Trump Declares Himself A Nationalist. What Would Orwell Say?
Fresh off a devastating world war sparked by nationalism, George Orwell wrote an essay on the subject, simply entitled “Notes On Nationalism.” I commend it to your reading, but would like to discuss it as well.
The President has inspired me to bring Orwell’s nearly 75 year old essay by his open declaration that he is a “nationalist” and proud of it. The term fell into disrepute in Orwell’s era because the “NA” in NAZI stood for “nationalist.” The “ZI” was from the German word for socialist. Of course, Trump’s not that. He will claim to be a Nationalist Capitalist.
Trump ignores that the bad part of Nazism was the nationalist part, not the socialist part. There are many benign, peaceful, democratic socialist countries in this world. It was the Nazi belief of national superiority, and the attendant inferiority of others, that made their cause so abhorrent, dangerous and led to the death of tens of millions.
Orwell defines nationalism as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” In other words, as Hitler said (and he really did) “Germany First,” a new American nationalist now says “America First.”
Orwell makes clear that “nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.” Orwell describes patriotism as certainly including the belief that you have the best way of life, but argues it differs from nationalism because patriotism “has no wish to force on other people.” Whereas patriotism is defensive, both militarily and culturally, “the abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.”
You see this concern for power and prestige permeating Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. He is obsessed with making the world “respect” America again. He withdraws from international organizations and treaties that Trump feels limits American power. His first domestic policy priority is building up the military. The aggressive and constant belittlement of others, e.g. “shithole nations” is all understood once you understand the malicious nature of nationalism vs. patriotism. Making America Great is patriotism, when that means making others less it is nationalism.
Orwell writes of three “principal characteristics of nationalist thought” and they are worth reviewing through the filter of current events.
Orwell’s comments in this regard are so powerful, and so on point to our own times, that I am just going to quote the parts I find most compelling to today without further comment.
“As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort . . . All nationalists consider it a duty to spread their own language to the detriment of rival languages.”
By this, Orwell refers to how prior values and views will be subordinated to new values of the culture and personality of nationalism. Old truths will be abandoned and prior lies will be accepted as true. “A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval.”
We certainly see this today as Trump attacks formerly respected allies, from Canada to NATO, in harsh terms. Trump does this while boosting those who were previously, and deservedly, the most disrespected in the world. A few years ago it would have been inconceivable that Americans would accept an American President saying he fell in love with the despotic leader of North Korea. Now Americans take that in stride, without batting an eye, his followers cheer it! There are many more examples of this, many quite disturbing, as the President seems to favor the most aggressive and evil nationalists he desires to emulate, while insulting our closest historical democratic allies.
3. Indifference to Reality
“Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right . . . [Every nationalist] spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should . . .
One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources . . . The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him . . .
Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.”
There are perhaps no more defining words for this President, and those who support him, than Orwell’s words above. The “alternative facts” administration pushes obvious untruths and denies “the most unmistakable” facts. It is routine, and accepted. Nationalism is what makes it acceptable.
When the American President brags he is a “nationalist” understand what it means. With the utter “indifference to reality” that characterizes the nationalist, Trump tries to argue that nationalism is a wonderful thing. It is not. Do not be fooled by a man who told you to not believe what you see, and what you hear.
When, in the fashion of other disreputable nationalists, Trump calls our press “the enemy of the people,” that is not out of any concern for the truth. The only concern is for winning, of defeating those he regards as enemies.
“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
From Charlottesville to the live dismemberment of a journalist working for an American paper, you see this in Trump, his admirers, and the policy of our nation.