Let’s consider one of the many topics swirling around in the present moment. I will spin a wheel. Here . . . wait . . . Nationalism.
I am going to give a brief history of Nativism instead, which is in many ways the same thing. But Nativism, at least as an understandable term, has an even more pernicious history. Nationalism is disguised as patriotism and attempts to declare itself for the public good. Nativism offers no such illusions. If you are a Nativist you have bought completely into a myth of supremacy, of the unique greatness of your national history, something that is certainly not backed up by history, at any time, in any variation of the past. Even the self-congratulatory fantasies we like to imagine when feeling particularly low are pale riders next to the radical bitterness of the Nativist movement.
Steve Bannon, the right-wing gadfly and provocateur, recently said to a crowd of angry white people that if they are called nativists or racists by the popular culture, they should wear this as a badge of pride. And of course this is masked with the self-justification that it is fighting against political correctness and the wishy-washy liberal nonsense that seeks to censor division, but this is just a distraction from true and violent hatred.
For just a brief history I want to talk about how nativism has been enacted in society, and since I have been so America-centric it might be a good time to draw an example from elsewhere in the world. In America this point of view has, from time to time, taken over the government, leading to slavery, persecution and genocide (American Indians, the actual natives of North America, were mostly wiped out by a sense of superiority of the immigrants).
And, parenthetically, that is what nativism finally is, a sense of self and dominance, believing that the others will try the same thing they have succeeded in doing. It is an anger that society has become so diverse. It is a cry in the dark about the loss of something that never truly was. Something has been taken, stolen, and this sense of separation, and the need to control all others, tolerating them just so long as they acknowledge who is in charge and who is the master, becomes a sort of patriotism, segregating a nation into those worthy of making the world over in their image.
To take the easiest example (and other than in savagery, all nativist cultures are the same variation on this theme), we can look to Nazi Germany. “Germany for Germans!” was a cry from increasingly isolationist political figures before the National Socialist Party came to power. It was a time of great economic turmoil, there was fear of another Great War and resentment over the humiliation of the last one, and people kept looking around nervously, seeking someone to blame. And so ‘outsiders’ were targeted, whether they were native born or recent immigrants. There were rants in the press every single day about how these people were destroying the purity of the culture, and that Germany needed to return to the greatness of its past. There was a call to ban these outsiders from public office, from even being allowed to vote. There was a growing desire to entirely take their citizenship away and block all new arrivals, behind unrealistic notions like a giant wall. There were movements to kick all of them out of the nation and to criminalize their very existence.
Do not think that this example is that much more extreme than history will have you believe. The patterns of American nativism rise and fall in the same manner as everywhere else in the world. We can go all the way back to before America was founded and blame Catholics, blame immigrants from certain misunderstood countries. There was a racial component to this as well, and not just anti-Asian, Indian and black. White people of different national backgrounds (nationalisms) were divided into unacceptable people based on whatever alien characteristic came most closely at hand. These people from other lands were classified as an entirely different race, giving rise to a new ethnic identity: Americanism.
In 1886 there occurred an incident that has been called The Haymaker’s Riot. This was basically a labor protest turned violent. Someone threw a bomb at the police, who were busy beating the Irish and other foreign workers with their clubs, and eight people were killed. Almost instantly eight of the leaders of the organized labor movement (two of whom were not present on that day) were rounded up and convicted before in a rushed trial, which sentenced all of them to death. The people were blamed as outsiders, radical elements seeking to destroy America with their wild ideas of job security and an eight hour workday. This whole class of people were blamed. They were destroying America. A counter-movement caught fire.
In the 1890s the trend towards nativism consumed most of the nation, stoking fears and defining people only through the stereotypes that their churches and social organizations painted them as. Fear and rage led to frequent ‘hate crimes’ that could easily be excused in such a hysterical culture. It was simple to just blame people who did not resemble you. This became a new national pastime.
According to the historian John Higham (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780689700958&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), by the 1920s “Nativism cut deeper than economic jealousy or social disapproval. It touched the springs of fear and hatred; it breathed a sense of crisis. Above all, it expressed a militantly defensive nationalism: an aroused conviction that an intrusive element menaced the unity, and therefore the integrity and survival, of the nation itself.”
This has not gone away, but keeps coming and goes in waves and new directions. Anti-Communist. Anti-Russian. Anti-Arab. Anti-Muslim. Anti-Mexican. Anti-Jew. Anti-everything that does not resemble the self.
It is so easy to blame other people for the perceived failures of our lives, and for the problems that plague a nation. This is widely accepted despite its communal ignorance, wrong-headed prejudice, and profound self-loathing, paranoia and moral failure. In many ways this is a necessary component of a national character, that reach for purity and absolute freedom. This makes so much easily, if we can just blame someone else for our being biased against them. After all, if they did not exist there would be no reason to hate them.