“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice”, said the newly inaugurated president, in a speech that seemed at times to have drawn a kind of clairvoyant inspiration from the dark stormy clouds that hunkered over the National Mall.
A distinctive language was being deployed, one that seemed old yet strangely new—new in that few if any new presidents in living memory had dared to use it so brazenly at such a time and place; old in that most anyone had to recognize it from some mental collage, however poorly-maintained, of the more venal and miserable events of human history. I am talking, of course, about the old bullwhips of populist nationalism.
“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first”, declared Donald John Trump. Only “America first”? I thought. Who decides what placing “America first” is and what it isn’t, and who decides who is getting in the way and what should be done to them? Answer: The Leader does.
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government,” he continued in this strangely fist-clenched evocation of national reconciliation and popular will, “but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Later came the first executive orders, one preparing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, another concerning a national day of patriotism. What are the 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Pearl Harbor Day? We seem only to be lacking in patriotic holidays and days-of-remembrance that are explicitly named after patriotism. Problem solved. Why, it’s almost as important a priority as possibly eliminating the health care of 30 million people, or making sure EPA employees can’t tweet about CO2 levels.
Talk about abstract “unity” had apparently become a concern for Trump in the months since the win. “It’s time to for Americans to bind the wounds of division”, he’d said on the night of his victory; “I’m going to bring this country together” he’d told CBS in his first interview after that night, shuddering at the thought that his election might have emboldened hate crimes. “I hate to hear it”, he said.
Naturally such concern seems deeply strange, if not like crocodile tears, when held up to the unprecedentedly harsh and personal divisions he’d himself exploited and created in his campaigning.
It is one thing to love one’s country and customs and culture—and a certain amount of national or tribal pride can certainly be salutary. But talk that places such an emphasis on affection for an abstract, vague collectivity—as Trump is doing, with his repeated references to catch-alls like “the People” or “America First” or “unity”—is unsettling, not only because it can hide sloppy thinking but because it so easily turns to a justification for cruelty towards any individuals or out-groups that are judged (by The Leader) to be against the grain.
An abstraction owes nothing to anybody; it is like a love letter to an imaginary address. So while we can have no doubt Trump loves the idea “America”, and perhaps also some abstract idea of “the American worker”—and so much remains to be seen—still there’s a creeping sense that as he hugs those ideas ever more tightly, actual Americans will soon feel something more like the hug of a giant, steel tourniquet (which since 2008, they’ve had plenty of already).
Even Trump’s talk about acting on behalf of “the people” deserves a more than a grain of salt. It sounds good in theory, but in reality it’s been a standard hobbyhorse of demagogues and dictators the world over. In particular, once you believe that you have been uniquely and personally outfitted by destiny to be the champion for a desperate and declining nation (as in, “I alone can fix it”), it’s not a far jump to believing “l’État, c’est moi”, and hence that whatever you wanted to do anyway by definition must be “the will of the people”—and heaven help anyone who disagrees or stands against it.
That goes double if you happen to have a chip on your shoulder like our newly-minted, unusually thin-skinned “blue-collar billionaire” president seemingly has had all his life. (And that “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”? It’s meant to celebrate his own inauguration.)
So, make no mistake, there is threat woven in behind these faux-softhearted paeans to national unity and dreams coming true, and to these appeals to an unseen “will of the people” (which, for what it’s worth, appears to run curiously contrary to the actual popular vote and to the current approval ratings). When Trump talks of “binding wounds of division” or “no room for prejudice”, it’s hard not to suspect that he means for prejudice to be overcome not through increased understanding, olive branches or anything of the like, but for the simple reason that you ought to be too busy saluting the flag to do anything else–or else.
Naturally, the choice of a cabinet more oligarchic, and billionaire-rich than even the recent administrations—and the markets’ giddy response to his election—already shows that Trump’s “rebellion” against the status-quo of both parties will be distinguished mainly by an unusually naked power grab by the 1%, all under the umbrella of “patriotism” and in the name (rather than interests) of… you guessed it, “the people”.
So we have more inverse reform: faced with a government that does not listen to its people, the failing system ushers into power a man almost certain to pay lip service to its people while fueling their rage and completing their destruction.
How will that destruction come about? Let’s put it this way: woe to those who are judged to not love the country, or to love it insufficiently, or in the wrong way, or even in a way that takes too much explaining or time. Woe, also, to those who start to pipe up too loudly about the fact that their pocketbooks are no fatter, their daily lives no less harried.
Donald Trump has now become, in his mind and increasingly in political reality, the supreme judge of what “patriotism” means—and hence, of the American people themselves, since he seems to view patriotism as the skeleton key to “the people”. It may not be a long time, after all, until the Donald’s supporters realize that blustering allegiance won’t feed a family, and that his love letter to them got mailed to nowhere.