There’s a battle in this country over its very meaning. The battle raises questions over whether America has such an animating philosophy as “Americanism,” and, if so, what principles it entails.
A recent CNN.Com headline frames it, “Obama and Trump fight for America’s soul,” as if these two leaders represent two opposite interpretations of Americanism.
Trump’s America is insular and monochrome. As he summarizes it, we are to be “one people, under one God, saluting one flag.” This ideology holds that Americanism amounts to blood and soil—a patch of land that must be walled off from outsiders who would pollute our nation by trade or, heaven forbid, come here to live.
Obama and progressive Democrats claim to offer the alternative to this insularity, extolling an ideology that insists that such a tolerant and open society can only be brought about if Americans come to see themselves as a collective, one in which the government must assert ever-increasing control to meet its objectives.
But neither interpretation is accurate. The spirit of the American republic, as conceived by its Founders, is Individualism. It explicitly rejects the false dichotomy in Obama and Trump’s visions.
It is no accident that Emma Lazarus, whose “New Colossus” poem graces the Statue of Liberty as it welcomes newcomers from abroad, wrote critically against the political Left. Attempts by the State to spread the wealth around—such as those Obama initially suggested when running for President in 2008—were, she deemed, “essentially unjust.”
Nor would the Founders defend Trumpian ethnocentrism. Anticipating “The New Colossus,” George Washington stressed, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions . . .” Hence, Washington wrote in one letter, praiseworthy newcomers to America “may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Atheists . . .”
True Americanism rejects both the collectivist welfare state that Obama espouses and the collectivist nationalism that Trump engenders. It was—and is—the freedom of the individual to do anything that is peaceful, not requiring the preapproval of any third parties.
In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal & independent . . .” In keeping with the burgeoning philosophy of its time, the Age of Enlightenment, this draft declared independence in a respect even more significant than independence from Britain: that each peaceful adult is independent in how he is to navigate his life. In more context than one, then, America was always to be the Independent Republic. This idea came to be known in the late nineteenth century as the spirit of Horatio Alger, and what twentieth-century historian James Truslow Adams later dubbed “the American dream.”
In contrast to both the Left and Right’s collectivism is the individualism championed by novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand: she came to the USA penniless in 1924, barely knowing English, to pursue wealth and, as a precursor to that, her creative expression.
In 1946 she began writing Textbook of Americanism, her political manifesto explaining the philosophy of the country she so dearly loved and understood. The Textbook had remained unfinished, until now, and is as desperately needed as ever.
As Rand explained, the basic principle of America is individualism. That’s what has made America great from the start. And the sooner Americans recognize this on the deepest level, the more prosperous we all will be.
Adapted from A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, recently published by Capitalistpig.com
Stuart K. Hayashi has worked as a legislative aide at the Hawaii State Capitol. He is the author of The Freedom of Peaceful Action and Life in the Market Ecosystem, both published in 2013, and Hunting Down Social Darwinism (2014), all on political philosophy and published by Lexington Books of Lanham, Maryland.