Nationalism was 19th Century Europe’s dominant ideology when Oscar Wilde famously sneered that “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
The post-war progress of liberal democracy made possible a benevolent national loyalty, but if Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their West Wing henchman with their twisted version of “love” for country have their way, patriotism will once again become a disreputable affection. There already is a clear line linking the economic and ethno-nationalist fantasies now infesting the White House with disgraceful events like the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, the firing of a shot into an Indiana synagogue, the cowardly harassment of Jewish community centers and schools across the country and the murderous assault on Indian immigrants in Kansas.
The brand of neo-traditionalism and ethno-nationalism the Trumpniki hope to impose through executive fiat inevitably will become a formula for prejudice, exclusion and communal strife.
When the immune system of liberal democracy is compromised—as it has been by Trump’s Russian-assisted ascendance—the first of the antique evils to reassert itself nearly always is Anti-Semitism.
Tuesday, Trump broadly hinted that the current wave of anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment might, in fact, be the work of this political opponents “trying to make people look bad.” One of his advisors, Anthony Scaramucci, tweeted that the real culprits might be “Democrats.” In a meeting with states’ attorneys general, the president even seemed to muse that the campaign of harassment might be coming from within the Jewish community itself, though he offered neither proof nor a purported motive.
A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said the organization, which combats all forms of bigotry, was “astonished” by the chief executive’s speculations and demanded that he “clarify them.” Trump made a pro forma denunciation of anti-Semitism and other bigotries in Tuesday night’s congressional address, but still has refused to acknowledge that it was the tone of his campaign and, now, the substance of his administration that has given the bigots “permission” to scuttle from beneath their rocks.
Trump, as I’ve noted in earlier essays, has no ideas of his own. He is a malignant narcissist ruled by impulse and appetite whose insatiable ego reduces every relationship—including the international ones currently in his charge—to a crude struggle for dominance. Superior and inferior are the only categories he recognizes; there are only winners and losers in his zero-sum universe and the hungry maw of his perpetually unsatisfied ego requires that he always imagine himself among the former.
For his part, Bannon has more than enough bile to pour into a presidential vessel empty of all but self-regard. The former Breitbart warlord is that most malevolent of creatures—an angrily resentful ideologue, self-educated from airport newsstand reading and a grab bag of crackpot European traditionalist sources. As George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, put it in a recent column for the Washington Post, “As the ideologist in Trump’s inner circle, Bannon is a practitioner of Newt Gingrich’s mystic arts. Take some partially valid insight at the crossroads of pop economics, pop history and pop psychology; declare it an inexorable world-historic force; and, by implication, take credit for being the only one who sees the inner workings of reality.”
There was a chilling inkling of what that means in governmental terms in Bannon’s recent talk to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “The center core of what we believe,” he said, “is that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being, Rule of law is going to exist when you talk about our sovereignty and you talk about immigration,” he added.
Bannon’s vision of the true American culture is wholly reactionary, a country in which power rightly resides in the hands of white, mostly Christian men and in which women and minority people understand their place—a subservient one. His version of nationalism, which he shares with Trump speech writer Stephen Miller and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, rests on two deeply flawed pillars: The merely shortsighted one is economic, a rejection of free trade and an integrated global economy anchored in the sort of protectionism that gave rise to the Smoot Hawley Tariff and dramatically exacerbated the Great Depression.
Just for the record, while it is unforgivably true that neither Democratic nor Republican administrations ever have done enough to assist the manufacturing workers displaced by free trade competition, they are a relatively small number when compared with the overwhelming majority of Americans who have benefited economically from globalization and agreements like NAFTA. Moreover, if you look beyond our borders, the most reliable estimates are that more than 1 billion people around the world have escaped poverty as the result of the past two decades’ expansion of free trade. To dismiss that as inconsequential, you have to believe that “beggar-your-neighbor” is sound economic and foreign policy.
