Whither the Melting Pot?

By: Andrew Levine | November 16, 2018
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is practically axiomatic: Donald Trump makes everything worse.

Is it all part of a plan? There is no easy answer to that question because, more likely than not, Trump has only attitudes and instincts, not strategies. But let’s give him more credit than he deserves and stipulate, as lawyers might say, that his machinations are calculated — even if to no purpose beyond his own glorification and enrichment.

Then the method behind them would be the same both for his passion, campaigning, and for governing, an activity about which it seems that he could care less. It is to count on the acquiescence of the majority, while enthusing the cult-like followers in his base and flimflamming as many others as he can.

His is a politics of division that consists essentially in appealing to what Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, called “the darker angels of our nature.”

This is why, if there will be life as we know it after Trump, de-Trumpification will be Job Number One.

Contrary to the views of leading Democrats and liberal pundits, this does not mean restoring the political order that made Trump possible. It means forging a politics — preferably outside the duopoly party system, but within it too, if need be — that acknowledges the fact that the (lesser evil) Democratic Party, or at least its leadership and old guard, though considerably less abhorrent than its rival, is good for not much more than mitigating some of Trumpism’s most odious consequences.

It should become clearer, once Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, what that struggle will involve – within government and, more importantly, in the institutions and, when circumstances are appropriate, in the streets.

Because Trump has yet to precipitate constitutional crises that will inevitably suck the air out of other political concerns, the present moment is an excellent time to take stock of where matters now stand.

Marx famously declared that in capitalist societies “all that is solid melts into air.” In Trumpland, venerable and ostensibly secure norms, settlements, and achievements melt into air as well.

A case in point: the idea that America is a “melting pot.”

To be sure, it has never been more than a “whites only” melting pot.  But even with that qualification, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, along with scores of lesser incidents involving all sorts of melting pot beneficiaries, has put even that metaphorical way of describing how open and welcoming American society is in jeopardy.

How justified is this concern? And, with Trump in the White House, what is the story likely to be in the years ahead?

***

The illiberal turn in the ambient political culture, encouraged, promoted, and superintended by Trump and his minions  – like his administration’s assaults on equality and social solidarity, and the nativist and racist attitudes Trump legitimates – did not suddenly take hold on that day of infamy in 2015 when the Donald and his (captive?) trophy bride rode down the escalator in the gilded Fifth Avenue monument to vulgar and conspicuous consumption that bears his name.

“Trumpism” didn’t even begin fourteen years earlier in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

The first inklings of it emerged during the final years of the Carter administration, as Americans were unlearning lessons learned during the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the sixties and seventies, and as global capitalism was beginning to take off on its still robust neoliberal course.

For many years before that, the domestic scene in the United States and other Western countries had been evolving, slowly and unevenly, but in a seemingly inexorable way – in a more salutary direction.  After that, it became increasingly evident, also slowly and unevenly, that a change of course was underway, one that would make a few people obscenely rich and bring nearly everyone else grief.

It was only what we now call “the homeland” that took a turn for the worse.  The foreign policy of “the leader of the free world” underwent no fundamental changes.

As had been the case at least since the late nineteenth century, American foreign policy was about making the world safe for American capitalists – especially mining and oil and other extractive industry tycoons, financiers, and, since World War II, the death merchants and masters of war that comprise the overarching military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against at the end of his administration.

To people in other countries, poor ones especially, America has always been a problem; domestically, however, the American state, even at its nastiest, was generally more beneficent than not.  It offered the majority of persons living within its borders freedom from fear, the cornerstone of the four freedoms Franklin Roosevelt famously proclaimed in January of 1941; the others being freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and, the one least realized in Roosevelt’s time and ours, freedom from want.

Those whom we now call “persons of color” were not nearly as blessed with these freedoms as white Americans were, and some white Americans were more blessed than others.  But the usual understanding — common to blacks, browns, yellows, reds, and whites alike – was that, in the fullness of time, better times would surely come.  That was, after all, “the American way.”

Trumpism puts that sense of security, belonging, and optimism, which, as recently as two years ago still seemed too deeply engrained in the collective consciousness of the American people ever to be dislodged, in serious, if not mortal, jeopardy.

This is no small feat. In virtue of the office they hold, American presidents are among the most powerful people on earth.   Still, it is astonishing how someone as hapless and insubstantial as Trump could undermine such deeply entrenched convictions.

Part of the explanation may be that Trumpism is not so much a cause as a symptom of deeper, underlying problems, inherent in the capitalism of our time, and therefore that what is subverting long established norms and understandings is not so much Trump or the Trump administration as the trajectory of capitalism itself.

However that may be, in our land of border walls, babies ripped from mothers’ arms and scattered all over the continent, child and adult detention centers, immigration and travel bans, and violence directed against the most vulnerable and powerless among us, the words of Emma Lazarus, mounted inside the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty stands, ring increasingly hollow: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

When Lazarus wrote those words, capitalists were desperate for workers.  The American government therefore encouraged immigration — from Europe only, of course.  Asians and Africans need not apply.

