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In her SOTU response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered American Carnage redux
When I was a young teen in high school band, I was called into the office by my director and assistant director to be asked a question. Why, they wanted to know, did I not say the pledge each morning when it played over the intercom system? I answered honestly, though in a way I don’t think they were necessarily expecting for a shaggy-haired and frankly low-achieving trombonist: my religious beliefs prevented me from pledging allegiance to a flag; I served my savior and him only.
I’m the son of a Navy veteran and political scientist who, after his tour of duty, went on to write a doctoral thesis on just war theory and the Restoration Movement churches in which he, and subsequently I, was raised. I was taught from a young age to think hard about the relationship between my faith and the questions and demands of politics. I’m neither politically nor religiously the same person I was when I told my somewhat surprised band director that, for me, the pledge was an exercise in idolatry. But I highlight all this to explain why, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders complained in her State of the Union response that liberals want Americans to “worship their idols” and “salute their flag,” it piqued my interest.
My governor reeled off a litany of “rituals” in which some phantom liberal would coerce honest, freedom-loving Americans to partake. I couldn’t help but recall that the only time I’ve ever felt pressured to participate in a ritual was when I put my faith above the pledge.
But there is another angle I would like to explore, and that is Sanders’s construction of the nation. A lot of excellent scholarship and popular writing has been done lately on Christian nationalism—from Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers to Samuell Perry and Philip Gorski’s The Flag and the Cross, among many others—but I want to talk about some less explored facets of the nationalism espoused in Sanders’s response, facets that are nevertheless common across the American hard right.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s speech was largely about, not a Christian nationalism per se (though she undoubtedly expresses Christian nationalist views), but a highly restrictive view of who is and isn’t a proper member of the nation, one premised on narrow cultural values and a sleight of hand in which the groups being marginalized and excluded are in fact the ones perpetrating the discrimination. That trick is common to extreme nationalist movements today and generally common across the history of modern nationalism.
The Nation as Sufferer
Nationalism as a modern project in the West has long roots in a sense of grand tragedy and struggle. From the Romantics in particular, we inherit ideas about the nation as an ancient, natural, poetic thing, baked into the land and oozing out of the mouths, pores, and open wounds of every patriot. And the Romantic nationalists were deeply familiar with such wounds, considering the broader imperial context in which many of their ideas emerged—a cry of primordial identity that burst forth in 1848’s spring of nations. One can also think of Robert Burns’s “Scots Wha’ Ha’e,” in which the closing description to that titular line is “with Wallace bled.” Open wounds were common throughout Sanders’s speech.
She offered up an “American Carnage” redux: economic, physical, and spiritual. She decried the empty shelves and stinging prices, which are real challenges to be sure, but also a “Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire.” But it’s not just that Biden and the Democrats have failed the American economy. No, they’ve allowed an invasion from within and without. As expected, she cited the border crisis, but Sanders also identified an internal enemy. From her point of view, this enemy has already seized the reins of power. She exclaimed, “[Biden’s] the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” She set all of this against the glittering years of Trump’s presidency, when growth was high, peace was the norm, and Americans walked around full of pride and comforted with a sense of security.
I’ve argued before that part of why I think the notes of Hungarian nationalism, particularly as expressed by Viktor Orbán, so resonates with American hardliners is that it has a decidedly tragic timbre. For Hungary, that tragedy is bound up in the Treaty of Trianon, which separated Hungary from two thirds of its territory and millions of ethnic Hungarians when it went into effect in 1921. Speaking in 2020, Orban mourned that
The West raped the thousand-year-old borders and history of Central Europe. They forced us to live between indefensible borders, deprived us of our natural treasures, separated us from our resources, and made a death row out of our country. Central Europe was redrawn without moral concerns, just as the borders of Africa and the Middle East were redrawn. We will never forget that they did this.
Trianon was quite a literal severing of a nation. Sanders and other political entrepreneurs of Trumpism offer something more metaphorical. But the language is visceral all the same. Sanders did not pedal the Big Lie, that 21st-century version of America’s Lost Cause myth, in her response. But she did trade in a tragic nationalism of loss, suffering, and violation.
The opioid crisis, a genuine horror that has ravaged poor and rural America for over two decades, does get passing mention. Notably, it is addressed only as a function of border security, another failure laid at the feet of the Biden Administration. Sanders focuses her ire on “fentanyl pouring in across our southern border.” And, indeed, borders—visible and invisible, external and internal—dominate the thinking here.
All nations have boundaries. As nation-states they have internationally recognized borders, and there are processes in place that manage how someone who crosses that border into a new country can eventually be a legal member of that nation. This is how social groups and identities typically function. They derive at least some of their meaning by the fact that some are included and others are excluded.
