In America, Civic Nationalism is White Nationalism
Civic pride for a nation founded and maintained through white supremacy is white pride. Political violence in the name of civic nationalism is white supremacist violence. We have to stop mincing words.
On August 4th, 2018, thousands of protesters amassed on the streets of Portland, Oregon to defend their city from a group of outside agitators. A month before, Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys had showed up and severely injured several anti-racist and antifascist protesters. When they returned in August, the counter protesters were much more prepared.
On the day of the protest, Proud Boys and Patriot Prater supporters refused to enter to park they were permitted to demonstrate in because entrance to the park required disarmament. This resulted in one side of a major city street full of illegally assembled Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer supporters, and another side full of antifascist and anti-racist counter-demonstrators. In between stood the Portland Police who quickly declared both gatherings unlawful and demanded that people disperse. Shortly after, the police fired tear gas, flash bang grenades, and rubber bullets into the crowd of antifascists, while across the street, the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer supporters cheered.
The police had clearly taken a side. That shouldn’t surprise us.
What is Civic Nationalism?
Both the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have worked to distance themselves from white supremacist fascists within the American far right. The Proud Boys consider themselves civic nationalists and western chauvinists, and Patriot Prayer has also claimed to be civic nationalists opposed to any forms of ethnic supremacy.
Both groups prominently display their token members of color in order to claim that they are not white supremacists, and they avoid openly praising white supremacist figures. Given the both groups insistence that they are not white nationalists, we might wonder what exactly the civic nationalism they uphold is.
Civic nationalism is a form of nationalism which praises loyalty to the nation, not as an ethno-state, but as a more broadly defined concept and tradition of thought and action. In the United States, civic nationalists can be seen flying the American flag, the Confederate battle flag, and Gadsen flag instead of Nazi flags. They insist that they are loyal to America as a nation and a tradition of western legal and political thought.
Such civic nationalism makes a tacit nod towards the possibility of racial inclusion, by highlighting its supporters of color, but ultimately still rejects cultural heterogeneity in favor of a homogeneous and color blind American identity. For civic nationalists, race is something we can move beyond, because national identity transcends race. Civic nationalists tend to adopt causes which demand assimilation and abandonment of culture in order to gain access to this colorblind american identity.
This stance towards race allows civic nationalists to claim that they are opposed to racism, while simultaneously arguing that immigrants are tainting this post racial american identity, and that people of color who maintain distinct cultural traditions within the United States are acting divisively and must assimilate. In short, American civic nationalism demands loyalty to the United States, silence about issues of structural racism, opposition to any assertion of unique cultural identity beyond the scope of a post racial American identity, and continued defense of the legacy of America’s political actions and ideals.
Civic Nationalism and White Supremacy:
Despite vocal denunciation of white supremacy and ethnic fascist organizing, Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys have continually sided with white supremacists. At the August rally in Portland, the crowd of civic nationalists featured several neonazis including one wearing a fascist Volknut symbol (pictured left).
Additionally, multiple members of the proud boys were present at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, where neo nazis murdered a local socialist organizer. At this event, Proud Boys fought side by side with the neo nazi National Socialist Movement, the fascist American Vanguard, and the white supremacist Traditional Workers Party.
On the one hand it might be possible to attribute these actions to the decisions of individual members of various civic nationalist groups. On the other hand, a careful examination of the darker side of civic nationalism can show us how these actions reflect the values which are at the core of this ideology.
Lets think for a moment about the symbols that civic nationalists associate themselves with. I will examine three in depth: The Confederate Battle flag, The Thin Blue Line flag, and the American flag. These are symbols which represent the mythic American identity which civic nationalists unify around, and enact political violence in defense of.
The Confederate battle flag is a popular symbol of the Civil War and has come to represent the cause of the secessionist southern states. The southern states broke away from the Union primarily over the issue of slavery. Confederate president Alexander H Stephens famously claimed that the confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Additionally, much of the motivation for secession was grounded in southern frustration over the Missouri Compromise which allowed Maine to enter the union as a free state without slavery.
When we examine this history, it becomes clear that the American legacy that civic nationalists demand loyalty to is a legacy of slaver and white supremacy. The battle flag they fly was flown in defense of a system which subjugated, raped, and murdered black people for economic gain. Not only does this flag represent the institution of slavery, but it reflects an explicitly white supremacist theory of race. As Stephens’ quote emphasizes, slavery was understood as a system of racial supremacy. A system of white supremacy. The civic nationalists, with all their careful rhetoric around opposing racial supremacy, thus ultimately choose to show up on the streets of America’s cities holding a flag which represents one of the most heinous historical projects of white supremacy.