The people who came encountered hostility and faced hard times.  But most of them were better off than they would have been had they stayed put, and some of them did spectacularly well.  Their children and their children’s children generally went on to do even better.

With the Immigration Act of 1924, the proto-Trumpians of the day, intent on Making America Great Again – in other words, on making its population more like it was when the first settlers came, but with Germans and Scandinavians thrown in — saw to it that hardly any more “wretched refuse” from non-Protestant parts of Europe would be allowed upon the “teeming shore” of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. This didn’t change substantially until the Great Society era, four decades later.

During those years and in the decades that followed, the many European immigrant groups came grudgingly to accept one another, and to be accepted, also grudgingly, by descendants of earlier settlers.  They were joined together by what was, at first, more of a modus vivendi than a true amalgam.

In time, though something more like an amalgam did emerge.  It was comprised not just of descendants of settlers from the British Isles and Northern Europe, but from Southern and Eastern Europe as well. This brought Catholics and Jews into the American fold.

Needless to say, Anglo-Protestant culture remained dominant, but, in the course of time, the newcomers transformed the culture they joined, subtly and unintentionally, but undeniably.

This was not “multi-culturalism”; it was what happens when peoples from different cultures are thrown together, only to find that, unless they want to lead insular and hellish lives, they have no choice but to get along.

Absent the melting pot’s success in making this happen, Americans’ current obsession with “identity politics” would be absurd.  Immigrants and their first generation native-born children neither needed nor wanted “to discover what they are”; they wanted to forge an American identity and to integrate into it.

They were not assimilationists; the idea was not to shed subaltern identities in order to become like members of the dominant group.  It was to give old identities a distinctively American cast.

In the melting pot, it was inevitable that everyone would change, some more than others; but no one would become, or try to become, what they are not, at least not for the sake of social acceptance or political inclusion.

The melting pot was about welcoming everybody in as they are, and letting the chips fall as they may.

These days, we don’t hear as much about the melting pot as we used to — in part because it did its job so well, at least for the “white” majority.  We hear less about the melting pot too because, thanks to immigration patterns and birthrates in the post-1960s era, the United States is rapidly becoming a majority-minority nation, and minorities are increasingly where the action is.

And then, there is Trump.

The con he is working depends on legitimating and otherwise encouraging tensions between descendants of European immigrants and everyone else.  In theory, this should not directly affect white Americans at all.  But the Trumpian ethos is inherently divisive and therefore affects everybody.

In the 2016 election, that ethos worked well for Trump; in the 2018 midterms, it worked less well.  Trumpism’s efficacy is highly context-dependent.  But even in circumstances in which being divisive and vile is a winning strategy, it is a recipe for tearing the social fabric apart.

It took several generations for the melting pot to work its magic; could Trumpism undo all it has achieved?

This would not be the only ostensibly settled and generally beneficent aspect of America’s political culture that Trumpism jeopardizes, but it is one that most Americans find especially disturbing.

***

Unless their fears are baseless, which they plainly are not, the present, this still not too tumultuous, moment seems like a good time to assess how much damage has already been done.

It may also be a good time to rethink the melting pot metaphor.

There is, after all, no undoing what a melting pot has done — not according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

To be sure, ever since the Donald came on the scene, working his con on the dumbed down and misinformed, it has sometimes seemed as if the whole world has gone topsy-turvy.  But there is no denying fundamental laws of physics.

What then can we infer from the widespread feeling that Trump is tearing apart what the melting pot has melded together; that the Trumpian turn is, as it were, counter-entropic.

In the United States as much or more than anywhere else, money talks.  It also lies – not just when it proclaims “in God we trust,” but also when it tells us that the American experience creates one (“unum”) people out of the many (“e pluribus”) among us.  Could it be that there was never as much melting going on, even within white America, as was widely supposed and justly celebrated?

“Originalist” sticklers will insist that the idea America’s motto was meant to proclaim is the same as the one conveyed by our country’s name; that from many states, we have one united nation.

They may be right about that, but this is not how “e pluribus unum” is generally understood.  It is understood to express the melting pot idea, the vision of peoples drawn to America from all over the world – except of course the parts comprised of what Trump famously called “shithole countries” — melding irreversibly together.

This does happen, even in the Trump era.  Intermarriage is a conspicuous symptom and cause of this process.

White Protestants from different denominations and different countries of origin have been intermarrying since the country’s early days; in due course, Catholics and orthodox Christians from different cultures followed suit; then Protestants and Catholics together; and, for many decades now, Christians of all kinds and Jews.  The old divisions remain generally intact. But there is little doubt in which direction the arc of history is moving.

Could Trumpism undo even that?

A few weeks and seemingly a thousand news cycles ago, it looked as if the answer might be Yes; that the melting pot process was beginning to reverse.  The purported canary in the mine was its most recent and still most problematic achievement, the nearly total demise of anti-Semitism in post-World War II America.

The process is still not nearly as far along but, for many decades now, being Jewish has been no more institutionally disadvantageous than, say, being Irish or, for that matter, a member of any other former (white) target of nativist animosity.

