Status anxiety and nationalism

“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”—George Orwell on nationalism

I’ve written before about the status anxiety that drives some people to resist equality for others. It’s a zero-sum game: if blacks, women or gays gain equality, whites, men or straights lose their special status. As others have said, if you’re used to privilege, loss of privilege feels like oppression.

The Orwell quote shows the same can be true of the way some people see America. I’ve known people who seem to see a corollary between America’s greatness and their own sense of status: if America is the greatest nation, especially specially blessed by God, then they’re awesome just for being American. It’s why it’s so important other people acknowledge American exceptionalism: if we’re not exceptional we lose that competitive privilege Orwell talked about.

I suspect it’s part of the reason Republicans obsess over having a strong leader. Even though Trump is a whiny infant who changes direction to say whatever’s convenient, some of them love imagining him as the president with balls. Obama, in contrast, was a fawning lap-dog who groveled before foreign leaders and refused to unleash nuclear devastation on our enemies. HE WAS WEAK! Obviously this is about politics and the desires of authoritarian followers too; some right-wingers admire the very non-American Putin because he’s the kind of strong, masculine figure they want in charge. But I think status anxiety’s mixed in too.

It’s a toxic mix, but I’ve no idea how to drain this particular swamp.


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