Trump’s inaugural argued: “We all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” It wasn’t an original thought or even expression, but spoke to our nationalism – our pride in others’ sacrifice for both the heightened values of our early documents and the mundane, daily values (bourgeoisie perhaps) of the marketplace and the free press. Americans see nationalism as a cohering force – one that joins Manhatten, New York to Manhatten, Kansas; the New England Puritans with the Southern planters in our defining war and Italian immigrant with Boston Brahmin in WW II.
Or at least that was the culture of my youth – made up of a village schoolhouse, 40’s movies on television and 50’s novels. But it isn’t just that it wasn’t bad (of course it had limitations) but that it understood some of the big ideas embodied in our habits and language. Okay, so maybe I’m becoming sentimental. But we can see what happens when leaders denigrate nationalism – the malaise of the 8 years of Obama, the nihilism that rejects history and dignity. Of course, our history contains venality and even evil, but also heroism and sacrifice. It helps us, individually, become more of what we can be because we have the idea of a “good” citizen, neighbor within us. Most of all, those documents gave us something to reach toward – and if we may never actually get our hands around that ideal, trying is a good thing.
At the end of Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging, he stressed a belief that Germans needed to reach into themselves and find a core in which they can take pride and identity, nonetheless remembering the mid 20th century. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. When Merkel sends more immigrants to a town than the long-established natives, she must consider the inevitable swamping and submerging of the original culture good. Certainly that is a way to leave the guilt behind as Germany becomes something other than itself. If a leader feels a strong identity with his culture, does he consider an appropriate post-chancellor job heading a rival country’s national oil company? Schroeder entered a company run by a state which has little interest in Germany’s independence nor integrity.
Nationalism may join a diverse culture; it may lead to an assertive, vicious vision. Still it is necessary for a coherence; it can draw heroism from its citizens if its identity is bound up with values of justice and self-sacrifice, independence and sympathy. Given Obama’s rhetoric and Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, we took some steps toward self-annihilation. But our instincts, to turn to a blustering, assertive representative, were alerted. Nor are his instincts only venal and self-serving. His goal seems to be devolving power from the executive (and asking the legislative to take on more and the bureaucrats to take on less); these are not paths to a nationalism other countries fear, even if his words are bombastic and his positions shifting. And, Trump aside, I think we should look at some other nations as cautionary tales – not just from what they did a hundred or two hundred years ago but what they are doing now.
(And don’t get me started on what we can learn from Venezuela and Zimbabwe and Cuba – which may seem obvious, but neither South Africa nor Elizabeth Warren seems to see it.) [edited for clarity & grammar]