As they always do, attitudes have followed suit; and, notwithstanding the wishes of many older Christians and Jews, and the vehement opposition of leaders of Jewish organizations, both secular and religious, marriages between persons of Christian and Jewish backgrounds are now so common that, in most circles, they no longer seem even slightly exceptional.

Then came the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and, for a week or two, it seemed as if anti-Semitism was back; as if, after being, so to speak, in remission for many decades, it had returned with a vengeance.

Thanks to the daily barrage of off-the-wall Trump tweets, public declarations of that unease have been superseded by different concerns.  The synagogue attacks are ancient history now.

Thus a semblance of calm has returned, and, with it, a sense of proportion.

On the other hand, Trump and his advisors have fostered a resurgence (or surgence) of alt-right – that is, later day fascist – politics; this cannot help but revive otherwise moribund pockets of traditional, hard right, anti-Semitism.

To some extent, this is, as the saying goes, “not good for the Jews,” but then it is hardly a cause for serious concern, much less panic.  Even in the vilest and most vicious alt-right circles, anti-Semitism is trumped, as it were, many times over by admiration for the state of Israel and by Islamophobia.

For many years now, Muslims have been the new Jews. Trump has not had much effect on that except insofar as, like with so much else, he has made the situation worse.

Trump is a dangerous man, and the presidency is a powerful office.   But care must be taken not to overestimate what he can do.   He is demonstrably capable of driving deranged homicidal maniacs over the edge.  But he is no match for the melting pot.  What it achieved over many years, he cannot, through sheer mean spiritedness, undo.

There was plenty of intermarriage in the former Yugoslavia too – between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians.  Nevertheless, the Yugoslavian people endured savage and protracted civil wars that led ultimately to their country’s fragmentation and demise.

But hardly anyone in Yugoslavia, especially in the higher echelons of government, championed a melting pot ideology.  Quite to the contrary, for most of its history, political elites in the former Yugoslavia supported the Leninist principle of self-determination for distinct, historically grounded ethnic groups. Thus, in the circumstances that pertained in the 1990s, that doomed country was easy prey for political entrepreneurs hell bent on tearing the country apart.  To the detriment of many Yugoslavs, they were supported by Germany and other European countries and, ultimately, by the Clinton administration.

America’s situation now is obviously very different except in one crucial respect that only became evident a few weeks ago, as home grown political entrepreneurs, abetted by an outside power, saw, in the Pittsburgh shootings, an opportunity to advance an agenda of their own.  The political entrepreneurs were, of course, Zionists, and the outside power is Israel.

Israel needs “existential threats” to flourish and perhaps just to stay afloat; one of the reasons it needs them is to maintain the level and kind of American support on which it depends.  And anti-Semitism was, and still is Zionism’s raison d’être. Were it to go away, it would be unclear what the point of Zionism would be.

Therefore, it would be bad for Israel and for the Zionist project were the American melting pot to work so well that American Jews, younger ones especially, would care even less about Israel and Zionism than they currently do.  This is why, from a Zionist point of view, occasional anti-Semitic eruptions sometimes serve a useful purpose; they help keep potential waverers on board.  The Pittsburgh shootings were something of a godsend from that point of view.

In the days following that tragic event, the National Director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt, was all over the “liberal” cable networks.  His concern was authentic and sincere.

It also had a darker side, however.  The ADL has long been on the side of the angels when it comes to exposing and combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, but finding itself with hardly any genuine anti-Semitism to expose or combat, it has, in recent decades, found a new vocation as part of the Israel lobby.

To that end, it actively promotes the transparently false idea that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are, if not identical, then at least close enough to be treated, for all practical purposes, as one and the same.  It also promotes the similarly fallacious idea that all but the most anodyne criticisms of Israel are implicitly anti-Zionist and therefore anti-Semitic as well.

Thus, in the ADL view – in practice, if not in theory — anti-Semitism runs rampant within the ranks of Palestine solidarity workers, and among those who fault Israel’s systemic failure to uphold internationally recognized legal and human rights standards.  The worst anti-Semites of all, from the ADL point of view are people who heed the utterly non-violent and impeccably moral call of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Greenblatt is seldom seen on television now that the tragedy in Pittsburgh has disappeared down the memory hole.  The reason is not just that reality has asserted itself.  It is also that, in Trump’s America, story lines that don’t immediately serve Trump’s interests have no legs.

Most important of all, it is looking like reports of the demise of the melting pot are, to say the least, exaggerated.  It may not be what it once was, but even in its superannuated condition, it can defeat all the devils Trump can summon.

Thus what the Pittsburgh shootings reveal is not that anti-Semitism is on the rebound; it is only that, as we have known from Day One, thatwith Trump in charge, all that is rotten in America comes to the fore.

The state of the melting pot is therefore still good.  Like everything else tainted by racism, the melting pot is America’s shame – not for what it has done, but for what it has not, and probably could not, do.  For what it has done, it is America’s glory. It is what has made the United States so appealing for so long to persons around the world who “yearn…to breathe free.”  Trump is more likely to blow up the world than to change that.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

Related Bios