Ronald G. Suny


Nationalism and History

Donald Trump is definitely a nationalist, but he is not a patriot. When he was called up to serve in the US military during the Vietnam War, he had a friendly doctor testify that he was ineligible because he suffered from bone spurs in his heel. Later, he could not remember which foot it was.

At one of his mass rallies, in October 2018, (this was before the global Covid-19 pandemic), Donald Trump proudly, loudly proclaimed to his fevered supporters that he was a nationalist: “Really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!” Asked later, back at the White House, why he had claimed to be a nationalist, given its racist connotations (at least in the United States where it is associated with White Supremacists), he claimed ignorance of that connection: “I never heard that theory about being a nationalist. I’ve heard them all. But I’m somebody who loves our country. I am a nationalist. It’s a word that hasn’t been used too much. Some people use it, but I’m very proud. I think it should be brought back.”

As someone who has taught on nationalism, nations, and empires, and is currently writing a book about these subjects, I have puzzled long and hard over the meaning of nationalism. It is a word difficult to pin down. It has as many meanings as the people who use it. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the word means what the user means it to mean. When the Greeks stopped calling Turkish coffee Turkish coffee and called it Greek coffee instead, that was said to be nationalism. When Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, that was said to be inspired by nationalism. Adolf Hitler was a nationalist, but so were his principal opponents Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Who indeed wasn’t a nationalist? Well, maybe Vladimir Lenin, who called for the defeat of imperial Russia, his own country, in World War I because he believed that its demise would ignite the world socialist revolution. For Lenin the emancipation of humanity was more important than the fate of his fellow Slavs.
In my own definition nationalism differs from patriotism. Nationalism is a blind love of country and nation, of the current regime, as well as an insular love of one’s fellow nationals. It can be summarized as: “My country, right or wrong.” God Bless America, and to hell with the rest of the world. Patriotism has a quite different valence, and its genealogy goes back to ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. A patriot defends his or her country and its rulers when the state is virtuous and does the right thing, when it serves the people instead of the personal interests of those in power. A true patriot would struggle against venality, corruption, nepotism, selfish policies to help some and exclude others, and frivolous imperial wars to make the country great again. Patriots would exclaim: “My country…. When it is right!” 

Donald Trump is definitely a nationalist, but he is not a patriot. When he was called up to serve in the US military during the Vietnam War, he had a friendly doctor testify that he was ineligible because he suffered from bone spurs in his heel. Later, he could not remember which foot it was.

In the midst of the pandemic and the renewed struggle for racial justice, the United States is also undergoing a serious question of what it means to be patriotic. There are those, like Trump, who want to whitewash history, to keep Confederate flags flying and the statues standing that honor those southern states that wanted to become free from the northern states so that they could preserve their traditional way of life, which, by the way, meant keeping four million Black people as slaves. “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues,” he proclaimed, “erase our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms.” He seems to have forgotten that a bloody civil war was fought to keep the United States united and ultimately to emancipate the slaves. 

Opposed to the president, protesters have gone into the streets to tear down the statues of those they consider traitors and racists: Confederate officers and soldiers, Christopher Columbus (who decimated the native population of the Caribbean), and even several of the Founding Fathers of the country, slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Trump has launched an attack on the protestors: “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing."

In Trump’s view, the United States is “the greatest, most exceptional and most virtuous nation in the history of the world.” So, why complain about systemic racism, obscene economic and social inequality, and the arrogant self-centeredness of American officialdom? Those who criticize America, says a Trump favorite, television pundit Tucker Carlson, “actually hate America.” His target, whom he called “deeply silly and unimpressive,” was Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a female combat veteran who lost both legs in Iraq. She retorted that he should “walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America.” Here is the struggle over the past and future of the most powerful country in the world, a titanic match between nationalism and patriotism, between those who avoid the dark spots in the country’s past and those who want to shed a healing light on the rot that continues to fester in the present and make America healthier. Trump is leading the charge back into ignorance and denial, longing for a lost time that never actually existed. And following along behind Commander-in- Chief Bone Spur is an army of sycophants, flatterers, toadies, and enablers.