Written by: Sanjna Menon /Edited by: Jake Dickson
The events in the United States capitol on January 6, 2021 shocked much of the world, but it shouldn’t have. From the day Donald Trump started his presidential campaign it was evident that should he be elected, the extreme nationalism and bigotry would only continue. If there was any doubt, the words from his 2017 inaugural address should have foreshadowed clearly the rise to these events.
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only america first, america first” (Donald Trump)
When taken at surface value there isn’t really a major problem with this claim. Most governments do see it as their job to prioritize their people, as is their job. It shouldn’t be controversial for a president to describe themselves as a nationalist. Leader of a nation should be expected to have faith in that nation’s worth and identity. And of course the word nationalist itself is neutral, but as we have evolved it has been increasingly associated with more divisive and negative connotations. Many people use the word nationalist and patriot interchangeably. The issue is seen when we take a look at what those words actually mean. Patriotism is identified by a feeling of love and loyalty to the nation of which one belongs. This doesn’t imply belief of superiority, which in the case of the word nationalism, is included in its definition.
America’s change since Donald Trump’s rise to power is an eerily similar situation to that of the nationalism downfall in the Balkans during the 1990s. There’s an overwhelming number of nationalist ideas: tactical bigotry where our enemies are endlessly singled out and hated, ceaseless misogyny since the nation is a patriarchal project where woman only serve to reproduce, relentless lies, conspiracies, loyalists who with one slip can be eliminated whenever the ruler’s whim dictates, a reshaping of the economy, and the narrative that reality is controlled by the enemies so this ‘fake news’ must be deconstructed and restructured around a single leader and the goal to “Make America Great Again!”
The nationalist perspective of ‘our’ country is unique and incomparable blinds many followers to these recognisable symptoms of nationalist rhetoric and the political conditions that surround it. Former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, framed his nationalistic narrative similarly to Trump. Milosevic claimed that while Serbians had made sacrifices for Yugoslavia, they did not see any of the benefits of victory from the people in control, so they needed to dominate Yugoslavia in order to make Serbia great again. On the opposing side of the conflict, Franjo Tudjman believed only an ethnically pure nation would provide the freedom and greatness they were seeking. While in opposition, both Milosevic and Tudjman sought to destroy the Yugoslav state by pursuing conflict essential to their nationalist endeavors.
While the commitment to conflict began with these leaders the actual destruction was placed on the shoulders of the people. By encouraging these ideas, the people began to feel more and more as though they were required to show their anger. Serbian nationalism was played out in large part by the rallies in which they protested against a host of injustices, and although presented as organized by the people, these events were choreographed by Milosevic and his team. These rallies promised revenge and punishment to those who they believed wronged them. Milosevic carried out these promises, reaching the logical conclusion of genocide and ethnic cleansing; crimes which would have the Serbian dictator indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
The nationalist propaganda which Milosevic used in Serbia are rhetorics which Trump employs regularly. We can see this conflict ridden essence of Trump’s nationalism as early as the 2016 republican primaries. Unlike most GOP candidates, Trump openly flaunted his inclination toward conflict and aggression. No issue defined this more clearly than his stance on immigration, and his immediate vow to build a 2,000 mile long wall to stop immigration from Mexico. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” None of these statements have basis in fact. Actually, “the crime rate among first-generation immigrants is lower than for native born Americans.” In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, he writes “I play into people’s fantasies. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration-and a very effective form of promotion.” This laid the foundation for the next four years. Throughout his presidency, we saw that Trump was never going to become more ‘presidential’ because Trumpism is nothing without the perpetual cycle of conflict.
Trumpism requires nationalist rhetoric and conflict cycles in three main ways. The first being the combination of authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. Just as we saw with Milosevic in Serbia, Trump’s fearful rhetoric regarding the ‘other’ was crucial to his success. A bulwark of the Republican party has become more and more authoritarian. What separates these people from the rest of the GOP are “an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and an intolerance of outgroups perceived as threats to America’s existing social fabric; projecting strength in the most straightforward, uncompromising way possible, and the related pearls following the breakdown of law and order.” This is the Trump campaign. Trump’s appeal to those fearful of changing gender and racial roles, his division of the world into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ with a contempt for weakness, and his use of polarizing language regarding trade and law checks all of those boxes. Ethnocentrism comes into play when we see that no issue has defined his campaign or presidency more than immigration. More so than any other member of the GOP, Trump is willing to use fearful and racially charged language to further his position. Unlike many Republicans who were willing to support entitlement reform, Trump fervently backs Social Security and Medicare as those who benefit from it are disproportionately white. This plays into the way ethnocentric voters judge policies based on whether or not it would benefit their group. This fervent encouragement of division creates tension and conflict within the country and fuels the apparent ‘need’ for Trumpism.
