by Tony Wyman
“You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’ You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. … Use that word.” – Pres. Donald Trump
When Mr. Trump used that word in front of an adoring crowd of supporters in Houston, Texas in late-October, he kicked off a controversy two weeks before the midterm elections that had fans praising his patriotism, critics warning that his dictatorial nature was showing, and others wondering if he even knew what the word meant, in the first place.
Former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, took to Twitter, asking, “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant? Honest question.”
Trump critic and reformed Nazi Christian Picciolini felt certain the president knew what he was doing when he used the word anti-fascists see as code. “Just to be clear,” Mr. Picciolini tweeted, “Trump’s ‘I’m a Nationalist’ comment will likely represent the biggest boon for white supremacist recruitment since the film Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan in 1915 and gained the KKK 4 million members by 1925.”
But, in a response to a question by CNN’s Robert Costa, the president himself denied his use of the word was a “dog whistle” targeting the ears of neo-Nazis and other American fascists, claiming he didn’t know the word had racist or chauvinist overtones, and that his use of it was an example of his patriotism. “I love our country, and our country has taken second fiddle,” said Mr. Trump, adding “we’re giving all of our money, all of our wealth to other countries and then they don’t treat us properly.”
Nationalism Vs. Patriotism
Regardless of who is right when it comes to the president’s use of the word, most political scholars agree that nationalism, in its practical application, is very different from patriotism.
George Orwell, author of seminal novels on totalitarianism and the abuse of power, such as 1984 and Animal Farm, wrote in his essay Notes on Nationalism, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.“
It is the last word in Mr. Orwell’s comment that is critical: individuality. A patriot in a free nation retains his individuality, retains his ability to oppose his government when he thinks it does ill, while a nationalist, in the pursuit of as much power as can be accumulated for his country, is willing to sacrifice his individuality if, in doing so, he helps his nation increase its power. He is willing to overlook the ill his nation does if that ill is seen to be necessary to advance his primary aim, the accumulation of national power. It is in this way that nationalism often morphs into collectivism.
How Nationalism becomes Collectivism
Returning again to the aim of the nationalist, to accumulate power for his nation or group at the expense of other nations or groups, it is easy to see how such a person would see the loss of individuality as a minor sacrifice in the pursuit of the larger aim. After all, the fastest way for a country or group to marshall all of its resources to contribute to the goal of maximizing the nation’s power is if all members of the nation are equally committed to the task.
Entities such as the free news media that can reach a mass audience with an unvarnished view of the nationalist’s aims or an opposition party that attacks the nationalist’s ambitions and offers the people an alternative political direction, are great threats to the nationalist’s efforts to unify the people behind his singular goal, the accumulation and advancement of the nation’s power relative to its competitors.
Since the nationalist sees the competition between states as a win-lose proposition – for one state to win, another must lose – he sees opposition to his goals as an effort to benefit other nations at the expense of his own. Rivals, therefore, are not merely members of the loyal opposition, they are, instead, enemies of the state. Seen in this light, as not merely fellow patriots opposed to one of many directions the nation might take, but, rather, as enemies in league with those who wish the nation harm, the nationalist sees his rivals as obstacles that must be removed in whatever way necessary for the greater good of the nation to be realized.
Opposition, therefore, is not seen as patriotic but, rather, as disloyalty to the nation, a crime that must be punished for the good of the nation. Dr. Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College, described nationalism as a “form of in-group/out-group thinking” that makes it easy for those who believe in it to hurt those who are “out.” Nationalism demands the people decide who is in and who is out, who is a true member of the nation and who does not belong. Natives, people of the same race and religion, people who share common ancestry, are typically those who are “in.” Immigrants, racial minorities, those who worship in different religions make up the groups that are “out” and must be purged or, at the least, stripped of rights and political power.
Myth and Nationalism
To gain or maintain political power within a nation, the nationalist must maintain the narrative that his nation is superior to all others. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained in his book “Islam and Nationalism,” nationalist regimes rely on a mythology of its own creation to justify its existence and to demand blind allegiance from the people. This “post-truth politics,” where the power of the story is more important than whether it is true or not, is based on lies designed to appeal to emotions of the populace.
“To glorify itself, Dr. Naqvi wrote, “nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.”
These myths are created to bolster the nationalist’s argument that his people are superior to all others, that, if not for
the malfeasance of those other nations assembled in conspiracy against his, his nation would reign supreme in the world. And while the nationalist may know that the myths upon which he bases his argument contain lies, he rationalizes their existence because he believes, unquestioningly, that the core narrative of his nation’s superiority is fundamentally true. He sees history as proof that his nation is superior to all others, that it is in the ascendency while its rivals are on a downward spiral.
“Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception,” said Mr. Orwell. “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.”
Moral Relativity and the Nationalist
This “indifference to reality,” as Mr. Orwell called the mythology of the nationalist, also promotes moral relativism, the belief that morality is situational and fluid, able to change with the political winds. Out of fealty to their cause, the accumulation of power for their nation, nationalists have the ability to be morally fungible in ways that defy logic. For example, a nationalist might support the right to self-determination for an indigenous people in a rival’s territory if that movement’s success diminished the opponent’s power, while completely opposing a similar demand for autonomy from an oppressed native people in his own country. With no sense of irony, nationalists are quite capable of failing to see the similarities between the two cases, simply because the rights of the oppressed people were never really the nationalist’s concern in the first place. What was really of concern was power.
“Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side,” wrote Mr. Orwell.
The recent case of the murder by Saudi Arabian agents of dissident Jamal Kashoggi is a modern example illustrative of Mr. Orwell’s point. Nationalists, citing the importance of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia, quickly dismissed demands that the U.S. take immediate punitive action against the Kingdom. Henry Biner, an executive with a Boston-based investment firm, summed up the nationalist reaction to Mr. Kashoggi’s murder, dismemberment and the use of acid to dispose of his body, by saying, “One year from now, somebody is going to ask where the revenue is. We’re not going to put our relationships on the line for this.”
Since punishing Saudi Arabia for murdering the father of American citizens didn’t increase American power in the region, considering that taking action on moral grounds against the Kingdom might have lessened American clout in Riyadh, the nationalist response was to do nothing more than slap some Saudi wrists.
Just as the response from the United States to Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in their proxy war with Iran in Yemen was muted because of the importance of our relationship with the oil-rich state, nationalists temper their response to global events based on whether the nations involved are friends or foes.
One of the fundamental human needs is a strong sense of community. Despite our uniqueness as individuals, we all hold within us a strong desire to connect with others who are like us in meaningful ways. In the past, before the invention of social media and modern methods of travel and communication, our community was close by, populated by people who shared a similar view of the world. In modern times, thanks to how easy it is to move about and to communicate with people across the globe, our sense of community is very different than it used to be.
Because our understanding and view of the world is so much broader than it used to be, people have a greater need to find a sense of community outside of the place they live than ever before. Now, the majority of people move many times in their lives, live around all sorts of people, experience things their grandparents who lived in one community the majority of their lives never would have experienced. While such a transient life broadens one’s view of the world and increases the sophistication of the person living it, what is lost in the experience often is a sense of belonging, of being a part of the community.
This desire to feel rooted, of having real membership in a community, is what nationalists exploit. They form separate communities for people how are scattered or disassociated from the places in which they live. They create a narrative of belonging, of membership, of being part of the movement to restore the values that made the nation great, values shared by others like themselves.
The strongest appeal of nationalism is in places where the change by globalization is the happening the fastest. The rise of nationalism in eastern Europe where the influx of Muslim immigrants overwhelmed local governments led to the election of nationalist political leaders at levels not seen since the 1930s. Sweden, a nation not touched by great social upheaval in the past, handed nearly 18% of the vote in September 2018 elections to the Sweden Democrats, the country’s nationalist party, making it the third largest force in the national assembly. Similar results have occurred throughout Europe and one could argue the Republican Party is evolving into a largely nationalist party in the United States.
It is easy to reject nationalism as simply the expression of racism and hatred that too often embodies the expressions of the movement’s worst members. But, if it is to be understood, some attention has to be given to the underlying causes of nationalism’s appeal. The transfigurations in society brought about largely by the influx of immigrants from nations that have cultures that are substantially different that America’s was bound to cause many to look for ways to cope with the changes.
It was perhaps as naive as it was optimistic to think that America would absorb millions of people from South and Latin America, as well as millions from Asian and African nations without some push back. Now, the question is how will we respond? Will we find some way to preserve America’s traditional cultural values without giving in to the nationalist’s ugly nativism? Will we be able to empathise with fellow Americans who see our culture threatened by the social changes taking place in the nation without rolling those changes back to a time when hostility towards foreigners and Americans of color was commonplace? Can we find a solution that honors our national heritage as a melting pot, as a nation of immigrants who bring with them the cultural diversity that makes America unique among its peers?
Perhaps Andrew Sullivan put it best when he wrote:
Nationalism is one response. The answer to it is not globalism, which is as cold as it is remote, but patriotism, that love of country that does not require the loathing of other places or the scapegoating of minorities or a phobia of change, that confident identity that doesn’t seek to run away from the wider world but to engage it, while somehow staying recognizable across the generations.