Donald Trump, ISIS, the State of the Nation and the nation state

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In the wake of a slew of ultra-nationalist claims from Republican candidate Donald Trump, there are a few things we should all remember about the “nation”, writes Alex Jones.

OF ALL Donald Trump’s recent, abhorrent declarations, perhaps the most interesting – and also the least analysed – is his matter-of-fact announcement

“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.”

We are consistently told by the media and politicians touting a neoliberal agenda that we live in a borderless, globalised world.

Yet, with Trump’s call to construct a monolithic border between the USA and Mexico, refugees from the Middle East (particularly Syria) traipsing across Europe’s heavily guarded borders, and ISIS erecting its own transnational, de-facto state, it would seem that a conversation about the legitimacy and restructuring of state boundaries and national character is well overdue.

That a country loses control of itself when its borders are porous or malleable is not only historically inaccurate and misleading, but it provides a key framework into how to understand Trump’s peculiarly fascist conception of the modern nation-state.

Indeed, Trump’s border comments eerily echo Mussolini’s classic slogan during the heyday of Italian fascism:

“Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Trump’s notion is that the nation, if it is to maintain legitimacy, must remain a fixed and immutable entity across space and time. It is a perniciously Manichean worldview that reduces several widely recognised territorial entities to “failed states”, both in the present and historically.

Take, for instance, France’s loss of the territories of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1870 and then again to the Nazis during World War II. So much for modern day Ukraine, as the Crimea has been illegally occupied by Russia since the end of 2014. So much, too, for Palestine and its non-contiguous, continually invaded, borders, which are recognised by 138 countries across the world but, interestingly, not by the USA.

Not only are nations constantly in flux – what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities,” based on the bonds of a shared history, language, culture, and so on – but the same is true for states (territories with geographical boundaries). Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s own homeland. France sold the USA a vast swath of the American mid-west via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; Russia likewise sold Alaska to Uncle Sam in 1867. The USA even annexed a recently independent Texas in 1845, essentially wresting it from Mexico as a part of President Polk’s expansionist ambitions.  

So the modern day nation-state is a historical project that is never entirely finished. And although it may appear to be set in stone, one might reasonably warn Trump that its mutability will continue well into the future. There is no reason to assume that what we now know to be the USA will look the same – whether territorially or culturally – in 50 or 100 years.

What rankles is that, although Trump is hardly subtle enough to engage in dog-whistle politics, one hears in his comments a taunt at France who has “lost control” of its borders prior to the Paris attacks of November 13. Crucial to Trump’s remarks, however, is the skewed assumption that Paris was wholesale infiltrated by violent migrants, regardless of the fact that several of the perpetrators were European born.

But this is precisely the point. Trump’s appeal to nativist sentiment in America taps into 19th Century French academic Ernest Renan’s landmark theory that the modern nation is built just as much upon what it remembers as what it forgets. Such historical context is missing from Trump’s static account of what and, more importantly, who constitute the modern nation-state. The real-estate tycoon advocates religious intolerance of Muslims, yet conveniently forgets that America was settled in the early 17th Century by European Puritans fleeing religious persecution.

Across the Atlantic, as Jason Wilson writes in The Guardian, the drastic shift to the right of France’s political elites following the Paris attacks involves a peculiar act of historical amnesia: the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 left approximately 30,000 people dead across France as Catholics, under the auspices of Charles IX, massacred their Huguenot counterparts in a grotesque act of religious persecution.

The West may have forgotten some of their history, but ISIS certainly haven’t.

As Robert Fisk notes, one of the group’s first videos finished with a handwritten message – 'End of Sykes-Picot' – referring to the division of the Middle East in 1916 by the ruling colonial powers of the time:

'The bloody repercussions of the borders that the British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew in secret during the First World War – originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British – are known to every Arab, Christian and Muslim and, indeed, every Jew in the region.'

As an 'Anglo-French colonial production', ISIS are not only fighting a vast assortment of military and rebel forces on the ground. They are fighting against an idea, that peculiar feat of Eurocentric praxis known as the “nation” which has been literally mapped onto the modern Middle East, in which, as Fisk writes,

'... borders, watchtowers and hills of sand ... [divide] ... tribes, families and peoples.'

The mainstream media won’t tell you this though. They are too focused on ISIS’s primitive barbarism (executions, destruction of relics) and propaganda tactics to add this crucial layer of historical nuance to the issue. History makes ISIS intelligible, though unfortunately no less violent.

Even the common criticism that ISIS are neither “Islamic” nor a “state” is consequently slightly misleading, as the latter term at least can only be interpreted through the European framework that produced it. Reacting against the West, they are creating a caliphate, whose territorial boundaries are constantly changing in their own image.

From an absolutely brutal perspective, Trump’s offensive pronouncement last month that “There is no Iraq” is right, though not for the reasons that he thinks. In Trump’s mind, there is no Iraq because its population, infrastructure and former stability has been decimated by the illegal Bush-Blair invasion of 2003. Historically, however, Iraq is something that the peoples of the Middle East never had any say in and, in some senses, this makes it illegitimate.

It is the fact that countries are permanently in a state of flux – as Renan knew, they are a “daily plebiscite” – that really irks Trump. Not just spatial geography, but the people who constitute an imagined political community are amorphous and ever-changing. In America at least they are of all races, creeds, and religions. As for Trump, he’s just hoping that we’ve forgotten that fact. Let’s make sure we remember it.

You can follow Alex Jones on Twitter @AlexJon08509680.

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