The second way this manifests is in distrust. A large part of Milsosevic’s rhetoric had to do with the idea that the nation is being oppressed by the governmental structures so it was necessary those structures and people who controlled them be disposed of. This distrust in the government increased sharply in the republican party while Obama was president, making Trump the perfect candidate for this political environment. Marc Hetherington notes that distrustful voters are not inherently conservative, as they are inclined to support organizations that benefit themselves but resistant to those that might help others, hence, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” Trump’s defense of such programs while simultaneously calling for the death of Obamacare aligns with the attitudes of these voters. His language constantly opposes other politicians and his view that America is no longer great, matches the pessimistic view of these distrustful voters.
The last way is negative partisanship. This fear of the ‘other’ furthers itself as voters are most likely to dislike the other party. Especially as now racial, cultural and ideological divisions create much of the partisan divide, many Republicans see Democrats as the enemy and vice versa. When thinking about how Trump aligns with the GOP or conservatives, his credentials to label himself as either of those things are weak at best. However, there is no denying he is anti- Democrat and anti-Obama, as he began his road to the presidency by claiming Obama to be a secret Muslim and not a natural born citizen To many people this is more important. This constant nationalist use of the ‘other’ and distrust in the system feeds into the country’s divide pushing tensions higher and further along the trajectory toward violence.
Similarly to the situation Milosevic forced himself in, it quickly became clear how committed Trump and the GOP were committed to the destructive nature of the nationalist agenda they had established. They simply could not afford to quit because that would lead to irreversible defeat so they must let the trajectory flow to its logical extreme. The armed Trump supporters pretending to be good Americans upset by the extended lockdown is not the American version of the Serbian experience, but rather, it is the parallel to the ceaseless inciting of conflict advancing in this predictable direction.
It becomes very clear that this constant fearful and divisive nature of Trump’s language would not cease with the constant discussion of rigged elections and fraudulent ballots. This progression of nationalistic violence to its extreme came when Trump refused to conceded the election and refusal to discuss how he would facilitate a peaceful transition. Even more worrisome, the majority of the GOP stood by and allowed this for months, implicitly supporting the continual rejection of the country’s bureaucratic processes. Clearly this message resonated with many of Trump’s supporters, who lost faith in the democratic system, and thus democracy itself. This comes back to the idea of ‘the other’ when we consider that Trump continuously put the blame on the Democratic Party for his loss, rather than the acceptance that the American public voted for someone else. Once people begin questioning the legitimacy and integrity of the process and public officials then it is inevitable for things to unravel badly. In today’s environment, conspiracy theories and allegations of cheating in the 2020 election will stick around, affecting future elections.
More and more these symptoms of the nationlist problem gave way to the problematic open and ruthless commitment to violence in order to fulfill the goal of making America great again. In 2020 there were countless armed white americans who banded together to storm or protest government institutions. The chaos and tragedy that blanketed the year 2020 was used by Trump and the Republican Party (GOP) in an attempt to accelerate the coming of this great America. The attack at the American capitol was shocking to so many because there was this idea across the political realm that something would snap the country back into sanity. That is nonsense. Trump and the GOP stoking the fires of violence was not a glitch in the system but a strategic destruction of the American system. The slow removal of the so called ‘fail-safe’ checks and balances, the spineless leadership of the Democrats, and the elimination of even slight disobedience or disloyalty within the federal government while continuing to encourage citizens’ tendencies to conflict were not stoppable by political processes.
Hetherington, Marc, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism, Princeton, 15 October 2006.
Jenson, Tom, Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country, Public Policy Polling, 1 September 2015.
Osonos, Evan, The Fearful and the Frustrated, The New Yorker, 24 August 2015.
Trump, Donald, The Art of the Deal, Randomhouse, 1 November 1987.
Weiler, Jonathan, Demystifying the Trump Coalition: It’s the Authoritarianism, Huffington Post, 4 September 2016.