Another extremely popular symnol among civic nationalists is the Thin Blue Line flag (also called the Blue Lives Matter flag). This flag is meant to represent unwavering loyalty to the American police forces. Civic nationalists see the maintenance of the law, loyalty to police enforcement, and unquestioning obedience to civil authorities as absolute necessities.
But what does it mean to pledge loyalty to the history of American policing? Well, the notion of standing police forces in America began with runaway slave patrols. While policing had always existed as reactive response to crime, the idea of patrolling and constantly proactive police emerged as a result of attempts to capture runaway slaves. Early police forces used to break labor strikes in the United States were conscripted directly from such slaver patrols. As such, the history of the police force which civic nationalists declare loyalty to, is a history of white supremacy.
This white supremacist function of police is not merely a relic of the past, however. Contemporary police forces continually slaughter unarmed black Americans with near total impunity. Every month we learn the name of yet another innocent black man gunned down by police for the color of his skin. It is this ongoing process of summary execution of black Americans which civic nationalists declare loyalty to. In short, the civil authorities which they choose to praise are themselves white supremacists.
The final symbol I want to address is the most popular of the various civic nationalist symbols, and its use extends far beyond their ranks: The American Flag. What exactly does the American Flag represent?
Historically, it has represented the country that promoted Manifest Destiny — the continual colonization of the North American continent — and the wholesale slaughter of indigenous Americans. The infamous trail of tears was presided over by soldiers wearing the American flag. Native children who were kidnapped and put into boarding schools were taken by officers wearing the American flag. Indigenous Americans who died defending their land from colonizers who decided they must control the whole continent were killed by soldiers wearing the American Flag. And today this flag is still flown by the government that continually denies living native Americans of resources to survive, all while confining their sovereignty to small plots of land. This still ongoing genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas has been so thorough and brutal that Hitler himself said he took inspiration from it.
And what does the American flag stand for today? For many, it is the flag that represents the drones who bomb their families. For many, it represents the occupying forces who invaded and destroyed their country. The American flag has been proudly worn by soldiers who slaughtered Vietnamese resistance fighters, who turned Iraq into a stateless tragedy, who overthrew the democratically elected leaders of Chile and Iran, who have killed people of color around the world so that white Europeans might steal their national resources and prosper from their toiling labor. The American flag itself is undeniably a symbol of white supremacy and imperialism.
American Civic Nationalism is White Supremacist Nationalism:
So, what is the takeaway from all of this?
First, America as a nation is white supremacist. Its police, its military, and its politicians have historically upheld systemic white supremacy. To this day, America’s international role is to ensure resource extraction from the global south for the sake of western nations. This represents a continuation of the politics of white supremacy, on a global scale.
Second, this means that civic nationalism in America is always already white supremacist nationalism, because the nation it seeks to construct a national identity out of is a white supremacist nation. The symbols that civic nationalists choose to reflect their politics clearly demonstrate the fact that while they may decry organization of society on the basis of race, the nation which they pledge allegiance to has continually attempted to subjugate people of color in the name of white supremacy.
Third, we shouldn’t be surprised when Nazis show up at the civic nationalist rallies of the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, because in the end, both side uphold the same long term goals. They may package it differently, and their rhetoric may sound different, but both pledge allegiance to white supremacy.
Fourth, we have to be opposed to the civic nationalism of the liberal left as well. Liberal and democrats who pledge allegiance to the United States and who proudly fly the flag of American imperialism are just as much supporters of white supremacist nationalism. Liberal demands for welfare, universal healthcare, and loan forgiveness are nothing more than attempts to redistribute the stolen wealth of the global south on land that has been stolen from indigenous Americans.
With all this in mind, we shouldn't be surprised that when the police fired crowd control weapons on August 4th, they only fired them at the anti-racist protesters. The police and the civic nationalists are on the same side. They are one and the same, inasmuch as both of them violently defend a white supremacist nation. While the insidious rhetorical attempts of civic nationalists to distance themselves from white supremacy may be tedious to combat, they ultimately point to an important insight: there is no redeemable American nationalism which is possible. Those mobilizing on behalf of anti-racism and antifascism must do so not only in opposition to civic nationalists, but to the nation itself.
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