Social upheaval has always been a catalyst for a reevaluation of our raison d’etre. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a window of opportunity for a renaissance.
In March, when the world turned off its office lights and the pollution cleared, I had a glimmer of hope that the silver lining to this catastrophe would be an era of social democratic reforms like those of the Great Depression. For a few weeks it seemed people were warming up to a more proactive government. Paid leave took the spotlight. Fast-food workers, delivery workers, a workforce long devalued in the meritocracy pyramid were suddenly hailed as ‘essential’. But as progressive as it felt to talk about unions again, I failed to predict that this social upheaval could also foment the opposite — a cry for nationalism.
Suddenly the pandemic was politicized. Safety was torched for access to haircuts. White Americans took their guns to the Capitol to protest against government oppression and conspiracy theorists populated fake videos of Dr. Fauci to weaken his credibility and reopen the economy early.
In effect, the MAGA crew was back.
It’s understandable that a wounded people will turn to extremism, but despite the issues with our form of capitalism (high rent, low wages, mental health disorders, violence) why do people want more of it instead of going left of the spectrum?
In essence, how do they calculate that more of the same will drive different results? It seems that the only way to understand this is that their lens is focused on another enemy.
As French economist Thomas Picketty puts it in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, global unrest unmasks the tenets of inequality, but in the 21st century economic disillusionment can also feed nationalism.
He brings this example to mind in his historical analysis. When Germany was in shambles after a WWI, Hitler strung together the masses by giving them someone to blame for their misfortunes. It was easy; they were desperate, they were broken, and they needed something to revitalize their egos. The führer would galvanize their patriotism against a common enemy to make Germany great again.
It is no different than what we’re seeing with right-wing fanaticism. Rich or poor, people on the right have banded together against a common enemy — anything that bars them from living the American dream, i.e. the government or the immigrant.
I’d often wonder why my uncle, for example, would have all the grievances that could only be fixed with government intervention (i.e. vacation rights, paternity leave, cheaper healthcare, employee bargaining) but he instead blamed all his troubles on the immigrant who he had never met. The immigrant who came to America to steal jobs (though the jobs they took were landscaping jobs and he worked at a bank), the immigrant who brought crime (though domestic crimes were tied to gun violence and he didn’t call for gun reform), and the immigrant (who at the root of the issue) was not “white”. Hate can create a camaraderie, even if it’s nonsensical. In fact, maybe even more so because it is nonsensical.
The reality that nationalism is on the rise again shouldn’t have surprised me, but I failed to see that it’s the same potion for appeasing pain we’ve been drinking since the beginning of our nation.
In his book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, Greg Grandin points out that Americans hurting from the disasters of laissez-faire capitalism never looked inward to fix their social problems and redistribute the piece of the pie. They simply moved West to expand the pie. Andrew Jackson (the 7th president who scalped natives and kept their body parts in jars as trophies) took this opportunity of social unrest to fuel xenophobia. Americans made the Indigenous people their target, the barrier that kept them from a better life. The American settler believed in his own limitlessness, in Manifest Destiny. There was no need to think about social reform when he could always take more land. When there was no more land to steal from the Indigenous tribes or Mexico their eyes became fixed on the border.
The American vigilante, the MAGA hat wearing Republican says he wants freedom, but freedom to do what? Freedom from laws to keep the face of his country Anglo-American. It is not the government he really fears, it is a government that enforces laws to bring some sense of equity.
When the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, these same American vigilantes took to the streets with rifles in tow, portraying themselves as guardians. They took the side of the government — the government they claim to fight — in opposition to the people’s protests. In effect, American nationalism is not about a fear of government, it is deep down all about keeping the status quo.
If in effect, what they wanted is to live the American dream, then their attention should be focused on freedom from monopolies, healthcare, fair income, and other such rights a government can instate. When FDR presented the second bill of rights — which would never come to fruition — he said “necessitous men are not free men”. The world the early settlers once lived in no longer exists. It doesn’t matter if the pie gets bigger if only a handful have access to it. We can fight more wars, we can create more enemies, but the problem will only be momentarily evaded, and we will never be free until we face the problems derived from inequality. What will it take to get America to look within? If we continue on with this dominoes trail of disasters that is the year 2020, maybe it won’t be long until we find out.