“…the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” Hermann Goring (from an interview recorded in the Nuremberg diary).
Since our caveman beginnings tribalism has been a powerful manipulative tool for unscrupulous leaders. It takes an “us versus them” view of the world. “They” are not to be trusted, whereas the tribal leader pronounces that “I am one of you and your leader/protector, so you can trust me…” It gives the leader the higher ground to define the enemy as anybody that the leader views as a threat.
Over time, tribalism has spawned countless specialties, including all the religions that compete for our hearts, souls, and wallets… and have, over history, brought death to millions. Think Protestantism, Islamism, Catholicism, etc. Seemingly in defiance of the evils of religion, we also have atheism which, by its self-righteous us versus them belligerence qualifies as a religion in my mind.
But patriotism wins the tribalism prize for the ultimate manipulative tool. Enhancing its power, history is replete with examples of “good” patriotism. Churchill’s speeches in the dark days when Britain stood virtually alone against the Nazi juggernaut – “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..”. But it was “bad” patriotism that inspired the Nazi regime as they committed their atrocities, so patriotism is a two-edged sword.
Enter Donald Trump. Opinion is divided over his intelligence, ranging from “stable genius” (his own assessment) to “moronic” (according to one of Trump’s former cabinet appointees). What nobody argues, however, is that he is an effective manipulator. And he is particularly adept in the art of divisiveness, which includes the creation of a “Trump tribe” a.k.a his “base”. This tribe, which can reliably be expected to do anything that Trump asks, represents a significant percentage of Republican voters and Trump has made his power over it into a threat that has intimidated Republicans in the House and Senate to the point that they support even his most outlandish and un-Republican antics. The stick is always there – if you don’t support me, I will tell my base to vote you out…
Trump first played the patriotism card when he objected to NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. It wasn’t because he was really offended, it was because he just wanted a patriotism pulpit to preach from. Trump is probably one of the least patriotic presidents in history. It was on glaring display in Helsinki when he showed himself to be the pawn of Russia’s Putin. On all issues Trump showed himself to be more concerned about pleasing Putin than in defending American principles.
Philosophically speaking, my view on patriotism is that, like all other tribalistic behaviors, it is something we have to put behind us (see my post “Tribalism – our fatal flaw?”). There is no future for us as a species if we do not “grow up” to take responsibility for our future, not as a patchwork of isolationist tribes, but as planet-wide fellow citizens. Somewhere in our future, if we are to have a meaningful future, decisions have to be made for the good of all citizens of our planet, present, and future. We are all part of one biosphere. Make America Great doesn’t work against forces like over-population, grotesque wealth discrepancy and climate change. Walls will not be enough to protect against those who are fighting wars and poverty to survive.
But back to Trump and patriotism. Two years ago I did not take him seriously. In general, humanity has made great progress from its caveman beginnings and recently (in the last few centuries) some really encouraging things have happened, like the improvement of healthcare worldwide and dramatic reduction of deaths by famine and disease. The destruction of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the U.S.S.R. all seemed to be pointing to a “we are the world” future. At first, the election of a throw-back isolationist president seemed like a minor hiccup, but now I see Trump as an existential threat. We may not have a future to philosophize about if, for example, he decides a war is in his personal best interest, or if his denial of climate change delays the implementation of carbon emission reduction past a tipping point.
The only good news is that the United States of America is (still) a democracy and its citizens have the ability to remove him from power, or at least remove his party’s congressional majority, which would put a harness on him. In November, turn out! It is your duty as Americans and world citizens. Let me suggest two slogans: “Make America Whole Again!” and “Lock Him Up!”