What is nationalism?
I think that’s a pretty basic question. And it has a fairly straightforward answer. But, in the wild, out on the campaign trail, it’s less straightforward. For example, I often see references to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a nationalist. For example, in May, here’s the Voice of America with the headline “Turkey’s Erdogan Ramps Up Nationalist Rhetoric“. But just yesterday, the nationalist party in Turkey broke ties with Erdoğan for the next election.
You could say, then, that Erdoğan is a populist then. But this quote from the Washington Post, after Erdoğan won the general election in June, caught my eye:
This weaponizing of ressentiment — a term borrowed from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, capturing the deep grievance produced by feelings of both envy and humiliation — is possibly the defining theme in global politics right now. And Erdogan is a master at instrumentalizing it.
The weaponizing of resentments is the key here. And the politician using it doesn’t have to be a nationalist or a populist. She could just be an opportunist using nationalist or populist rhetoric for her own ends – to maintain power by any means necessary.
The US is unique in the west regarding the desire to thwart democracy
I was thinking about this today because of some news I heard about voter suppression in the US. And so let me express the train of thought that led me here. First, after the Georgia governor race debate, I happened across a couple of articles about the race about voter suppression that caused me some concern. This one from Rolling Stone yesterday about the Republican candidate Brian Kemp saying his Democratic adversary Stacey Abrams’ voter turnout operation “continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote”.
I thought to myself, “what does that mean?” The benign interpretation is that Kemp simply meant he was concerned that Democratic voter turnout would surpass Republican voter turnout and tip the election to his opponent. But, there’s a much more sinister interpretation in which Kemp is looking to thwart democracy and suppress the vote, as was done in the South during Jim Crow.
There’s a lot of credence to the second interpretation because, as Secretary of State overseeing the ballot count in Georgia, Kemp refuses to recuse if Georgia governor race with Abrams goes to a recount. It’s reminiscent of the 2000 Presidential election where the Secretary of State Katherine Harris was also the campaign chairman for George Bush. And so, she had a legitimate incentive to lean toward Bush in adjudicating matters there. In the Georgia case, Kemp himself is the candidate. So, he has even more incentive. What’s more, there already are allegations from the NAACP that voting machines are incorrectly registering votes for Kemp.
So, when I thought about so-called election rigging, it occurred to me that nowhere in the older advanced Western democracies do you see anywhere near the number of allegations about voter suppression that you see in the US – not in Germany, not in France, not in Australia, and not even in the UK during Brexit. The US is unique in that regard.
What about Trump: is he a nationalist?
So, the sense I get is that, with demographics weighing against the Republican party, they are doing everything they can to tip the scales in their favor. We see that with gerrymandering. We also see that with voter ID laws, with voter list purges and so on. It’s definitely a campaign across many different jurisdictions to reduce the number voters, under the guise of stopping ineligible voters from voting. What’s the ratio of eligible voters who are prevented from voting to ineligible voters prevented from voting that justifies these tactics? I would say zero. It’s like the death penalty. No false positives are permissible. But that’s just my opinion.
Nevertheless, nowhere in the advanced democratic world are politicians of a major party actively attempting to reduce voter turnout – only in the United States.
So that’s where the nationalism question begins for me. For example, is Donald Trump a nationalist? Is he a populist? Is he a corporatist? Or is he someone simply trying to maintain power or stroke his ego?
Yesterday, I saw the following tweet and retweeted it:
NEW: This study shows a direct transfer between 2 decades worth of tax cuts benefiting the top 1% and proposed GOP cuts to safety net programs — and it’s coming weeks before the midterms:https://t.co/9y3WkVlCY5 via @nbcnews
— Heidi Przybyla (@HeidiPrzybyla) October 23, 2018
I was thinking of it in terms of agendas that pre-existed the rise of Trumpism. And how Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image. What’s clear from the article is that the Republican agenda of lower taxes that disproportionately benefit the rich has coincided with cuts in social safety nets in the US. And I don’t think that’s by accident. It’s intentional.
Now, you could say the goal is to make the American economy more efficient by reducing the size of government. And that means cutting the safety net to give people the incentive to be more productive. But, of course, the goal could just as easily be letting rich people keep more of their earned income, consequences be damned. In that case, the ideology of less government would just be a cover for doing so.
And, of course, this same pattern has continued under Trump, with the December 2017 tax cuts emblematic of that pre-existing agenda being furthered under Trump. For me, that’s neither nationalist or populist. It could be corporatist – i.e. benefitting large, incumbent firms at the expense of everyone else – or it could be Trump stroking his ego by getting things done so he can tout them as accomplishments.
I really don’t care what the motivations are here. Outcomes are what matter. And what matters to me more than the increase in inequality is the tilting of the playing field and the thwarting of democracy.
Did you know that the US is the least socially and economically mobile country in the developed world? That’s not just me pontificating. That’s what Jeb Bush said in 2014, based on research. And Politifact fact-checked him and found that claim to be true.
So how do you reverse this trend? Do you want to reverse it? Is that a role for government? I would argue that there is no benefit in living in a particular advanced society for the majority of people unless they have the opportunity for economic security and advancement. They could do better in another advanced economy. And they will sense that. Eventually, it will lead to division and revolt, with the rich living in armed camps as they often do in Latin America. So, I do believe government has a role here.
And the solution is not by cutting taxes for the wealthy and letting the free market allow those riches to trickle down as the economy operates more efficiently. If freedom is the goal, you want to make it easier to vote. You want 80% of people voting. And then you want them voting for people who espouse policies that might just increase the economic security and opportunity for the vast majority of the electorate.
That’s not where we are today in the US.
My sense, then, is that Donald Trump is a nationalist, the moniker CNN says he now embraces. And he’s a populist too. But, like Erdoğan, he is a power politician – someone who seeks and holds onto power for its own sake and the satisfaction that comes from doing so. The populist and nationalist rhetoric is just a means to an end.
Instead, think of Trump more in the amoral ‘Nietzschian’ sense – as someone weaponizing resentments, deep grievances produced by feelings of both envy and humiliation, in order to benefit himself and those with whom he’s allied.
That’s my philosophizing for today! Please feel free to comment.