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Tocqueville, Santayana, and Donald Trump

“To be an American,” George Santayana said, “is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a career.”

For Americans and non-Americans alike, the American people has seemed a recognizable and describable breed from the earliest years of the Republic down to the 21st century, despite America’s reputation as a nation hospitable to immigration and the recipient of scores of millions of immigrants over the past two centuries.  Only the powerful grip habit has on human thought and imagination explains how mass immigration to the United States from the postbellum era down to the 21st century can be compatible in the popular mind with a notion of the American character as something fixed and unchanging, as if the Connecticut Yankee of the early 19th century could be essentially the same person as the American imperialist or the Populist at the turn of the 20th century, the Babbitt of the 1920’s, the Brains Trust member of the 1930’s, the booster for the American Century around the time of the Second World War, the Cold Warrior or the man in the gray flannel suit of the 1950’s, the SDS protester of the 60’s, the discouraged interventionist of the economically bleak 70’s, the morally resuscitated and ideologically revived Reaganite of the 80’s, the satisfied, optimistic dot-com investor during the two Clinton administrations, and his dissatisfied, pessimistic...

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