Real Americans

National Identity, Violence, and the Constitution

Jared Goldstein

On January 6, 2021, white supremacists, Christian nationalists, and other supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The insurrection was widely denounced as an attack on the Constitution, and the subsequent impeachment trial was framed as a defense of constitutional government. What received little attention is that the January 6 insurrectionists themselves justified the violence they perpetrated as a defense of the Constitution; after battling the Capitol police and breaking doors and windows, the mob marched inside, chanting “Defend your liberty, defend the Constitution.”

In Real Americans: National Identity, Violence, and the Constitution Jared A. Goldstein boldly challenges the conventional wisdom that a shared devotion to the Constitution is the essence of what it means to be American. In his careful analysis of US history, Goldstein demonstrates the well-established pattern of movements devoted to defending the power of dominant racial, ethnic, and religious groups that deploy the rhetoric of constitutional devotion to express their national visions and justify their violence. Goldstein describes this as constitutional nationalism, an ideology that defines being an American as standing with, and by, the Constitution. This history includes the Ku Klux Klan’s self-declared mission to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which served to justify its campaign of violence in the 1860s and 1870s to prevent Black people from exercising the right to vote; Protestant Americans who felt threatened by the growing population of Catholics and Jews and organized mass movements to defend their status and power by declaring that the Constitution was made for a Protestant nation; native-born Americans who resisted the rising population of immigrants and who mobilized to exclude the newcomers and their alien ideas; corporate leaders arguing that regulation is unconstitutional and un-American; and Timothy McVeigh, who believed he was defending the Constitution by killing 168 people with a truck bomb.

“Professor Jared Goldstein deftly explores how persons with exclusionary ideologies have claimed that those ideologies are rooted in the same Constitution that other Americans have claimed is committed to realizing the creed laid out in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Real Americans details the history of claims that the Constitution of the United States was designed for white persons, for Protestants, for native-born citizens, or for some combination of the three. An eye-opener and a page-turner on the dark side of American constitutional identity.”

—Mark A. Graber, regents professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

“From the country’s inception, Americans have used the language of constitutional fidelity and devotion not only to reaffirm desirable and civically unifying creedal principles but also to foment exclusionary, divisive, and morally reprehensible values. Racists, ethno- and Christian nationalists, and other illiberal extremists have consistently wrapped themselves in the mantle of the Constitution while casting themselves as the compact’s most loyal defenders. For this reason, we cannot afford to take pious invocations of constitutional faith at face value. Jared Goldstein’s seminal study is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand some of the most disturbing currents of contemporary American politics.”

—Ken I. Kersch, professor of political science, Boston College, and author of American Political Thought: An Invitation

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Real Americans: National Identity, Violence, and the Constitution reveals how the Constitution as the central embodiment and common ground of American identity has long been used to promote conflicting versions of American identity and to justify hatred, violence, and exclusion.

About the Author

Jared A. Goldstein is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law, Roger Williams University School of Law.

Additional Titles in the Constitutional Thinking Series