Nationalism without a nation

JG Herder, one of Kant’s students and discontents.

We live in an era of resurgent nationalism. Or so we think: One can find all sorts of headlines alleging, for better or worse, that President Trump’s project all rests on a foundation of thoroughgoing nationalism. Thanks to the vocal support of today’s neo-fascists, Trump has even wound up associated with blood-and-soil nationalism, a historically lethal variant of the usual stuff, by members of his own party.

But the curious thing about Trump’s nationalism is that he’s rather bad at it.

Consider the (proto) romantics who first theorized the nationalism that would transform, by the early 20th century, into blood-and-soil fervor. They were in certain ways skeptical of the Enlightenment, peeved to different degrees by Enlightenment-era staples like social contract theory and the belief that people are, everywhere and at all times throughout history, essentially psychologically similar — and thus equally apt to adopt Enlightenment-style beliefs and politics. Thus their political critique came to center around the nation itself: What it is, and its role in the life of its people.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of Immanuel Kant’s students and critics, developed the concept of love for a “fatherland” as an answer to political realities that increasingly, absurdly (he felt) called upon people to exhibit loyalty unto death for little more than “constitutions and laws,” as opposed to “the devouring flame of higher patriotism, which embraces the nation as the vesture of the eternal.” Fichte raised the fact that it’s hard to imagine anyone laying down their life for a set of distant notions; Hegel echoed this point, as has Alasdair MacIntyre, as has America’s most famous (and most famously punched) Nazi, Richard Spencer.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, another of Kant’s students and discontents, claimed that without some organic union, nations became little more than “patched-up contraptions, fragile machines, appropriately called state-machines, for they are wholly devoid of inner life, and their component parts are connected through mechanical contrivances instead of bonds of sentiment.” Nations mattered, in other words, on a level one couldn’t much manipulate; they have internal lives and character of their own, and can’t really be artificially constructed.

Taken together, Herder and Fichte and the rise of nationalism writ large can be understood to say that nations just don’t work as contractual set-ups fitted with laws and duties premised on nothing more than one’s opting-in. People love their nations and die for them, they argued, because nations represent a higher calling, a numinous, spiritual union of souls — a “vesture of the eternal.” You can see how, in this thinking, the nation becomes a moral center very much worthy of killing and dying for.

And then there’s Trump, apparently telling the widow of deceased Sgt. La David T. Johnson that the fallen soldier “knew what he signed up for.” In other words —it’s a volunteer army, he made a deal, he knew what the terms were, and here we are. It’s the kind of contractual, semi-mechanistic thinking you can imagine exasperating nationalists of the old school, who would’ve taken dying for one’s nation as a deeply spiritual act of self-giving —more like something someone is called to than something one “sign[s] up for.” If all there is to a death like this is an exchange of errands for pay, it’s hard to identify much of a nation in Trump’s nationalism. Instead one finds, where a nation should be, just another deal.

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