I have been reading, this week, one of the volumes on ancient Rome written by the great nineteenth century German historian Theodor Mommsen. He has been explaining to me the era of Sulla, a military strongman who usurped powers traditionally resting with the tribune, the senate and other long-standing institutions of governance; proscribed – and put bounties on the heads of – his enemies; and set in motion a train of chaotic, bloody, political events and civil conflicts that a generation later would see the Republic ‘morph into imperial rule.
Mommsen explored the corroded political and cultural environment in which such a man as Sulla flourished, of people with money and resources who turned a blind eye to his cruelty, or cravenly kowtowed to the dictator. He wrote of the “decayed and artificially restored Roman aristocracy of this age; in its judgment universally the spirit of clique was accounted as patriotism, vanity as ambition, and narrow-mindedness as consistency.”
He wrote, too, of the rise of wealthy, but intellectually mediocre, political opportunists. Men such as Crassus, “a politician who took his activity for energy and his covetousness for ambition, one who at bottom had nothing but a colossal fortune and the mercantile talent of forming connections.”
This same week I have also been reading an essay on nationalism, from the essay collection The Proper Study of Mankind,by the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, a towering figure in British intellectual life in the post-war decades, detailed the rise of nationalism in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, and its foul flowering in the twentieth century. He argued that, while in its early stage nationalism could be seen as liberating, there was an internal logic that leads all nationalisms to become increasingly exclusive and, eventually, violent. “If my group – let us call it nation – is freely to realise its true nature, this entails the need to remove obstacles in its path. Nothing that obstructs that which I recognise as my – that is my nation’s – supreme goal can be allowed to have equal value with it.”
Berlin was an extraordinarily acute analyst of the human condition. He understood how irrationalism could take root in a culture, and what happened when it did. Writing in the aftermath of a global war, triggered by the mad ambitions of hyper-nationalist leaders, he was deeply sensitive to the ways in which demagogic politicians and movements could fuel nationalism through cultivating “resentment” amongst the people; particularly if those people could be convinced that “they are faced by some common enemy, whether within the State or outside it – a Church or a government or foreign detractors.”
When I read Mommsen and Berlin, I see the dark shadows of our moment. We aren’t yet quite in the business of proscribing political enemies, but Trump has been taking to the airwaves recently to argue, loudly and crudely, that those who investigated his campaign’s links to Russian dirty tricks operatives are guilty of “treason,” a crime that has, historically, been punishable by death, and a charge that has, in America, thankfully been used only sparingly.
The last American to be convicted of treason – as opposed to an array of other espionage charges, which have been handed out far more frequently – was Tomoya Kawakita, a Japanese-American who tortured American POWs during world war two; he was sentenced to death, but President Eisenhower commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and he was later deported to Japan.
Now, nearly seventy years later, Trump is bandying about treason accusations left and right. He is behaving as a modern-day Sulla might, surrounded by a Cabinet of monied opportunists, seeking to proscribe his opponents, hoping to throw the might of the state into the fray. And he is doing so accompanied by a crescendo of violent, nationalist rhetoric.
Day after day, we are subjected to the lunacies of Trump’s nationalist resentment politics: to the notion that impoverished countries and peoples are “taking advantage of America,” are “laughing at us,” are conning and cheating and invading and raping and stealing from and selling drugs to… us.
In the name of America First nationalism, the Deutschland über allesphrase of our age, we are imprisoning unaccompanied minors — who have been sent on an extreme odyssey northward from Central America or gang-dominated regions of Mexico to the United States by parents desperate for their safety and their economic well-being – in evermore brutal conditions. This week, Trump’s people announced they would no longer even fund ESL classes and recreational activities for these detained children.
In the name of protecting the Homeland, we label the poor, hungry, tired, huddled masses of our time as a pestilence – as something to fear rather than somebodies to welcome. We treat them as feral beings, and then we set the hunters to work to trap and catch and destroy.
I was, last weekend, on the border with Mexico, in the desert regions of California’s Imperial County, a ninety minutes’ drive east of San Diego. Trump talks about building a Great Wall; in fact, along large stretches of the border, that wall – or rather steel-slatted fence – was already constructed during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. It was a waste of money then; it’s an even bigger waste of money now.
But beyond the illegal appropriation of billions of dollars, unapproved by Congress, to build even more wall to lock others out and psychologically lock Americans in, there is something new these days, something peculiarly, qualitatively, Trumpian about the border that divides the US city of Calexico from the Mexican conurbation of Mexicali: Razor wire. Huge, ugly, coils of razor wire atop the fence, on horizontal spikes coming off of the edifice, and all along the ground beneath. Mile upon mile upon mile of the damn stuff. It looks apocalyptic, like the heavily fortified frontiers of war-time Europe, or the no-man’s land separating the Koreas.
All that’s missing are the gun emplacements and the fields of land mines. And I’m sure some diabolic brain or other is hard at work inside the Oval Office working out just how and when to introduce those concepts into the public conversation, and which talking heads on Fox to use to promote these responses before a public aroused to fear by Trump’s “national emergency” declarations.
Those ghastly miles of razor wire contain a clear message: the wall is not just a physical barrier; in Trump and Stephen Miller’s reimagining it is annihilatory. It is intended to convey an image of vengeance. You dare to try to come onto our land, our sacred soil, we will rip your bodies to shreds.We will puncture your skins with a thousand cuts. We will entangle you in coils of pain so awful your compadres will never dare to try what you have done.
This is the nationalism that Trump extols when he hobnobs with the Far-Right on his European trips. It is the nationalism that Trump’s team is betting will carry him across the Electoral College line to victory in 2020. Stir up resentment, stir up fear of Muslims and Mexicans, of anchor babies and aliens, make enough people terrified that their land, their culture, their religion is under threat, and perhaps all of the scandals, the odor of corruption, the incompetence, the crudeness… perhaps all of that will be forgiven and the Strong Man will live to strut again.