By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions and tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled “good” or “bad.”—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945)
On Monday night, Donald Trump shoved the nationalist needle into the veins of millions of his followers, and slammed the plunger home. He finally said what we’ve known all along: He’s a nationalist.
He sent a signal to his alt-right allies that it’s time to rally to his side once again, just ahead of the midterm elections. It was one more knife into the moldering corpse of the GOP, which with every Trump rally has looked more and more like some clapped-out third-world claque of the Glorious Leader’s sycophants, and less like a modern political institution.
By the time the rally was over, David Duke was praising Donald Trump, delighted to hear the sound of a whistle that deafened every dog within a thousand miles. For the Tiki-Torch-and-Polo-Shirt Mafia, it was like finally having sex with a live, uncompensated human female.
Even for a president who loves to disrupt traditional institutions, boundaries, and national mores, Trump’s full and open embrace of nationalism Monday night crossed a bright new line. We’ll likely read about Oct. 22, 2018, in our history books, for as much as Trump has consistently acted like a 70-year-old Queens racist with authoritarian statist leanings clad in nationalist rhetoric, last night was the first time the word escaped his blubbery lips, his quivering seven-pound chin-sack swaying to the roar of a Texas crowd of worshippers.
After two years of Trump’s shock politics, many Americans have long since despaired that this president has neither the intention nor the ability to honor the fundamental traditions of our Republic. That's why many are already writing off or normalizing his latest statement as just another example of his impulsive verbal dysentery.
That could be a fatal mistake for America as we’ve known it. The moment the first American president of the modern era embraced nationalism shouldn’t just prick your conscience, it ought to set every alarm bell inside of your head ringing.
At its least threatening, nationalism is a lazy shortcut for patriotism, a slacker’s version of boob-bait populist rally-round-the-flag Lee Greenwoodism. Trump’s nationalism isn’t the benign rah-rah variety. Oh, no; Trump’s version isn’t that weak sauce.
The newly self-declared nationalist is influenced and advised by people like alt-right thought leader Steve Bannon, who since his disgrace and banishment from American politics has been driving around Europe in a rusted-out serial killer van rallying pseudo-, neo- and crypto-Nazis to his banner.
And Trump is still surrounded by people like Stephen Miller who bring overtly racialized policymaking to the forefront every day. If the so-called caravan was 17,000 lily-white Canadians marching toward our northern border, the commander-in-chief wouldn’t be screaming about the Maple Peril. As it is, Miller is rubbing his bony hands together while visions of traumatized children separated from their parents dance in his head.
From the very beginning, Trump’s nationalist politics reflected a deep, abiding racial and ethnic animus. Trump’s raging barn-fire hatred of Hispanic immigrants and refugees reached a dehumanizing endpoint this spring with kids in cages and a deliberate theater-of-cruelty family separation policy, to say nothing of the moment of national shame when he equated the alt-right terrorist murderers in Charlottesville with the protesters there to stand against them. Trump’s attack on Humayun Khan and his family before that were overtly based on their faith and ethnicity. Nationalism resolves down to ethnicity, time and again.
Our Founders built a robust system, flawed as it was on the matter of slavery, that created our propositional nation. We’re not a volk. We’re not a rodina. We’re not a race or a single tribe. Our constitutional example wasn't tuned to one ethnic heritage.
As for conservatism, its adherents had long argued that its tenets transcended mere nationalist impulses. Free markets and individual liberty were universal principles that went beyond race and national origin. Too many supposed conservatives have already abandoned centuries of principle for moments of Trump’s ephemeral approval.
It isn’t feckless, PC social justice-warrior hand-wringing to remind you how dangerous nationalism is as a tool in the hands of those who believe racial identity defines a nation. The 20th century is replete with examples where nationalism slips down a long, bloody trough to violence, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
In some ways, however, Trump’s just acknowledging the reality of himself as a nationalist warlord. He fails every single test as a civic and political leader, so why not go straight to the fancy uniforms and missile parade?
Orwell, who nailed nationalism to the wall, wrote this in the post-World War II era: “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.”
Sound familiar? It should. Trump’s two years of twisting truth after truth past each one’s breaking point have led to a trillion pixels spilled calling out his serial deceptions out, with so far zero political consequences.
Nationalist leaders frame themselves as singular warriors in an existential fight for the survival of the country. They aggrandize themselves in ways familiar to even the most casual observer of Trumpish self-fellation. There’s a reason that “I alone can fix it” sounds like a cut from The Authoritarians’ greatest hits album.
This is a very old story, told in rallies to an audience tuned to a daily blast of propaganda designed to stoke the deepest fears and resentments of the disaffected, the resentful, and the shallow. It’s a story where the wicked “they” have suppressed and insulted the working volk. “They” have a different face in every iteration of this grim dirge. Sometimes, they’re Tutsi. Sometimes, they’re the educated class. Sometimes, they’re Jews.
You’ll hear the catalog of excuses until the last. “It’s just Trump being Trump.” “Take him seriously, not literally.” “It’s just part of the show.”
It’s not just the leaders of nationalist campaigns who change from small-d democrats or small-r republicans. Their followers change, and history tells us they change swiftly. Civilized, educated, urbane Germans slipped swiftly into a darker, deadlier mode in a few short years.
Nationalism deafens its adherents to appeals to the better angels of our nature. Nationalism excuses their hatreds, their resentments, and ultimately their violence… and that violence is the almost inevitable endpoint of most successful nationalist movements in the last hundred years.