Notes on the Revolution /Column 13
October 2, 2019
Trump, patriotism, and the absent Left
By Charles McKelvey
At the General Debate of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the effective patriotic discourse of Donald Trump was again on display. Leftist critical commentaries tended to focus on the appalling historical ignorance displayed in the speech. In leaving aside Trump’s effective patriotic discourse, the Left is implicitly not seeing its own limitations.
We should note, at the outset, that there can be no doubt that Trump has a myopic view of the place of the United States in world history, reflected in the speech at the General Assembly. He sees an essential divide between those who treasure liberty, independence, and self-government, on the one hand; and those desire to control, and who think that “they are destined to rule over others,” on the other hand. As one of the liberty loving nations, the United States, he maintains, has developed a strong military and a strong spirit to defend the good in a world where “others seek conquest and domination.” He ignores the nation’s historic integration into colonial economic structures and its imperialist foreign policy for a century and a quarter.
This myopic view of America as a democratic beacon of light in the world is standard fare in the political culture of the United States. It is far from unique to Trump. But his myopic view is not really central to his political practice; he simply uses the standard American historical view to frame his political proposals, thereby placing himself in the mainstream of American history and politics. His speech at the UN General Assembly, therefore, begins and ends with the America-as-a-beacon-of-light frame of reference.
Between the bookends formed by the America-as-a-beacon-of-light frame, Trump defines an ideological battle ground between patriotism and globalism, and it is here that his political intelligence and creativity can be seen. “The future does not belong to globalists,” he declared. “The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” He maintains that only patriots, those who are rooted in the histories of their nation, nourished by its culture and committed to its values, can secure liberty, sovereignty, and democracy.
In casting globalism against patriotism, Trump is on solid ground, both theoretically and politically. Globalization is a historic tendency of the world-system, involving the integration of the economies of the world into a single capitalist world-economy that works to the detriment of the colonized. But since 1980, globalization has been accelerated by technological advances, and it has taken the form of neoliberal globalization, which is profoundly anti-national, adversely affecting the peoples of the North and well as the South. Neoliberal globalization seeks a world in which corporations invest and sell anywhere in the world, unfettered by national interests, including those of the nation that the corporation ought to consider its home. Neoliberal globalization envisions a world in which a corporate controlled mass media disseminates its distorted vision of humanity everywhere, undermining national cultures.
Neoliberal globalization, moreover, is elitist. It engages in the above mention attacks against national economies and national cultures in order to facilitate that the rich or privileged can increase their profits and their privileges, without concern for the needs and anxieties of the majority, in their own nations or in other nations.
Trump stands against neoliberal globalization. He declares a vision to reform international trade, reversing tendencies of the last twenty-five years toward the outsourcing jobs, to the detriment of the middle class, the loss of manufacturing jobs due to factory relocation, and trade deficits. He proclaims that the United States “is now taking decisive action to end this grave economic injustice,” with the goal of a “balanced trade that is both fair and reciprocal.”
In the United States, who stands against neoliberal globalization and defends the nation and the people? Not the political establishment, themselves defenders and accomplices to the neoliberal project. Not the marginal U.S. Left, which has forgotten, if it ever knew, that the most effective social critics are great patriots who believe in the essential nobility of their own people. Donald Trump has formulated a political rhetoric that pretends to defend the nation and the people, backed by a trade conflict with China and efforts to reconstruct trade agreements with Mexico and Canada and with the nations of the Pacific, to reform the relation with the European Union, and to establish a new mutually beneficial relation with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
The incapacity of the U.S. Left to formulate a comprehensive, politically effective alternative to Trump’s vision is rooted in various factors, among them its ambiguity with respect to patriotism. Karl Marx called for the unity of all workers of the world, transcending national and cultural differences. This noble vision was set aside by the socialist parties of Western Europe in 1914, as workers marched to slaughter one another, their patriotic sentiments manipulated to serve the interests of national elites. From the tragedy, there emerged a tendency of the Left in the nations of the North to view patriotism as a sentiment in opposition to proletarian consciousness, including some progressive tendencies that looked with scornful disdain at the patriotism of the people.
Progressive movements of the North could learn from the revolutionary practices of China and the Third World. Mao declared the need to restore China to its former greatness, overcoming the economic decline provoked by unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers. Ho Chi Minh as a young nationalist activist in Paris called himself “Nguyen the Patriot.” And in Cuba, when the victorious Rebel Army arrived to the capital city of Havana in 1959, they bore huge Cuban flags, declaring their intention to rescue the nation from control by scoundrels who had betrayed the honor and dignity of the nation.
We all think of ourselves as belonging to particular communities and cultural traditions, as well as particular nations. Of course, we must respect other cultures and have solidarity with all peoples, but this cannot mean that we do not have a special sentiment toward own.
The Left in the nations of the North must reconstruct its discourse, guided by an appreciation that nationalist ideas and patriotic sentiments are fundamental to the consciousness and commitment of the people. We may be disappointed and perhaps angry with certain tendencies in our nation, but when we permit ourselves to reject our nation, we fall into alienation from ourselves. Any critique of the nation must make abundantly clear that the critic stands with and defends the nation. This is a necessary for the psychological wellbeing of the critic, and it is a prerequisite for being politically effective. When the Left is unable to project a patriotic commitment to the nation and an internationalist solidarity that contains nationalist consciousness, it renders itself marginal, leaving the political field to a right-wing nationalism that aggressively attacks the sovereignty of other nations.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
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