There’s No Such Thing as Nationalism Without Ethnic Cleansing
What’s happening in the U.S. is the result of one party giving itself over to the goal of making America whiter
A funny thing happened at the launch of Turning Point UK: Candace Owens started talking about Adolf Hitler.
The launch was meant to be a triumphant beginning for the British offshoot of Turning Point USA, the notorious American megadonor-funded conservative nonprofit. It featured both Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, and Candace Owens, an African-American conservative who touts “blexit” as a means to convince black Americans to leave the Democratic Party. Owens answered a question about nationalism by offering a hypothetical in which Hitler stayed in Germany, made it great, and didn’t try to conquer Europe.
“I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism,’” she said. (Though the speech was in December, the clip only resurfaced this month.) “The definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism.” Instead, Owens explained, the problem is that “whenever we say ‘nationalism,’ the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. You know, he was a national socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay, fine. The problem is… he had dreams outside of Germany… He wanted everybody to be German. Everybody to be speaking German… To me that’s not nationalism.”
Owens might be right about one thing: For most Americans, the word “nationalism” probably does conjure an image of Hitler. That’s for good reason. He was, in fact, a nationalist, and not a socialist or a “globalist,” a term that modern conservatives use to attack Jews. What’s more, Hitler’s worst acts emerged directly from his nationalism. He murdered millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, disabled people, and political prisoners not because he wanted to “globalize,” but because his nationalism drove him to define the fit from the unfit, the German from the alien, and then exterminate the latter. This kind of definition of in-group and out-group is fundamental to nationalism even when it doesn’t result in genocide.
This mindset has taken root in the modern American conservative communities that Candace Owens seeks to represent. Modern American nationalism is not the same as Nazism, but it requires the same kind of thinking. In Trump’s case, the out-groups are principally Latinx and Muslims, including those residing within the borders (legally or not) and those outside the unbuilt wall.
Since Trump’s inauguration, his administration has concurrently embraced nationalist rhetoric (often explicitly using the term “nationalism”) and executed various policies intended to make America whiter. These actions are connected — and it’s because they’re connected that so many conservatives feel required to defend the term “nationalism.” There’s no reason to fear that 21st-century American ethnic cleansing will look like either Nazi Germany or the 19th-century American ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Andrew Jackson (Trump’s favorite president). But it is still present: When the Trump administration turned the Department of Homeland Security into a vehicle for ethnic cleansing, that was nationalism. And when Trump sent troops to the border, tried to expel Vietnamese war refugees, lied about the caravan, attacked birthright citizenship, and every time he links making America great again to building a wall, he’s relying on nationalism to push his agenda.
This kind of definition of in-group and out-group is fundamental to nationalism even when it doesn’t result in genocide.
There’s a mound of scholarly literature linking the praise of in-groups (that is, the “it’s okay to be white” crowd) in nationalist movements with the denigration of out-groups. It doesn’t take a microscope to see the pattern at work in our own history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the quota system imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924 both emerged from movements seeking to keep the United States as white (with “whiteness” as a slippery term that expands and contracts over time) as possible. Nativism and anti-black racism merged in the 1920s, manifesting not just in the quota system, but also in events like the Tulsa massacre and the xenophobic execution of Italians Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Italians are now “white” Americans, but the system that killed them hasn’t changed much. I think about them every time the Trump administration starts announcing crimes committed by immigrants. I also remember the way Hitler’s regime published lists of crimes committed by Jews.
The use of camps, troops on our borders, and the other excesses of Trump’s DHS did not appear out of nowhere when he took office. Our immigration system has never been a bastion of racial equity and justice. But things are getting worse. Writing for the New York Review of Books, immigration reporter Tina Vasquez argues that the Trump administration has taken the enhanced immigration policing of the Obama regime (Obama sought to pair more action at the border in exchange with latitude for those already here) and empowered anti-immigrant actors to exercise force with little oversight or discretion. ICE no longer prioritizes immigration enforcement actions against criminals or national security risks, but it can pursue any immigrant, anywhere, anytime, without oversight. Vasquez writes that although the Obama administration built a “deportation machine,” it’s been handed off to an administration that deploys it without remorse. “Trump created a human rights crisis at the border,” she writes, “by separating families and disappearing them into an ill-equipped immigration system that has failed to reunite all of them.” The American Immigration Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, writes that Trump’s immigration enforcement forces are tearing U.S. society apart, but that’s only true if one believes that immigrants are part of U.S. society. Conservative nationalism, in its pursuit to “make America great again,” argues differently.
What’s happening in the country today is the result of one party giving itself wholly over to the goal of making America whiter. The stories emerging from ICE and Border Patrol activities, in particular, seem to reflect an intentional policy of cruelty and neglect. Consider that in June 2018, the Department of Homeland Security opened or expanded several facilities in which to concentrate “unaccompanied alien children.” The biggest of these was a camp in Tornillo Texas, to which the DHS shuttled the children in the middle of the night. That camp has now closed after months of protest, but Robert Moore, writing for Texas Monthly, calls it “the symbol of perhaps the largest mass incarceration of children not charged with a crime since the Japanese-American internment of World War II.” International human rights law has yet to settle on a formal definition of ethnic cleansing, and outrages like the Tornillo camp, the troops tear-gassing women and children at the border, or other acts perpetrated by Trump’s domestic security forces do not yet measure up in number or scale to the kinds of atrocities that have taken place elsewhere. That’s largely, I fear, not due to the rule of law or concerns about blowback, but because the GOP nationalist project doesn’t need to expel large numbers yet. They just want people to be afraid.
Which brings me to Trump’s wall. Why does he care so much about the wall? I’ve written elsewhere that the wall is an overpriced solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (border crossings are at a 47-year low), but that wouldn’t solve the problem if it did exist (most illegal immigration and drug trafficking does not rely on stealthy border crossing). It seems Trump and his nationalist backers understand that the symbol of the wall is vital to their agenda. It slams down a literal line in the sand between the in-groups and out-groups, signifying his promise to push as many non-white people outside the wall as it takes to maintain white minority rule over an increasingly diversifying country.
Candace Owens called Hitler a globalist. That’s a tell in multiple ways. Globalism has become synonymous with Judaism in white supremacist hate speech. It’s a dog whistle allowing anti-Semitic rhetoric to move through mainstream channels, and now even from the White House. But globalism, the idea that we are connected in ways that defy borders, does stand in opposition to a regime that seeks to slam down walls between in-groups and the out-groups and then empower domestic security forces to keep driving the latter across the borders.
Trump is a nationalist. We know because he said, “I am a nationalist.” He says it a lot. Nationalism requires ethnic cleansing. The Trump administration is pushing policies that would make America whiter. We don’t know whether it will ever escalate to the worst excesses of nationalist ethnic cleansing in human history, but it’s clear enough that the radical elements of right-wing America are eager to go down that path. That’s what the “again” in MAGA stands for.