February 8, 2017
When and if fascism comes to America, … it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.
–Halford E. Luccock, 1938
For the first time in US history, the country has a president and an administration that is being openly called “fascist”. Whether the term is appropriate or not, as of February 2017, depends on your definition of fascism. What everyone agrees on, however, is the role that nationalism plays in fascism, in particular the ethnic nationalism that is familiar from Nazism. In this respect, no one doubts that Trump and his appointees qualify as fascists. Trump’s campaign slogan, “make America great again”, in combination with his comments about Muslims, African Americans, Mexicans, and immigrants, have inspired an unprecedented rise in racist language and actions, before and after the election. Following one of these incidents, when two men beat up and urinated on a homeless Latino man, Trump replied, “The people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again.”
Of course “America” has figured in the slogans of many other presidential candidates in US history, representing different political parties, and this country’s supposed greatness and exceptional status are invoked all the time in the speeches of US politicians. To take a recent example, Michelle Obama told the delegates to the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.” As in Trump’s inaugural address, the nine previous ones all ended with variants of that most arrogant of nationalist slogans: “God bless America”. Indeed, within mainstream political discourse, nationalism (usually called “patriotism”) is treated as a prerequisite to being taken seriously. So on the right end of the mainstream it’s legitimate to accuse someone such as Barack Obama of not “loving America”, and on the left end people defend protest or dissent or peace as “patriotic”; it’s apparently love of country that motivates them to challenge the system in one way or another.
But if we are to believe National Review editor, Rich Lowry, nationalism has a special prominence in the “culture war” that Trump is leading: “Trump’s culture war is fundamentally the people versus the elite, national sovereignty versus cosmopolitanism, and patriotism versus multiculturalism”. Of course it’s not just culture that’s at stake in this war; the Trump Administration threatens the basic rights that Americans take for granted, the security of entire sub-populations, in fact the well-being of the whole planet. If the anti-Trump forces are to win this war, apparently Trump’s nationalism must be challenged in one way or another, either through a different variety or a rejection of nationalism altogether.
Nationalism is not unique to the USA of course, but it’s worth looking more closely at what we might call “orthodox US nationalism”, the relationship between citizen and country that permeates the education system, the mainstream news, marketing, and popular culture, as well as the speeches of politicians. Not surprisingly, US nationalism shares a lot with the nationalisms of imperialist countries throughout history, as opposed to less dangerous varieties characteristic of small countries with little power over others. What are some of its characteristics?
- It rests on myths and half-truths concerning US history and on the elevation of particular people (such as George Washington) and particular idealized characters (such as the settler) to the status of heroes. Protest, as long as it stays within certain norms, is a legitimate part of the story (after all, “protest is patriotic”), so figures like Susan B. Anthony, César Chávez, and Martin Luther King may be treated as heroes, while others, such as John Brown, Eugene V. Debs, and Malcolm X, are either marginalized or demonized.
- A set of values, varying with the period and the writer, is characterized as “American”, and anyone who opposes them may be attacked as “un-American”. On November 18, 2016, for example, Michael Winship published an article on the liberal website Common Dreams describing the hate crimes since the election and Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon to the White House as “un-American”, without explaining what that meant.
- US nationalism creates the illusion that there is something called “the American people” that can benefit from or be united around particular policies, when in reality almost all policies of the federal government have differential effects on different classes or different ethnic groups. “We” are also expected believe that these policies are in some sense “ours”, as when “we” finally caught up with Osama bin Laden or one or “our” planes was shot down over Afghanistan.
- US nationalism asserts the superiority of this country to all others, not only today, but throughout history. This exceptionalism is a feature that tends to characterize the nationalisms of empires. For some US nationalists, the “greatness” may have been temporarily interrupted. We see this not only in Trump’s or Reagan’s “make America great again” but in the way liberals bemoan the loss of the “democracy” we supposedly had before Bush or Reagan or Citizens United.
- From this special sort of greatness follows the USA’s unique responsibility as the “leader of the Free World”, the defender of freedoms everywhere. Again this has parallels in the nationalisms of earlier empires, especially in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of imperial Japan in the early 1940s.
- US nationalism is strongly associated with the glorification of the military, a military whose size and reach are in part justified by the USA’s special mission within the world. Powerful militaries have of course been indispensable to empires throughout history; without them there would have been no empires.
