SEPTEMBER 27, 2020
JARED YATES SEXTON’S new nonfiction examination of what led the United States to the Trump presidency, American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, is like your high school history textbook rewritten by the creators of House of Cards trying to imitate the scope of The Silmarillion.
Sexton’s ambition is nothing less than a complete reeexamination of American history. With force and candor, American Rule leads readers through a litany of state-sponsored injustices. American Rule aims to be a wake-up call for a national delusion. But Sexton puzzlingly replicates the blind spots of American history through his commitment to holding up a dark mirror. What comes close to being revolutionary fizzles in how it selects details.
In the author’s analysis, “American Rule is the story of how a myth constructed an empire and led to its downfall.” He argues that since the writing of the Constitution, elites have been feeding voters a saccharine fable of a perfect American democracy endorsed by God himself as “the American Myth.”
Once the United States’s Founding Fathers seeded The American Myth to lacquer over the moral failure of slavery, the story took on a life of its own. So long as Americans believe they are free, a few powerful men can reap the lion’s share of profits without fear of an insurrection. The contradictions layered over each other to form an internal logic that enabled centuries of imperialism.
In modern times, Sexton blames an unholy trinity of ratings-hungry journalism, evangelical Christianity, and white supremacy for transforming the American Myth into a juggernaut that has laid the nation at Donald Trump’s feet. Reading American Rule, you hear Sexton’s particular scorn for the evangelical icons who loaned their rhetoric to the American Myth. But there’s also a religious element in American Rule’s forcefulness. You can hear the echo of a preacher warning his flock of the devil as Sexton inveighs against the prosperity gospel of James Madison.
The machine Madison had designed was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Harnessing the spirit of revolution and dedicated to presenting the illusion of democracy and self-governance, he had given to the country and the world an invention solely devoted to the amassment and protection of wealth, a permanent hierarchy clothed in meritocratic robes, and an ever-shifting reality as useful and as dangerous as any weapon.
At the macro scale, Sexton makes his points at breakneck speed. All those street and city names that faintly remind you of elderly white statesmen swim through American Rule’s pages, as Sexton airs their dirty (and usually racist) laundry. American Rule flips “great man history” into “terrible man history” by framing the misdeeds of a few powerful individuals as decisive to the nation’s history. No president gets a pass. Even Abraham Lincoln, whose belief in white supremacy was not mutually exclusive to his eventual call for emancipation, is up for reevaluation.
Short sketches like that of Curtis LeMay as “a swaggering warmonger who chewed cigars and barked his orders, and like the pragmatists who had ingratiated themselves with Harry Truman […] valued results over ethics and ideology,” are certainly caricaturish, but I suspect that’s the point. American Rule assumes that Americans have been fed reductively heroic stories, so it sets out to do the inverse, without exception.
Perhaps American Rule’s greatest strength is that it refuses to wring its hands while — figuratively — toppling historical figures from their pedestals. Sexton spares readers the tiresome discourse of “states’ rights” and the moral relativism of killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people. He calls the nation’s atrocities for what he believes they are.
Most of the high-level analysis of American Rule is reserved for the prologue and epilogue. The rest is a firehose of information set loose in chronological order. The onslaught of names and dates is only manageable because of Sexton’s crisp, logical prose. Even someone who slept through high school history class could enjoy American Rule. Regardless, adding a few pages of analysis at the end of each chapter would have given his ideas (and the readers) more room to breathe.
That being said, Sexton’s attempt to document as many American atrocities as possible is admirable. Oft-forgotten topics like the nightmarish occupation of the Philippines and the American eugenics movement are described with stark statistics. Even an informed reader will probably learn about a new horror.
Like any textbook on American history, American Rule jams an impossible scope of content into a few hundred pages. Every paragraph touches a topic that deserves a stand-alone book and a few dozen dissertations. American Rule can’t cover every issue, but certain omissions sting because they replicate the problems of American history textbooks.
Sexton spends so much time talking about powerful white men, albeit to point how awful they were, that all other people fade into a faceless oppressed mass. Sometimes his generalizations can be surprisingly tone-deaf. In a passage about the American government’s campaign to systemically kill Native people, Sexton writes,
The president of the United States of America, vested with all the power and glory of the people and in representation of the interests of the white race and the wealthy, slave-owning population, had carried out a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing, a genocide of the Native American people. Like an angry god of old, he had wiped them from the face of the American earth. […] A fire had consumed them like the one that consumed the grass of their prairies.
Sexton could be applauded for calling a genocide for what it is, but he also replicates the myth that Native people no longer exist. Lest I be accused of splitting academic hairs, Sexton is a tenured professor of writing with five other books to his name. He understands the power of language. Erasing the present-day lives and political work of Native people is difficult to look past.
Aside from a few obvious faux pas, there’s a more frustrating pattern in American Rule. It is reluctant to talk about the actual people oppressed. Why is there time to name Italy’s deposed king, Victor Emmanuel III, but not Queen Liliuokalani when discussing the annexation of Hawai‘i? Why explain Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, but not James Baldwin’s critiques of whiteness? Where is space to name several white editors of abolitionist newspapers and devote several paragraphs to John Brown, but no room for Mary Bowser, a Black woman who spied for the Union?
There are exceptions. Frederick Douglass gets a few paragraphs, Harriet Tubman receives a sentence clause, and W. E. B. Du Bois is credited for a few quotes, but as a whole, American Rule is extravagant about the abusers but reticent about the victims. When I counted names on a second pass through the book, I found over 290 names for white men, while less than 50 represent the rest of humanity.
In the last two paragraphs of the book, Sexton writes,
[I]t becomes obvious that the march on Selma, the Stonewall uprising, Frederick Douglass’s fearless turn as America’s conscience, the perpetual struggle by women and vulnerable minorities to seek equality, and even the ability of people to continue striving, dreaming, and just surviving in a system designed to hinder them at every turn, are just as inspiring as a band of eighteenth-century revolutionaries defeating Great Britain, the world’s foremost empire.
I’m glad American Rule arrived at this conclusion at all, but it feels too little, too late. Part of the insidiousness of the American Myth is that it whites out the people who hit back. Whether Sexton realizes it or not, American Rule recreates a narrative it sets out to disrupt, even as it feels like a book anxious white liberals would distribute to conservative relatives before election day.
Sexton starts American Rule in the right direction when he highlights the spiritual attachment white Americans have to the American Myth, but his antidote is flawed. He tries to disrupt an emotional truth with hundreds of data points. Considering the ease with which the Trump administration spews out alternative facts, American Rule needed to speak to something deeper. I suspect Sexton’s endeavors would have been more successful if he had chosen to humanize the statistics rather than merely recite them.