“Donald Trump is as American as apple pie” wrote Cornel West on Facebook on Apr. 25, 2017. “He’s an expression, an articulation, an extension of so much of the worst of American’s [sic] past and present.” The short Facebook post would see Professor West embroiled in a new controversy.
Evidently he meant it because he tweeted the exact same words two days later. A Professor Emeritus at Yale, West is no stranger to controversy; in addition to criticizing conservative politicians and policies in the past, he has also sharply criticized former president Barack Obama, deeming him an establishment tool who just so happened to be black.
Nevertheless, it is the implications of this post that gives us pause. President Donald Trump may be the worst of America, but is that really something to attribute to the United States alone? Anti-immigrant stances, attempts at media control, and the nepotism of the wealthy are global sins, not just something that can be tied down to the United States. If West’s metric is to measure Trump against the worst aspects of a nation like the United States, he would do well to take the long view of history and compare Trump to other societies.
That isn’t to say that West’s present concerns are not valid. In his current state, Trump is becoming a nexus for controversy, reopening old wounds regarding immigration and ethnic tension, all things that in the past have been hotly debated over when attempting to define what it means to be an American. While the feelings he stirs aren’t unique to America alone, they do represent a problematic part of our nation’s legacy. In that respect, Cornel West is right.
What, then, does West consider to be American in quality? Only the bad? We know that the “bad” such as Trump’s can be found elsewhere. West mistakes America for being a completely homogeneous culture. It is unfair to associate Donald Trump with American culture because it is too diverse and different among its many peoples to use some sweeping generalization of what is good and what is bad in America.
Through a single-minded statement that simply equates Americanness with the worst in American society, West offers an incomplete picture of America. There are many here that live in America that do not follow Donald Trump. Following West’s unclear metric, should they then surrender the label of “American?” Do they lay the same claim to being articulations and expressions of America? By focusing solely on Trump as the epitome of American failure, West homogenizes society. He cuts out the diversity within our society in order to create one enemy that he can take potshots at.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King calls president Abraham Lincoln a “great American.” King’s vision is clear: America is a nation that he loves and believes in, and he considers the epitome of Americanness to be those who are positive and uplifting and represent the best of the nation. Going by West’s nebulous statement, however, neither Lincoln nor King would be American precisely because they are not considered America’s worst.
West is not wrong to point out a nation’s sins. But he is wrong to focus his ire solely on Trump with mention of little else. In order for his critique of what is bad in America to have weight, he also needs to present what is good in our society to act as a counter metric for which the bad can be evaluated against. By simply calling Donald Trump “American as apple pie” and the worst of our society without giving us a precise definition of what comprises American society, Cornel West delivers a controversial but weak statement. He actually deepens the divide, because he delivers empty statements that seem more like he has given up on America and would rather lament its wrongdoings rather than work for a purer future.
May 3, 11:37 a.m.: A previous version of this article had the headline “America’s Heritage is Richer than Cornell West Believes.” West’s name was misspelled and the article has been updated for accuracy.