If you’re one of those haters who thinks Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” sucks, you don’t understand the first thing about the United States. If you can’t see how perfectly he’s captured the meaning of America in this poster, you’ve never really dreamed the American Dream. The veritable army of articles I’ve read in the last three days, which delight in trashing this poster, only highlight for me the narrow-mindedness, the pettiness, and the narcissism of interest-group politics.
Fairey’s poster isn’t about defining what a Muslim woman does (or doesn’t) look like; it’s about defining what an American can look like. I find it telling that the far-left and the far-right misunderstand Fairey’s poster in pretty much the same way, whilst a huge swathe of patriotic Americans got all choked up when they saw it. It struck a chord, the way The Pledge of Allegiance, The Statue of Liberty, and Frank Capra movies strike a chord.
Regardless of what you make of Fairey’s politics, his conception of what it means to be a “real American” is, quite obviously, much broader, much more comprehensive, and much more inclusive than Trump’s. Pretty much everyone in the United States, I’ll wager, can fit under Fairey’s umbrella. Of course the same cannot be said of the 45th President of the United States. More often than not, Trump’s working definition of “real American” applies in practice to, at best, a third of his fellow citizens.
That’s simply no way to govern in a place like the United States. The great conservative Edmund Burke makes this clear in his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (November 3, 1774): “parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.” Burke was here, as elsewhere, echoing a rather ancient insight into the origin of political virtue and political vice.
In a place like the United States, in a republic, you’re not supposed to govern in the interests of the one, the few, or the many; you’re supposed to govern in the interests of the whole. Is this an attainable goal in practice? Of course not. But Trump has made it clear that he’s not even gonna try, much less pretend, to govern in the interests of “the general good”; instead, he has, quite deliberately, and rather shamelessly, made it clear that he intends to govern in the interest of a small faction of “The People”, those he deems “real Americans”.
“The people,” writes Aaron Haspel, “never means quite all of them.” Hard not to think of this aphorism as I listened to Donald Trump’s inaugural speech: “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)