But the US will, as Biden noted in his victory speech, lead by the force of its example and not the example of force. Without a superpower, hegemon, empire - choose your metaphor of global enforcement and stability - the world is going to have to learn to work with itself, with Washington as one part of a wider puzzle, on its cooperative and collaborative skill sets, at a time in which spoilers have outsized power and traditional leaders have downsized capabilities.




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