To write on the Internet is to come across some enraging stories, but this one feels more than simply enraging—it feels emblematic. At a county fair and rodeo in Montana, a 39-year-old man allegedly slammed a 13-year-old boy to the ground, fracturing his skull. That boy’s crime? Not removing his hat during the national anthem. Curt Rockway, the grown-ass man, has been charged with felony assault of a minor. Read the sickening details, from Slate:
“He said (the boy) was disrespecting the national anthem so he had every right to do that,” eyewitness Taylor Hennick said. Brockway told a sheriff’s deputy that he had asked the boy to remove his hat for the anthem and that the boy cursed in response, though eyewitnesses did not corroborate that portion of Brockway’s retelling.
“There was a little boy lying on the ground,” Hennick told the Missoulian. “He was bleeding out of his ears, seizing on the ground, just not coherent.”
The boy had to be flown to a children’s hospital in Spokane, WA, and according to his parents he bled from his ears for six hours.
Now, it can be easy to read too much into an isolated incident like this, but it’s hard not to see it as the nationalist sickness consuming huge swaths of America. Five days ago, we read about a 29-year-old Kentucky man beating up a 61-year-old outside a Trump rally, and the motivation seems to have been little more than the fact that the older man was protesting in the first place. And of course, I don’t need to remind you about the spate of mass shootings, most recently in El Paso and Dayton, some of which have been motivated in part by anti-immigrant rhetoric.
We are a nation suffering from deep psychic pain, and for some of those sufferers, the brand of nationalism currently espoused by Trump (for which, by the way, he is not the first or only messenger) offers the appearance of a solution—it’s something to rally behind, something to believe in, something to give you a kind of focus or mission. I won’t pretend not to see the appeal, but ultimately it’s a toxic answer to a deeper problem. Even for those who never commit any major or minor atrocity in the name of America or Donald Trump, this nationalism is corrosive mentally because it needs suspicion and an enemy to thrive. It ushers in a new mindset, and it conditions them to live in a world where atrocities occur, even if they aren’t personally committing those atrocities.
And on the far end of the spectrum, as we’ve seen, it can lead to outrageous acts of violence, from assaulting a boy who is barely a teenager to murdering 22 people at a Wal-Mart. It’s in the interest of Donald Trump and other Republicans, not to mention the NRA, to paint these as isolated incidents, or to shift the attention to mental health. And obviously, mental health does play a part, but what we’re ignoring is that nationalism is very seductive to a certain kind of person who is predisposed to the philosophy, and can exacerbate existing mental health problems and make acts of violence more likely.
Stepping back from the victims, what about the rest of us? We’ve become inured to these stories, but “inured” doesn’t mean “immunized.” Every time we hear about another act of violence, it adds to our mental burden, and makes us gradually more discouraged. We are forced to live in this reality too, and it contributes to our collective fear not just about the direct consequences of nationalist violence, but what it says about the direction of our country. And as this story shows, we live in fear—a backfiring motorcycle in Times Square makes us think there’s another mass shooting, and triggers a stampede in which we hurt ourselves for no reason:
Nationalism in America could not be more arbitrary. None of us really even share an ethnic background (not that it would make it better), most us are former immigrants, and if you go back far enough in most family trees, we have family who were in similar positions to the people streaming across our southern border today. For all that’s good about our country, on the deepest human level the identity of being “American,” as opposed to any other nationality, is a distinction without a difference. And yet, so many have adopted the identity to give their own lives purpose, and the results have been deadly.
We don’t need Trump to be a literal Hitler, or for American to turn into Nazi Germany, in order to see where the disease of nationalism leads. Violence is inherent to the nationalist worldview, and is a totally unavoidable consequence once that worldview has taken root. That’s where we are today, and until we extinguish this concept of American exceptionalism and start viewing our country as an ongoing experiment that requires constant caretaking and improvement, we’re doomed to watch it collapse into hatred, bit by bit.