The cold wind of intolerance, authoritarianism, and nationalism is blowing across America and Europe. The unexpected rise of Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee in the United States and the recent political stirrings in Europe are oddly built of the same cloth. Intolerance of non-citizens, the belief that present governments have subordinated their countries best interests for outsiders, and the need for new leaders, whose view of their countries best interests seems to call for an upending of the joint efforts to build a collective defense system like NATO and an economic union like the EU. They are united in their belief that each individual country should do what’s best for their sovereignty, rather than build co-operative relations between countries.
—HuffPost, December 6, 2017
When Donald Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again!” he was echoing the campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Back then voters sought renewal after the failures of the Carter presidency. This month they elected Mr. Trump because he, too, promised them a “historic once-in-a-lifetime” change.
But there is a difference. On the eve of the vote, Reagan described America as a shining “city on a hill.” Listing all that America could contribute to keep the world safe, he dreamed of a country that “is not turned inward, but outward—toward others.” Mr. Trump, by contrast, has sworn to put America First. Demanding respect from a freeloading world that takes leaders in Washington for fools, he says he will “no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” Reagan’s America was optimistic: Mr. Trump’s is angry.
—The Economist, November 19, 2016
Nationalism is on the rise across the world. From Trump’s victory in 2016 to Brexit to Neo-Nazi resurgence in Germany to anti-immigrant politicians gaining power in Italy, Turkey, Greece and other nations, we are seeing a new wave of nationalism, the strongest since Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1920s. In a rally in Houston in 2018, Trump said, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!” At the same rally, he denounced those who disagree with him. “Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock” to restore the “rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists. You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.”
As many pundits and presidential historians have noted, Donald Trump is the most divisive president in recent memory. He rose to power and maintains it by railing against those he sees as “evil others”: immigrants, liberals, Democrats, members of the so-called “deep state.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Although Trump equates his brand of nationalism with patriotism, and he often wraps himself in the American flag and clothes his rallies in the stars and stripes, the dictionary says that patriotism, while emphasizing strong feelings for one’s country, “does not necessarily imply an attitude of superiority.”
The Evil Others
There is nothing wrong with having pride in one’s country, of course, but nationalism, unlike patriotism, veers toward an identity of exclusivity that leads nationalists to invent “evil others.” For there to be an “us,” which nationalists value above all, there must be a “them,” others who are “not us,” who are different because they don’t share the nationalists’ heritage, birthrights, ethnicity, norms, values, or other aspects of their national identity. When the people who share this national identity feel threatened or disenfranchised, it is easy to blame the “evil others” for their woes, and those others become excluded, feared, hated, and possibly repressed, outlawed, and exterminated.
Following a humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany faced burdensome war reparation payments and rampant inflation, which left ordinary Germans scrambling to survive. The German government was inept, and communists were agitating for a socialist revolution. Those circumstances opened the door for nationalist agitator Dietrich Eckart, his acolyte and successor Adolf Hitler, and their National Socialist Workers Party. Hitler understood the mood of the nation and stepped in promising to “make Germany great again.” He appealed to national pride and blamed Germany’s woes on its traditional enemies (Britain and France), on the communists, and, increasingly, on the Jews. He found populist footing with his master race identity card and gained power by promising to restore Germany to its former glory.
As Hitler’s power grew, German politicians who might have opposed him were silenced by the fervor of his supporters, particularly those in the SA, the Nazi paramilitary arm, and an improving economy. As the world emerged from a general depression in the early 1930s, the German economy improved. Ordinary Germans were able to find jobs and feed their families, and they felt renewed pride in their German identity. The foundation of Hitler’s rise to power was his ability to capitalize on the grievances of common people during a period of social stress and to blame Germany’s problems on enemies outside Aryan racial identity. When he’d gained enough power to subvert Germany’s legal systems and not be challenged by the populace, he was able to take the next logical step—to purge the German nation (and then other nations) of undesirables (Jews, gypsies, communists, the mentally ill or infirm, and others he and his regime considered subhuman).
Nationalism is not inherently extremist, but when it is leavened by fear, resentment, and hate, it can twist violently to the right. Movements to the left can be equally dangerous—witness the
purges by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Radical political swings to either extreme can yield polarization, hatred of the other, and societal acquiescence toward or participation in the elimination of perceived threats to the prevailing body politic. When the dominant ideology in a state supplants the state, and when opposition to extremist rhetoric is silenced or suppressed, then the unthinkable can become thinkable as the norms that have governed moral and political right and wrong are perverted, and the new normal permits action against minorities or others who oppose the leader.
To be sure, every society includes a full spectrum of people who support the nationalist leader, on the one hand, or oppose that leader on the other. Most people fall in the vast middle of the bell curve. They are just trying to live their lives, go to work, raise their children, and pursue their version of happiness. They have no strong political leanings or they don’t care enough, in normal circumstances, to become involved. Given the opportunity, they will remain apolitical so long as their lives are essentially okay. But nationalist drum banging and patriotic rhetoric (“Make American Great Again!”) can bleed the vast center and enjoin those middle-of-the-roaders, primarily the working class, in a movement to the right if the nationalist leader can persuade them that the threats he rails against are real (immigrants will take your jobs, liberals will allow criminals to roam the streets, other nations will cheat us or not pay their fair share for the common defense, climate change zealots will destroy industries like coal, Democrats will weaken our national defense, and so on).
