Chichijima is a small, desolate rock island located in the south Pacific and in 1944, it was home to a Japanese Naval installation that was subject to frequent attacks by American warplanes. On Aug. 1 of that year, a young lieutenant was piloting a torpedo bomber that was shot down a few miles from the island. He escaped by parachute out of his plane, landed in the water, made it onto a raft and began drifting toward the Japanese island, which was known for its cruel treatment of its prisoners and confirmed cannibalism. He was eventually rescued by a small American submarine, and his war career, this terrifying event included, would prove to be crucial in the shape and formation of the politician he would become later in life.
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush enlisted as a fighter pilot to liberate the oppressed from the Axis powers. This struggle against blind nationalism and radical policies continued all his life. His presidency was not defined by conservatism or profound Republican ideology, but instead, his administration was moderate and pragmatic, working toward a common goal with the other side of the aisle.
I recently finished reading Jon Meacham’s “Destiny and Power,” the 2015 biography on Bush, which details these struggles with radicals utilizing nationalism both home and abroad. His political battles later in life cost him his presidency. He raised taxes despite the uncompromising nature of the far right, enacted legislation for minorities and the disabled despite pushback from staunch conservatives and most importantly, he convinced the nation not to hide behind guns and patriotism in the face of a foreign danger and simultaneously demonstrated when, where and how military force is necessary to solve a crisis.
Bush had seen how the nationalism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were disguises the public bought into, allowing for the heinous governments to proceed with truly evil policy. Therefore, he refused to submit to the blind nationalism to which many within his party fell prey. His ability to place country over party was essential in ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Yet, this all contributed to him losing his re-election in 1992. Following his defeat, the Republican Party allowed for its radical right to grow louder and stronger, preaching blind nationalism to its uncompromising followers. His eldest son’s administration and the Republican Party in opposition to former President Barack Obama further contributed to the growth of the dangerous ideology that was once the party of George H.W. Bush.
All of this culminated in the swearing in of our Celebrity President, Donald Trump, who in his “American carnage” speech touted the same nationalist and populist rhetoric that has been heard before in the past. A man many feared for already displaying authoritarian tendencies during his campaign and transition period, whether it be refusing to remove himself from his many business interests or condemning and silencing members of the press, gave an inaugural address that stated, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
His administration has begun on a note of authoritarians using nationalism and love of one’s country to mask injustices and to start a campaign against the free American media. His press secretary Sean Spicer lambasted the press over the most insignificant of issues — that the size of his inauguration crowd was actually larger than reported. His counselor Kellyanne Conway then further dragged America into George Orwell’s “1984” with her argument that Spicer was simply offering “alternative facts.” And finally, the president’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon said the media should “keep its mouth shut.” “You’re the opposition party,” he said. “Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
This is all occurring as part of the Trump “movement,” which incorporates the populism, nationalism and isolationism once seen generations before. America has used nationalism to write the darker chapters of our history. “Sea to shining sea” required the genocide of an entire race of people. The heroic fight against communism allowed for McCarthyism and the buildup of deadly nuclear arsenals. And the flags flying after 9/11 hid our eyes from a government that tortured fellow human beings.
This devotion to the star-spangled awesomeness of America will likely only grow because President Trump is also proposing a “Day of Patriotic Devotion:” a day of common proclamation and devotion to our country. This new holiday relates to the section of his inauguration speech when he stated, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
Many believe that 21st-century America would never allow a fascist to emerge and abuse power like the demagogues of the previous century. Many of us read only of the incomprehensible levels of violence of wars of the past, wondering how such people allowed for that to happen. We’ve been buffered from the violence of the world and fooled with money and easy lives into believing that it will never happen again.
Yet we have elected a TV celebrity who demonstrates that he has an unpredictable, scattered and egotistical personality, and is vengeful to the point of trivialness against all his enemies. We have allowed this man to surround himself with sycophants and spineless politicians who are so readily willing to submit to his childish will. And we have already allowed this administration to begin lying to us, to begin utilizing the nationalism and populism that drove its campaign to govern the country.
President George H.W. Bush once stated that people must caution themselves from “suicidal nationalism.” He understood the threats posed by such blind ideologies that promote populist and dangerous leaders. He nearly died fighting against a nation that fell victim to it. And he understood that some things were greater than your job or your political party. One of them was never to bend to the will of the blind patriotism so ingrained within the radical ideology. And now, in 2017, America is faced with a presidential administration posing similar tendencies to those of autocratic regimes blanketed in a love for one’s country.
Michael Mordarski can be reached at email@example.com.