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MOVIE STILL -- John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" (1969). Credit: Paramount Pictures Originally published April 4, 1970.

Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Defending the right of U.S. citizens to buy semi-automatic rifles or carry concealed weapons is akin to denying any human responsibility for climate change. Rational arguments are not the point. No matter how many schoolchildren are gunned down or what the scientific evidence may be for the effects of carbon-dioxide emissions, people will not change beliefs that define their identity.

It follows, then, that the more liberals agitate for ways to control the sale of guns to civilians, the harder proponents of the right to own lethal weapons will fight back. They will often do so with the zeal of religious believers who feel that their God has been offended.

Collective identities have a history, of course. The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, was adopted in 1791, when citizens who had rebelled against the British monarchy thought they needed to protect themselves, if called upon, against an oppressive state. Interpretation of this amendment has been contested terrain, but the original idea was that citizen militias should be armed.

For many Americans this collective entitlement became akin to a God-given individual right. Demagogues have had great success pitting such people against coastal and urban elites who supposedly want to strip them of this right. The fear that demagogues exploit is rooted in more than a shared taste for hunting, or a notion of self-defence. It is about who people think they are. Take away their gun rights, and they would feel culturally and socially annihilated.

But if this is the core of many Americans’ identity, it points to an odd contradiction in their national self-image. The Second Amendment is, of course, a legal concept. In a way, that is true of the United States itself. As a country of immigrants, the United States is not based on shared ancestry or culture. It is based on laws – the only way a people from so many different cultural backgrounds could be bound together in a common enterprise.

No wonder, then, that there are so many lawyers in the United States, and if the country can be said to have a civic religion, the Constitution is its holy writ. And that is precisely how conservatives treat the foundational laws, including the Second Amendment.

At the same time, however, many Americans cherish national myths, no less foundational in their way, which are in direct opposition to the idea of a country of laws. In classical Westerns, the true hero is the rugged gunslinger, the outlaw who knows right from wrong in his gut. John Wayne arrives to save the citizens from the bad guys in black suits whose nefarious deeds undermine the liberty of the frontier.

But who are those villains dressed in black? They are bankers, lawyers, businessmen and railroad builders, often representing the interests of powerful figures in the big cities on the East Coast. They come from a world of contracts, treaties and big government.

The story of most Westerns is of a wide-open rural idyll threatened by a state ruled by man-made laws. The only laws the Western hero respects are those laid down by God and his own conscience. And he badly needs his gun to defend them.

The problem with the American myth is that this rural idyll of perfect individual liberty, this state of nature, as it were, cannot possibly be maintained in a highly organized state of banks, courts, business corporations and legislatures. The Second Amendment is a sop to the myth, disguised by the fact that it is also encoded as law.

Ronald Reagan understood the mythical yearning of many Americans better than most presidents. When he famously proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is our problem,” he was talking like a gunslinger.

In a far coarser and more belligerent way, Donald Trump has followed Mr. Reagan’s example. In fact, he really is a kind of outlaw, with no use for norms of civility in government. In many ways, Mr. Trump has managed to combine the habits of a desperado with the interests of the men dressed in black suits. Mr. Trump is a New York hustler who can tap into the fears of gun-lovers. If the United States is riven by an escalating culture war over its national identity, Mr. Trump has the uncanny ability of personifying the worst aspects of both sides of the divide.

To overcome the dangerous fissures that are tearing its society apart, Americans must find a president who can bridge the cultural divide. Alas, it could not have chosen a man less suited to the task.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018

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