The danger of Trumpian conservatism comes not from the arch conservatives who support him because he will help them achieve their goals, no matter how repugnant they find the man personally. The danger comes from the right-leaning middle who are inclined to believe the propaganda Trump spouts because they are concerned about their jobs, don’t perceive a brighter future for their children, or fear that immigrants and ethnic minorities will pervert their national identity. White nationalists are especially fearful that immigrants and minorities will gain political clout as their numbers grow and will fundamentally change the way the nation looks, feels, and votes. The malcontents of nationalism are the people from the vast middle who’ve taken MAGA to heart and support Trump despite his lies, boorish behavior, brazen attacks on opponents, and conspicuous displays of wealth and privilege, even as he proclaims himself the friend of working Americans.
Trump has steered these malcontents to the right by polarizing the country, wrapping his racism and nationalism is the flag of patriotism, and demonizing everyone who disagrees with him or points out his lies (hence, his relentless attacks on mainstream media, whom he calls “the enemy of the people”). Trump’s brand of nationalism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but he understands that those who’ve bought his nationalist rhetoric aren’t up to scrutinizing him. He has them in his pocket, just as Hitler had a growing percentage of average Germans in his pocket as he fervently spoke about the “evil others” who were keeping Germany down.
German nationalism in the 1920s and 30s should not be seen as an aberration but as a warning. Don’t imagine that it couldn’t happen in America. Already, the vast majority of hate-driven crimes since Trump’s election has been right-wing violence. Anti-Semitic and racial animus are on the rise. Hate speech is growing. Increasingly, there is a divide between “us” and “them,” driven largely by Trump’ divisive rhetoric. Trump is stirring the pot of malcontent, and he’s doing it for the basest of reasons: to stay in power. Trump has not been able to organize violence against his enemies, but he’s attempted it, notably in his rallies when he’ encouraged supporters to beat up protestors. Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote, “The President of the United States openly identifies himself as a nationalist, calls for the jailing of his political opponents, attacks the press & cozies up to dictators, while Republicans in Congress stand idly by.”
Trump’s brand of nationalism, aided and abetted by his malcontents and Congressional Republicans who appease them, has not yet become full-scale demagogy and violent nationalism, but it has that potential.
Nationalism in the Age of Covid-19
On March 23, 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump tweeted: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!” As the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating in our country, his instinct is to protect America by keeping the Evil Others outside. Secure our borders! Build walls! Allow no intruders to get in! Isolate the country from the rest of the world!
Except this intruder, a virus so small it can’t even be seen in detail under a microscope, is incredibly infectious and would have gotten into our country no matter how strong our borders were or how high the walls. To have prevented Covid-19 from reaching us, Trump would have had to seal the borders the moment the virus emerged, not months later. He would have had to stop all travel into and out of the country and suspend all trade—an obviously impossible feat even for a president as grandiose in his puffery as Donald Trump.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the march of Trumpian nationalism by exposing the folly of Fortress America. The virus respects no boundaries or walls and is an insidious, unseen enemy. Trump has been trying to label it the “Chinese virus” and thus blame an “other” for a national crisis that is exposing his failings as a leader, but as the numbers of infected and dead rise, it’s clear to everyone, even FOX News, that the “Us versus Them” strategy Trump relies on to rally his base is ringing hollow in the face of a global disease.
In the fight against this pandemic, battle lines can’t be drawn between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, or immigrants and America-born citizens. We are all in this together. To win the fight, people from every part of the human and political spectrum must cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice across the board. So, for the moment, Trump’s polarization has been swept away by the rising tide of the infection and its impacts on the healthcare system, food and medical supply chains, and the stock market. When we emerge from this crisis, we will likely see a very different country, and Trump’s nationalism will only triumph if he can convince the survivors that to prevent further pandemics we need to build higher walls, keep more people out of the country, and treat immigrants, particularly illegals, as mortal enemies.
It’s difficult to imagine at this point how Trump will later try to spin the Covid-19 pandemic so that it’s the Democrats’ fault or a failing of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Trump is at the helm of the federal government, and his ship has been foundering as the crisis deepens. He is trying now to re-write history and present himself as fully in command of this crisis, but his earlier dismissals of Covid-19 and its seriousness are on tape and will no doubt be replayed—as they should be—when the election nears. No nationalist, no matter how grand his boasts or how loudly he tries to reshape history, can outrun a silent, unseen menace that has no regard for politics or respect for politicians.
To promote his brand of nationalism, Trump needs enemies, and with the presidential election coming in November, he will surely try to lay the blame on the Democrats. To win, Donald Trump needs his loyal base, his mass of malcontents, his true believers, who numbly agree when a FOX spokesman declares that the coronavirus epidemic is “a Democratic hoax,” as Sean Hannity did just a few weeks ago. Trump needs his malcontents to believe in the dream and the lie of Fortress America and to believe that all their grievances lie at the hands of Evil Others whom, they claim, are less patriotic and less righteous than they. Trump thrives on division, not unity, and that will not serve him well as Covid-19 continues its unbiased devastation of people, our medical system, and the economy.
Nationalists like Hitler and Trump don’t need truth on their side as long as they have supporters whose grievances make them gullible. They just need a well-oiled propaganda machine, which Trump has, and media outlets like FOX and Twitter available to trumpet their messages. And they need a mass of malcontents who are willing to believe that the world really is an “Us versus Them” struggle and that the people the leader identifies as enemies—Jews, communists, Democrats, liberals, the Deep State, the mainstream press, immigrants—are to blame for all of their woes and are mortal threats to their national identity.
Photo credits: Nazi flagbearers: Everett Historical @Shutterstock.com; Trump rally: Shot Stalker @ Shutterstock.com; elephant punching donkey: Susilo Hidayatk @ Shutterstock.com; boy behind metal fence: tcareob72 @ Shutterstock.com; Coronavirus: ID 174295771 © Buddhilakshan4 | Dreamstime.com