Those who survived the bloody undoing of Yugoslavia saw the havoc nationalism can wreak. It is hard not to worry about its symptoms now.
Ever since Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy and rank racism in 2015, those of us who’d witnessed the nationalist undoing in the Balkans at the end of the last millennium have found the subsequent rise of Trumpism frighteningly familiar. We quickly recognized a host of nationalist pathologies: the tactical importance of bigotry, since enemies must be ceaselessly identified and hated; relentless misogyny as a means of controlling women and their bodies, because the nation is a masculinist project where women serve as wombs for national reproduction; a profusion of lies, conspiracy theories, and plain nonsense, since reality is controlled by the enemies (fake news, deep state, the Jews, etc.) and must be perpetually undone and redone; the coalescing of a diverse political field around a leader and a stupidly conceptual goal (Greatness! Capitalism! Freedom!); loyalist cabals who are vetted, validated, and eliminated by the leader’s whims; and rampant venality combined with a criminal reconfiguration of the economy.
But the most important and troubling symptom is the open and ceaseless commitment to conflict meant to culminate in transformative, cathartic violence; this marks the beginning of collective self-actualization. As we bear witness to armed white American militias storming or protesting outside government institutions, it is clear that the chaos and tragedy of Covid-19 are being used by Trump and the GOP to enhance the conflict and accelerate the birth of a new, greater America. At the heart of every nationalist mythology is some kind of a rebirth, usually bloody and requiring sacrifices, preferably of the weak and the doubtful.
At the heart of every nationalist mythology is some kind of rebirth, usually bloody and requiring sacrifices.
Because those who experienced the bloody undoing of Yugoslavia have already seen the havoc nationalism wreaked in their own lives and countries, it is hard not to worry about its symptoms again — or, as a Bosnian saying goes: If you were bitten by a snake, you’re scared of lizards. It would be wrong, of course, to ignore the differences between the histories, including the respective political conditions, in pre-dissolution Yugoslavia and in the United States in the last few years (or decades). Still, insisting there are no points of comparison means accepting the proposition at the root of every emanation of nationalism: that “our” nation is unlike any other, historically unique and incomparable. If one is not blinded by that kind of essentialist entitlement, the common practices of nationalism become recognizable across cultures and histories.
Take the nationalist conviction that the nation is oppressed by state structures controlled by (the) others and is therefore unable to fulfill its unique potential, which is why state structures need to be smashed, along with those who control them. Such a conviction is repeatedly fueled by Trump and widely shared by his supporters, not least by those brandishing assault rifles around the state legislatures of Michigan, Virginia, and Ohio, soon to arrive in your neighborhood.
Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader who in died in 2006 in the Hague while on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the 1990s in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, similarly framed his nationalist narrative. He insisted that the Serbian people made sacrifices for Yugoslavia but were instead cheated out of their victorious gains by those who controlled the federal state. He wanted to reshape Yugoslavia so that his people could rightfully dominate it and thus make Serbia great again, or greater. Similarly, for the Croat nationalists, led by Franjo Tudjman, once a general in the Yugoslav People’s Army, only an ethnically pure nation state could provide freedom and actualization. Milosevic and Tudjman were on opposing sides, but their projects were akin. Both strived to destroy the Yugoslav state by any means necessary. Pursuing a conflict that would irreversibly undo civic and governmental structures was essential to their nationalist projects.
The conflictual essence of Trumpism was made fully evident very early, in the course of the Republican primaries in 2016. While all the other GOP candidates tried to validate their garden-variety bigotry by importing fancy reactionary ideas and referring gratuitously to the Bible, the Framers, or some historical figure or another, the only thing Trump consistently offered was his pathological narcissism (exactly matching the popular belief in American exceptionalism) and his penchant for conflict and aggression. He promised, implicitly and explicitly, revenge and punishment for those who wronged white America. As we now know all too well, white America’s response to Trumpian revenge fantasies was quick and enthusiastic, and thus the GOP graduated from a routinely racist conservative party to one unquestionably committed to white nationalism, up to and including outright white supremacy.
Trumpism is nothing without the constant perpetuation of conflict.
In the meantime, Trump, the chosen tool of undoing, has been carrying out his promises, with the full and passionate support of the GOP and many of its rich donors. The claims of false and foolish pundits notwithstanding, at no point was Trump going to relent, change, or metamorphose into being “presidential,” for the simple reason that Trumpism is nothing without the constant perpetuation of conflict.
For many of my fellow ex-Yugoslavs, it was instantly clear that once the GOP and Trump committed to conflict and destruction, they could never afford to quit, for that would constitute a tactical error leading to an irreversible defeat. They now have no choice but to follow their trajectory to its logical extreme, which must be victory and rebirth at all cost. They will kill if they have to, or at least let Covid-19 do it.
When armed Trumpists pretend to be a happening of good people who demand the end of the lockdown, anti-fascist ex-Yugoslavs don’t necessarily see an American version of murderous Serbian paramilitaries. What we see with heart-clenching clarity is that the familiar nationalist strategy of perpetually inciting conflict is advancing along a predictable trajectory.
What is even more frightening is the hankering across the political range for a magical national correction, the indulging of a persistent fantasy that some essential American quality (decency, reasonability, checks and balances, etc.) will finally kick in and halt the Trumpist madness, thus allowing the country to snap out of its nightmare and revert to its good old national essence. That was never going to happen: The ongoing conflict is not a glitch but a process that cannot be stopped or resolved politically. With the GOP in death-cult mode, a steady destruction of checks and balances previously imagined to be fail-safe, the jelly-spined leadership of the Democratic Party, and the Soviet-grade purging of any disloyalty or disobedience in the federal systems, Trump has effectively destroyed American politics.
What the actual resolution might look like, I fear to envision, but I know it will not resemble anything Americans can remember or dare to imagine.