These ideas, memes, and ways of thinking are so ingrained in the cultural and political life of the country that they are rarely questioned. Is Trump’s variant any different?
Trump’s inaugural address is full of invocations of patriotism and the glorification of the military and the police. In this speech and on the White House website, the slogan is clear: “America first”. Like “make America great again”, “America first” may not shock many people. But let’s consider what these phrases translate into.
- In the realm of energy, “America first” means “energy independence”, a familiar slogan from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, when progressive energy/climate policy reforms were usually offset by concessions to the fossil fuel industry, an “all-of-the-above” approach. “Energy independence” for the Trump administration means unrestricted fracking of shale oil and natural gas, coal mining, and pipeline construction, with all of the dangers these industries hold for the future of the world, as well as for the people on site.
- Combined with Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, both slogans bring back troubling memories of Nazism in the Weimar Republic, when the “alt-right” of that era blamed Jews and Communists for the nation’s defeat in World War I, eventually claiming that these enemies would need to be eliminated to make Germany “great again”. Fascism seems right around the corner, if not already here, though it is difficult to know what we should be expecting. Greatly enhanced surveillance (taking advantage of what was conveniently put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations)? Criminalization of all protest? Mass arrests of activists? Here’s one chilling set of predictions from Yonatan Zunger.
- As in Nazi Germany, “greatness” for the new administration means “winning” wars again, and this in turn means massive expansion of the US military, already by any measure the world’s most powerful, as well as the threat of dangerous new wars with countries like Iran and even China. And the man behind the curtain, Stephen Bannon, seems to relish the thought of new wars.
In an article written soon after the election, Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra put Trump’s rise in the context of the global consolidation of the power of the far right, arguing, among other points, that the struggle against these trends needs to reinvigorate the alter-globalization movement of the 1990s and 2000s. Hardt and Mezzadra warn against the dangers and the futility of “affirming national boundaries and national sovereignty” as a part of this fight. For these writers, then, challenging Trump, like challenging Marine le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, is not a matter of creating a kindler, gentler nationalism but rather rejecting nationalism altogether.
An unpatriotic alternative
The day after Trump was inaugurated, people in hundreds of cities across the USA participated in Women’s Marches, taking the lead of the organizers of the march in Washington, DC. This was apparently the largest protest in US history and therefore certainly included many people who had never participated in protests before. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues that this protest could mark the beginning of a united front between radicals and liberals in a situation in which “there are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything.” Among the speeches at the Washington march, one thing was noticeably missing, and this was picked up by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. While not happy with Trump’s “backward-looking brutalistic nationalism”, it has the “coherent vision” that he finds missing in the Women’s March. What he hoped for was a “better nationalism”, one “that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality”.
In fact, as far as I could tell, the Women’s March offered no nationalism at all, to its credit, and if millions are now “questioning everything”, perhaps US patriotism is on the list. Consider what happened in August 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to not stand during the playing of the national anthem, to protest a “country that oppresses black people”. Although his actions generated plenty of opposition, they also led to similar actions in other sports and among college and high school athletes.
Brooks is right about one thing: the new anti-Trump coalition that is emerging does need its own vision. But rather than a nationalistic vision that plays into the hands of the proto-fascists, we need one that replaces allegiance to country with allegiances that make more political sense, both smaller and larger ones. Building on the growing worldwide right-to-the-city and municipalist movements, allegiance to our neighborhoods and cities. Building on the alter-globalization movement of the early 2000s, still to be seen at World Social Forums, and the growing global climate and food justice movements, allegiance to the communities everywhere that are victims of the economic and political system that gave us Trump and that can only get much worse under him. All of these movements are negative in their opposition to this system, but at the same time positive in their creation of local alternatives to it.
Questioning US nationalism will not be easy for a lot of people. Alongside a rejection of the symbols and the language, it means above all re-visiting the history of the USA, confronting the slavery, the colonialism, and the imperialism behind US power, an economic and political system dominated by a class of parasites like the new president. The search for “greatness” in this history leads inevitably to the many Americans who have fought one or another aspect of this system over the years, winning the reforms that are now being threatened by the Trump Administration. The fact is that “America was never great”, and rather than trying to return to some mythical past, we should be working toward a future USA that really embodies the values of justice, inclusivity, and sustainability that unite us in our opposition to Trump.