The other pillar of Trump/Bannon nationalism, the truly sinister one, involves a dystopian view of demographic change and an obsession with rolling it back. Sessions and his former aide Miller have called the current levels of both legal and undocumented immigration “dangerous” and a prescription for perilous “radical change.” Sessions has spoken admiringly of the of the restrictive immigration act of 1924, which barred nearly all Asian immigration and severely restricted Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Bannon has decried even highly skilled immigration from South Asia, grousing—falsely, as it happens—that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEO’s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or Asia. A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
I’ll leave it to you to figure out why the president’s “chief strategist” believes successful high-tech entrepreneurs and executives from India are a threat to America’s “civic society.” You get extra points, if your first guess is “it’s because they’re not Christian Caucasians.”
Sinclair Lewis, who saw deeply into this country’s soul, once said that, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” In her magisterial work on the origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt—one of the immigrants Session’s admired 1924 act would have excluded—wrote that “Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people are surrounded by ‘a world of enemies’ – ‘one against all’ – and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.”
When traditionalists and nationalists of the Bannon/Miller/Sessions ilk begin to delineate who exactly they mean by “the people” in whose name they claim to act as “populists,” it always comes around to Jews. Josh Marshall, whose talkingpointsmemo.com becomes increasingly indispensable, spoke to that fact with pointed eloquence this week: “Antisemitism is almost inevitably and almost always part of rightist political movements,” he wrote. “It is not always that way at first, but eventually it is always there. That is the case with Trumpism.
“There are various theoretical reasons why this might be so. The most obvious is that rightist politics usually base themselves on cultural, racial or religious purity and unity. This makes Jews outsiders by definition. These rightist movements are also generally looking for outsiders to define themselves against and to pivot against. But these theories matter less than history. Why this is so is much less important than a lengthy historical record which demonstrates that it is so. . .
“When outsiders are targeted it may start with Muslims or South Asians or Hispanics. But it comes around to Jews, almost as predictably as night follows day. . .We are of course seeing arguments now about whether this outbreak of anti-Semitic agitation is tied to Donald Trump. Republicans and Trump supporters who deny the connection don’t really believe what they are saying. It is obvious that they are connected. We’ve never seen anything like this in decades. Are the KKK and anti-Semitic white nationalist groups really just confused when they say that Trump is the best thing that has happened to their groups in decades? Are we supposed to ignore that the President’s top advisor has clear ties to all of these groups and has spent years bringing them to greater prominence?”
In his Tuesday address, Trump once again exaggerated America’s crime rates and slandered immigrants as violent criminals. In fact, indisputable statistics show that all newcomers—whether with or without papers—commit fewer crimes of every kind than native born Americans. Both Trump and sessions have alluded darkly to dramatic increases in the murder and violent crime rates, when, in fact, the incidence of both remains at historic lows.
It is true that a handful of major cities—notably Baltimore and Chicago—have seen killings climb, but in those and every other case the bloodshed, almost entirely committed with firearms, is occurring where the same conditions persist: gang-related strife among unemployed and poor young African American men and dysfunctional community relationships with unreformed police departments. (Like immigration and voting rights, police reform is something else Sessions disdains.) None of these factors has the slightest thing to do with immigration, but that never seems to stop Trump from vilifying hard-working newcomers essential to our economic health.
It’s the nationalist hunger for “the other” to exclude and demonize, and without such imaginary enemies—who inevitably will include Jews—America cannot be remade as Bannon and his cabal of alt-right social saboteurs envision.
I’m not sure precisely what Bannon means when he speaks of a “civic society” and I’m certain I would be appalled by it, if I did. I do know that the long history of liberal democracy has provided this country with a vibrant civil society and its institutions and voluntary associations—like the ADL and others—already are pushing back against Trump’s ethno-nationalist putsch.
We may continue to be able to nod in agreement with no less a patriot of liberal democracy than Charles De Gaulle, who declared, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hatred for people other than your own comes first.”
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