In the latest chapter of the long-running saga that is ‘The End Of America As We Know It’, one Josh Mandel, an Ohio senate candidate, is among many footnotes.
Here is a recent posting on his Instagram account: “Great breakfast this morning with another Ohioan who took his daughter to January 6th rally. It’s so important for our kids to see democracy up close and exercise their God-given rights.”
To Mandel, the right for children to participate in a day that began in support of false allegations of electoral fraud, intended to stop the lawfully elected Joe Biden from becoming president, and ended in a fatal armed insurrection at the Capitol is part of the essence of being an American.
On the May 9, 1958, episode of the US Western television series Trackdown, a con man predicts that the world will come to a flaming end at midnight. Without his help and knowledge, he says, all will perish.
The huckster travels the town in a covered wagon, dressed in a kind of clown outfit and vanishes when the curtain is pulled.
The Texas Ranger who pursues him calls him a con man. He replies with his catchphrase: “Be careful, son. I can sue you.”
He implies that what he does, what he aims for, this ability to solve problems based on his person, is part of the essence of being an American.
The character’s surname is Trump.
For those of you exhausted and bored by the name of Donald Trump, convinced that he is yesterday’s news, to be part of the cat litter tray lining; or thrown out with the rest of the rubbish, there is very bad news.
He is not going away. He has tapped into American essentialism.
His niece, Mary Trump, calls his defeat to Biden the greatest humiliation of his life, something he cannot accept.
And while what happens inside of an individual should be of no consequence to the majority, in the case of Trump, this is a guy who has hit the third rail of the American psyche.
His own trauma has tapped into this American inner essentialism: the belief that everything has a core, an essence, that defines it and must not be violated. His essence: to be your leader.
So he attempts to invoke executive privilege to stop proper investigation of what he did and said on January 6. And he goes to Iowa for what might be the first rally of his 2024 election campaign and repeats his lies about winning key states that he lost, and not conceding the election (which he did). And the crowd chants, “Trump won! Trump won! Trump won!”
For Trump and his Make America Great Again cult, it is the thing they called ‘the Traditional American’ that is the sign of US essentialism.
It is something that mainly means white and Protestant and gun-owning and all of the stuff that that comes with that.
The US has always been both bonkers and kind of magnificent all at the same time and has managed to precariously balance the two sides of its character. But, something else, something fatal may now be happening to us, driven by the conflict algorithms that are social media.
Plato held that all things have an essence.
In America – certainly back then, maybe even today – there is the assumption, largely unspoken in general until now, that there is something ‘essential’ about being white. This idea, this credo, led to the extermination of indigenous Americans.
The United States has struggled over this core mindset of essentialism throughout my entire lifetime. Now the country is at guns-drawn over it.
The far right is beginning to become an ethno-nationalist safe space, wallowing in the belief that America will thrive as long as superior groups link up. This is the subtext of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show almost every night.
For the far left there is the target of ‘Karen’, a mythical white woman who has to be continuously sought out and done down.
At stake now, in the most visceral way since the Civil War, is what the great congressman Jim Clyburn calls “the experiment”. Because America is an experiment: the idea that all peoples can exist in a land; at peace with indigenous people; at peace with the environmentnt, and write a glorious new chapter in human history.
But that has not happened. The experiment has being sidelined for essentialism and now, as Trump challenges the legitimacy of the American election process itself, as the American people tear themselves apart, we remember what Benjamin Franklin said after the convention that created the United States Constitution.
This conversation was recorded at the time: “A lady asked Dr. Franklin ‘Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor ‘if you can keep it’.”
A republic, if you can keep it.
And it will be lost in essentialism, as individuals meld into categories, as we become nothing except what our ‘group’ or our ‘race’ or whatever we are defined by, define ourselves as, predominates.
We are all part of this, guilty of this. It is a sign of our times. This is our era.
But can the US, can the world, survive it?