The Pathos of Politics (77) Nationalism


A nation is an imagined political community; imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. ~ Anglo Irish American political scientist Benedict Anderson

Historically, communities coalesced via a shared culture, especially a common tongue. Whereas language was the loosest binding, religion was the tautest.

In the deepest regard, a community was one where its people held a communal belief system: tribalism in its truest sense. In modern times, people often speak of a community as comprising shared beliefs (notably religion), regardless of ethnicity or even language.

The Pope is the chief of the Christians. He is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit. He claims to be the successor of one of the earliest Christians, called Saint Peter, and it is certainly a rich succession, for his treasure is immense and he has a great country under his control. ~ Persian traveler Rica in a 1712 letter from Paris to his friend

Politically, the realms of rulers evolved into countries, often with boundaries that were arbitrary in the tribes they contained. Nascent nations were not natural communities. They were instead dynastic concoctions determined by conquest and amended over the centuries by diplomatic give-and-take.

Political states emerged from the minds of men. Their practical implementation was of borders: offering free (but taxed) trade within, and tariff from without. Even more important, as from ancient times, was declaration of sovereign territory. These material distinctions never mattered nearly as much as the fixed mental figment which defined political identity more than polity: nationalistic ideology, identifying oneself as belonging to a nation. Historically, imperialism and its reaction sharpened the sense of nationhood in occupiers and occupied alike.

However bounded by lines on a map, and codified into political structures, a nation has never been anything more than an anchor of abstraction for the peoples within to be subjected to an overarching fate – led to fortune or folly by the whims of their leaders.

Nationalism, the theoretical expression of the nation-state, is the most powerful political idea of the past 2 centuries. ~ Leon Baradat

Nationalism calls on a nation’s peoples to support the state’s interests in the spirit of fraternity. Rightists use nationalism to encourage unity and stability. Leftists see it as an ideological vehicle to improve the well-being of citizens.

Despite the obvious absurdity of disjuncture with community and self-interest, people believe. Nationalism is emotively potent in providing a sense of identity with something greater than the self. This allure is a wellspring for both group-belonging as intrinsically desirous, and a deistic religion with secular roots.

As a form of self-identification, nationalism both unites and divides people. Although nationalism ostensibly has positive overtones, its exclusory focus frequently stirs conflict over scarce resources.

Even casting this artifice in its most positive light, nationalism degrades societies by papering over simmering social tensions with abstraction, not solution; and this leaves aside nationalism as a destructive force for foreigners.

A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred of its neighbors. ~ English Anglican priest William Inge

Along with the elevation of democracy as an affirmative abstraction, nationalism grew in importance from the French Revolution. The 2 World Wars and Cold War that followed congealed nationalism as a sociopolitical force.

 World War 1

The first calamity of the 20th century. The calamity from which all other calamities sprang. ~ German-born American historian Fritz Stern

By the 20th century there was the strong stench of competitive nationalism among the leaders of European nation-states, which had become enmeshed in a tangled web of alliances that had formed from colonial empires jockeying for dominance.

The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb activist on 28 June 2014 started a chain reaction that plunged Europe into a cataclysmic struggle. Austria-Hungary, which had been looking to assert itself into the Balkans, declared war on Serbia, accusing its government of orchestrating the attack. Russia then mobilized to defend Serbia, its ally. This led Germany, which was allied with Austria-Hungary, to declare war on Russia and its ally France, and to invade France’s neighbor, neutral Belgium. Britain had promised to protect Belgian neutrality, and so declared war on Germany, which it had been battling for naval supremacy.

Technology turned warfare into mass slaughter. The introduction of machine guns and accurate artillery made advancing over open ground suicidal. Nevertheless, insane military leaders clung to 19th-century tactics for much of the war, ordering massed infantry assaults that meant troops were mowed down by the thousands.

In the 4 years that followed, 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died in a ghastly conflict from which political leaders learned nothing. The war’s conclusion did not end the conflicts, some of which are still raging today.

War fatigue led to the collapse of the centuries-old Romanov dynasty and the imposition of Soviet Communist rule. The polyglot empire of defeated Austria-Hungary was dissolved into a motley collection of independent states roughly based on ethnic identity. The harsh terms insisted upon by France on Germany led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis.


Patriotism is to nationalism what worship is to religion. As with religion, patriotism can spawn self-righteous ignoble actions.

Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. ~ English writer Samuel Johnson

As it has in the worst excesses of political exercise, nationalism became a puissant posture in the 2010s. Donald Trump campaigned for US president in 2016 under the slogan “Make America Great,” despite a campaign offering nothing more than twaddle and lies.

In keeping with fascist thought, a significant facet of nascent nationalism has been loathing minorities. During his demagogic campaign, Trump called Mexicans “killers” and “rapists,” and promised to build a wall across the 3,201 km US–Mexico border to keep them out.

Beyond xenophobic tribal affinity, the primary propellant for ascendant nationalism has been the sapping of jobs and domestic economic vitality via globalization. While the younger generation express their alienation, the older nostalgically wish for a fictional time of security, and naïvely vote for those who promise it. As far as turning back the overwhelming plutocracy that corrodes US democratic ideals, Trump’s pseudo-election was setting the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse, as events would prove during Trump’s administration.

The point is, you can never be too greedy. ~ Donald Trump

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There are many countries in the world that are governed by men who use their office to enrich themselves and their families. ~ American journalist Jonathan Chait

“Shithole countries,” as President Donald Trump called them, have long been derided for their corrupt governments. With Trump putrefying the body politic, the US wholeheartedly joined them. Trump has proven unsurpassed in decimating the state called America – his efforts as president the exact opposite of his campaign slogan.