Clever people understand life is far too complex for simple-minded allegiances
With a tsunami of mindless populism sweeping the world and destroying our fragile civilization, it’s not surprising a lot of people consider themselves to be patriots while supporting policies that in fact serve to destroy the values they think they hold dear.
So why is this? Why do Trump supporters, Brexiteers, Le Pen voters, Orban supporters, and so many other supporters of demagogues around the world believe they are patriots? What, in fact, does patriotism even mean?
According to Wikipedia, Patriotism or national pride is the feeling of love, devotion and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment. This attachment can be a combination of many different feelings relating to one’s own homeland, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects. It encompasses a set of concepts closely related to nationalism.
The key thing to note here is the stress on emotion and the absence of any intellectual component. A patriot is someone who loves their country right or wrong, who is intolerant of any criticism of their nation, and who believes their nation is “the best” regardless of the absence of any factual data supporting such a claim.
Even better, because patriots are usually extremely ignorant of the history of their country (though they will have a fantasy version that they imagine is real) they are largely or totally unaware of the many problems and flaws existing in the nation they identify with.
As we’re a primate group species we are hardwired to belong to a group. For most of our evolutionary history this wasn’t problematic: we were born within, lived within, and died within, a single inter-related group. After the agricultural revolution eleven thousand years ago and the resultant development of large urban collectives, things became more complicated. Today, with the existence of vast nation-states, it’s very difficult for people to feel they truly belong to anything. Companies don’t offer much in the way of group security as downsizing and job-hopping mean that most of us don’t stay with any one employer for more than a few years. The nuclear family means that many of us don’t have large stable groups of relatives we can rely on.
So we’ve invented substitutes: sports teams, celebrities, and political Parties provide what we no longer have as a default. A significant part of many people’s self-identity rests on their group affiliations. This means that we will tend to stick with our Party, cheer for our team, and defend our celebrities regardless of facts.
We’re desperate to feel we’re part of something, and the less successful we are, the more we cling to these outward props.
It’s no surprise therefore that the most ardent Trump supporters, the most committed Brexiteers, the most loyal Le Pen voters, etc. are drawn from the lower classes and tend to comprise people who’ve failed at life. We’re talking about the less intelligent, the hopelessly ignorant, the incompetent. These are the people who are most desperate for validation.
Trump, Brexit, etc. seem to offer these inadequate individuals a kind of personal salvation.
Of course, we’ve seen this before: Mussolini’s followers, Hitler’s followers, Mao’s followers, Lenin’s followers, Pol Pot’s followers, were all drawn from the same well. They all imagined themselves to be patriots following a Great Leader who would save their nation.
Intelligent and well-informed people aren’t patriots because no nation is without deep flaws. Intelligent people seek to address the problems of their country in order to improve things. Intelligent people recognize foolish decisions by political leaders and will protest against them. Intelligent people can imagine how things could be, and will try to find ways to secure better outcomes for the future.
Stupid people, however, can’t do any of these things. Consequently they regard any criticism of their nation as being traitorous and therefore unpatriotic. Because stupid people are so heavily invested in the fantasy version of their country, they can’t tolerate anything that threatens this picture. The usual response of a so-called patriot to someone pointing out a defect in their country is, “If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else!”
Patriotism gives stupid people a way to feel they are part of something worthwhile. They don’t have to struggle intellectually because all that’s required of them is to wear a cap, wave a flag, and chant a sound-bite they’ve been fed. All they have to do is cheer for the Great Leader and obey orders.
Progress is impossible with this attitude, but for the so-called patriot that’s just fine because they believe that progress is bad. Everything was better yesterday so if only we support policies that seem like they’ll carry us back to The Good Old Days then all will be well. For the patriot, progress is always bad because it carries society further from the past. This is, incidentally, why patriots are so often also religionists: both believe in a fantasy version of life and both believe that the past holds the true keys to perfection.
In short, patriotism is ideal for people of limited intellectual capacity. It offers a simplistic black/white up/down right/wrong view of the world that is within the grasp of the ignorant and unintelligent. It provides a sense of belonging and redemption. It validates the desire of the low-status to feel better about themselves by treating others badly. Patriotism casts everyone else as bad, wrong, an enemy, a potential enemy, not us. Therefore it’s good to be unpleasant to everyone who’s not in our group.
That’s why for patriots, throwing terrified small children into concentration camps is actually good, not evil. That’s why for patriots, beating up pregnant Polish women in the streets of British towns is actually good, not evil.
The reader is invited to consider whether there is even a single example in history of a demagogue who has not relied on demonizing others in order to gain power.
The fact is, all demagogues succeed in the same way because it’s so easy to manipulate stupid people. All that’s needed is to create an enemy, instill fear and loathing of that enemy, proclaim a “solution” that will get rid of the enemy, and the howling mindless mob will do the rest. And every single one of them will believe they’re being patriotic.
Patriots are the most easily manipulated people alive.