Donald Trump's India Visit Is a Showcase of Where Nationalism Leads

·6 min read
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN - Getty Images
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN - Getty Images

From Esquire

Donald Trump long ago embraced the label of "nationalist" as a way to differentiate himself from the "globalists." This Steve Bannon Special was exactly the kind of false binary authoritarians feed on. "You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist," Trump said at a 2018 rally. "Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock. Restore the rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists. You know what a globalist is, right? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much. And, you know what? We can’t have that."

This idea—that the United States can succeed, or the rest of the world can succeed, but you can't have both—is nonsense. But this is also a self-serving deployment of the term "nationalist," which, as George Orwell illustrated 75 years ago in his Notes on Nationalism, is not the same as "patriot."

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism...By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Orwell made clear that "nationalism" was his term of choice because he'd yet to find one better, and that it can apply to all manner of movements—"Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism"—to which people might surrender their individual selves.

As fate would have it, Trump is in India this week visiting a nation that is increasingly subsumed by Hindu nationalist fervor. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now a Trump ally, has been linked with the movement since he was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Modi is accused of attempting to establish a Hindu-dominated society there, where Muslims would effectively be second-class citizens, and of complicity in a 2002 riot that reportedly led to the deaths of 1,000 Muslims. Since he was elected prime minister in 2014, the movement has spread nationally. Modi is now pushing a citizenship law that specifically discriminates against Muslims. India's status as the world's largest secular democracy is very much in the balance.

And while Trump visited Delhi with Modi on Tuesday, these were some of the scenes a few miles away, via the Washington Post's Rana Ayyub, after Muslim protesters took to the streets to voice dissent against the proposed citizenship law—and were greeted by police and Hindu counter-protesters.

And here's some BBC footage of what the British news service is calling "Delhi's night of horror." A Muslim man describes how he and his father were beaten by a Hindu mob demanding people give their names and recite Hindu slogans in order to prove their identities. A Hindu man says, under condition of anonymity, that Hindu residents were merely trying to help an overwhelmed police force.

So far, CNN reports 13 are dead, including a police officer, and 150 have been hospitalized. Indian police claim Muslim protesters were throwing rocks, though protesters say the demonstrations were nonviolent.

This appears to be a spasm of nationalist violence timed to greet the arrival of the President of the United States and his embrace of the nationalist leader. But this is also a preview of where nationalism always leads: towards violence, perpetrated by mobs and militias and even agents of the state, against The Other. In India's case, it is some in the country's Hindu majority against the minority Muslim population. In the U.S., most of the nationalist movement's ire has been directed at Muslims and Hispanic immigrants, though the most serious spasm of street violence—in Charlottesville in 2017—also involved white nationalists directing hatred at Jews and attacking antiracist protesters, including black men.

The vast majority of Trump's followers would not resort to violence. The same is likely true of Modi's. But overriding all of this is the growing sense across the world that nations belong to only some of their residents, that there are Real Americans and Others, that some people should have a seat at the table and make the rules and everybody else should just be happy to be there. The strength of secular democracies, like the United States and India, is that they theoretically grant the full rights of citizenship to anyone who subscribes to ideas about human life and flourishing that transcend religious and ethnic divides. But in this age of extreme inequality and growing tribalism, we are beginning to lose our grip on the American—and, perhaps, the Indian—Idea. As Orwell told us, this descent into unreason is at the core of nationalist fervor.

Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right ...

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

Does any of this sound familiar?

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