Sarah Huckabee Sanders will become the first woman governor of Arkansas after winning Tuesday’s election. She takes office in January. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders is almost certainly going to be the next governor of Arkansas. Yet her bid for office has been marked almost entirely by appeals to issues of primarily national concern.
Arkansas is often difficult to locate among her talking points. Immigration and national identity, on the other hand, turn up in nearly every sound bite. Running here, in a deep red state that ranks in the 2020 census as one of the least diverse in the South and a 2016 Pew survey found to be the 5th most religious, Sanders is waging a campaign focused on enemies without and within.
Arkansas has no international border, and it’s a roughly 10-hour drive from Texarkana to the US-Mexico border at Brownsville, Texas. Nevertheless, Sanders has focused many of her media appearances and press releases on the border issue. In April, she bemoaned the Biden Administration’s “open” border policy. Just this week, she went on television to attack Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman as emblematic of a leftward lurch in the Democratic Party, citing the American people’s dissatisfaction with “absolute turmoil on our southern border.”
But Sanders is not just attempting to firm up the boundary around who gets to enter the United States. She is also, like so much of her party, drawing clear lines between who is and isn’t sufficiently pro-American among its citizenry.
Speaking this April in Youngstown, Ohio, Sanders proclaimed the American Dream under assault from a “radical left” determined to destroy it, noting, “The contrasts have never been so clear … Literally everything we love about America is on the line.”
It is difficult to read comments in which Sanders pledged to defend Arkansas and “our people” from a radical left in Washington as anything other than a suggestion that there is another, separate people against whom her group is set.
Nationalism has always been a question of internal and not just external boundaries. Who is and isn’t a full and deserving member of the nation has long been a realm of political and philosophical conflict. And the Sanders approach of running a campaign purely on hot-button cultural issues is about more than a cynical attempt to maintain a national profile. It comes down to an all-consuming attempt to police membership in the American community, both in terms of foreign immigrants and those deemed too heterodox in their views to warrant the respect of mutually shared citizenship.
The distinctions can become slippery here, which is all to the advantage of extreme nationalists. I am reminded of the much-criticized statement by commentator Candace Owens that Hitler wasn’t a nationalist because he put German Jews into concentration camps. But national identity is a weapon that can be wielded even against those already within the boundaries of border and citizenship. Hitler demarcated Jews as un-German, as other.
In the United States, it took the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to establish the foundation for the rights of America’s newly freed slaves. It formally enshrines birthright citizenship in the Constitution, a precedent many of the more radical right have taken issue with ever since—including Mike Huckabee, Sanders’ father.
The Fourteenth Amendment was essential precisely because the tradition of American nationalism up to that point made little room for non-Whites. In fact, the enslaved population was not merely subjugated but feared as a lurking threat to the country in which they were subjugated. In Virginia, as historian Alan Taylor has written, the slaveholders of the Chesapeake viewed their slave population as “an internal enemy.”
For a more modern example, we can look to the excesses of McCarthyism and the Red Scare during the Cold War and the ways in which supposed communist “sympathies” were weaponized against reformers and activists.
This divisive logic is easily laid bare — if perhaps turned on its head — in Sanders’ many comments about “the radical left.” Speaking in Arkansas back in January, she warned that this menace, armed with socialism and cancel culture, “will only divide and destroy us.”
For her part, Sanders has not shied away from the fact that she is nationalizing her race for the governor’s mansion. And her highly combative, divisive vision of America politics is clearly shared by many of the Trump-era GOP’s most extreme backers. What Sanders has made clear in her run for office is that she is perfectly willing to exploit the things that separate us from them, on this side of the border and the other.
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