The primary debate we are having right now in the presidential nominating process is not about the role of the federal government, nor immigration, nor tax cuts, nor defense spending, nor guns, nor inequity. It is about the history of the United States. Each candidate is trying to win over a debate about our origins, such that the story leads inevitably to them.
There are two, maybe three versions of this history one needs to consider. And the first, like most things in the Republican party, has to do with disagreeing with President Obama. In his 2008 “Yes We Can” speech the President laid out a vision for how America came to be in this place and time, suggesting that the refrain “yes we can” was in the hearts and minds of the people who built this country.
“It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.”
Now, if you believe America was built by slaves and abolitionist, immigrants, and pioneers, workers, women, and visionary leaders who had big thoughts more than accomplishments, you have a couple of choices in the Republican field. You have the children of immigrants and slaves, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and to some extent Chris Cristie, who tells the story of his Sicilian grandmother, born on a boat on the way to America. If you believe America was built by pioneers, workers, women, and visionary leaders you could choose Carly Fiorina, the secretary who worked her way to the CEO’s office, Jeb Bush, who has the right vision for America, or maybe Mike Huckabee, who touts no real achievements in his elected history, but who has the evangelical vision America needs.
But then there are those who simply do not believe this version of American history. And they fall into one, maybe two camps.
First, the maybe-narrative. America was never created. America, as a single nation, has no coherent history. America as it was formed from 1776-1789, the Confederation of States, is more accurately what American still is. If you believe we are not one country, barely 50 states, and more accurately 400 million free individuals, and that we work best when we work as 400 million free individuals, your candidate is Rand Paul, or Bernie Sanders, if you think we are 400 million individuals who every once in a while need the game reset so we are all, again, equal.
But the most obvious of these alternative histories is the “Captains of Industry” model. This model says that America was built by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs… and Donald Trump. These are men, white men, who were broodish, mean assholes who built, with their own two hands (rather than everyone else’s), great big things. In some sense this is the version of history that I learned growing up in the 70s and 80s in small town upstate New York. That the mantle of invention and success is passed from a great man’s hands to the next generation’s great man’s hands. It is narrow minded, incomplete, and says nothing about the dead bodies laid at Pharaoh’s feet. But, if you buy this version of American history, then you want to “make America great again,” and you only have one candidate, one white male industrialist, who fits the bill.
The irony of this version of America is that there is actually a second “greatest success of their generation” candidate in the field, another captain of industry. And that would be Hillary Clinton, the first student to give the commencement address at Wellesley College, the first female member of the Rose Law Firm, the first First Lady to have an office in the West Wing, the first First Lady elected to federal office on her own, and the first viable major party female candidate for President of the United States, both in 2008, and 2016. It you asked who are the smartest, most accomplished ten people of the baby boom generation, who will most likely be remembered in a US History class ten years from now, it would be hard to leave First Lady, Senator, Secretary Clinton off that list.
What made us? A myriad of interconnected hands, a coalition of the ascending, individual grit and drive, great men, immigrants, working together, working in competition, God? This is the primary question. If there were one more Republican debate, if I could ask one more question of the candidates to bring to the fore that which I think is hidden behind all the rhetoric and campaign slogans it would be this:
Who built the White House?