The imagined community put forward by Benedict Anderson presents the nation as a “deep horizontal comradeship,” able to extend hundreds of miles thanks to the rise of vernacular literature and art and the advent of print capitalism. The rise of modern life gave us the means of participating in and seeing ourselves as part of much bigger and wider communities than before. But Sanders’s speech is part of a pattern on the hard right of circumscribing the national community so as to exclude from it those who do not conform to a narrow set of cultural views and personal dispositions. And it’s deeply illiberal because it leaves little room for any fellow feeling with those on the other side of this boundary.
Perhaps that sounds like an over-interpretation. But it strikes me as a sound conclusion from her assertion that “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.” I’ve already written about the trend on the right of pathologizing their opponents as unwell and aberrant. I have also written previously about the focus on our internal divisions by Sanders during her campaign for governor. Tweeting only days after her campaign announcement, Sanders declared, “The radical left’s socialism and cancel culture will not unify or heal America, it will only divide and destroy us.”
Her own father, former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, has even gone on record as being open to the idea of ending birthright citizenship–an idea that has become popular among figures like Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. As for Sanders herself, her views are less clear, but she did have to defend Trump’s hostility to the principle enshrined in the 14th Amendment in her role as press secretary. And I wonder whether “every” meant “every” when Sanders said Republicans like her long for an America “Where the freedom our veterans shed their blood to defend is the birthright of every man, woman, and child.” Does it extend to the children of those pouring over the border by which she’s so horrified? Does it include the women and men who, by now identifying differently than the sex they were assigned at birth, are constituents of the mob she says has overrun Biden’s presidency? Does it include the children who, at school, will find their curriculum pruned to suit the sensitivities of MAGA extremists and teachers who cannot acknowledge the very complexities of sexual and gender identification with which they themselves might be wrestling?
These divisions matter because a hardline nationalist view does not permit the nation itself to contain contradictions or conflicts that must be resolved. This view renders the nation as a unitary whole, and only that which is alien to it can threaten its integrity. To echo Orbán again, “The national cannot be in opposition.” The nation, sacred as it is, cannot be a threat to itself. To be a threat to the nation is to be outside of it, even if you live within it and enjoy all the ostensible privileges of citizenship.
Here it’s worth ending with a note on what Sanders made time to praise in her speech. She made a lot of references to freedom and, of course, the “normal” Americans who love said freedom. She also made a generational pitch about those patriotic citizens who have come of age in the wake of 9/11. And she praised America’s armed forces. But mostly, even if in a bit of a roundabout way, she exalted herself and, without naming him, her old boss.
When we recently discussed his book, Tom Nichols directly offered Sanders’s speech to me as part of a long trend of politicians centering themselves in deeply emotional and personal ways rather than in primarily policy-driven pitches. In fact, one particular story Sanders told functions as a helpful elaboration of Nichols’s thesis.
The story Governor Sanders told about being given a patch by a soldier whom she and the president had visited at great risk to their own safety is only barely an example of celebrating the armed forces. It’s more about the fact that a member of our nation’s military celebrated her, legitimized her. This young soldier approached her and expressed sympathy for how tough her job as press secretary was at the time, a compliment she graciously dismisses, before he then “reached up, and pulled the Brave Rifles Patch he wore on his shoulder and placed it into my hand, a sign of ultimate respect, and said, ‘Sarah, we are in this together.’” She went on to detail how “Overwhelmed with emotion and speechless, I just hugged him, with tears in my eyes and a grateful heart for our heroes who keep us free.” She quickly pivoted back to the enemies who threaten that freedom, already clearly constructed throughout the speech as most internal ones–Americans of woke or weak instincts who attack its ideals and cannot be bothered to stand up to its opponents. That bordered nation resurfaces, but more importantly a heroized version of Sanders also does. It’s not quite as assertive as “I alone can fix it.” But I found the messaging that she is “in this together” with the heroes who keep us free—a freedom largely shown throughout as being menaced by people who are already here, either as migrants or as morally errant American citizens—to be a clear positioning of herself as another heroic figure standing athwart the cultural hordes.
Authoritarianism cannot resist the fusion of personality and polity. It’s fundamental to it. My religious and political thinking have changed a lot since I was a teenager (one would hope!). However, what remains is a strong resistance to narrow prescriptions of fealty. Real lovers of liberty should always be skeptical of such demands. And the bitter, sickly nationalism currently on offer from the MAGA right is incompatible with real freedom. Moreover, individual liberty is ill-served by a politics of self-adulation, in which one is a hero beating back a “mob” of people rendered alien and other rather than taken as fellow citizens. And membership in that nation must not be maintained by a series of pledges designed to demonstrate our normal Americanness—for that would be to lose far too much of the pluralist, multicultural vitality that makes this whole experiment worthwhile.