Last week, President Trump retweeted three videos originally posted by the extremist British politician Jayda Fransen. All three videos purport to show Muslim attackers violating innocent victims.
Amid the backlash against Trump’s promotion of these videos, it quickly became apparent that one of the clips was presented under false pretenses. The alleged “Muslim migrant” attacker was neither Muslim nor a migrant, according to multiple reports from the Netherlands, where the video originated.
When reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the false attribution, she replied, “I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” Even for an administration that operates by issuing a stream of lies and shifting claims, the defense was unusually forthright: the purpose of the deception was to show an allegedly deeper reality.
Trump is not the first to argue that enthusiastic depictions of suffering convey the essence of a political threat more truthfully than simple facts or documentary narratives. Indeed, nationalists in Europe have long claimed that “authentic fantasy” was better suited to showing their suffering than any factual documentation.
This rhetoric of victimization has a peculiar history. Nationalists have used stories of suffering not only to inspire collective sacrifice but also to encourage mass violence against entire communities perceived as threats.
Beginning in the 19th century, many nationalists across Europe, from Italy to Poland to the Balkans, began to depict their own nations as paragons of suffering at the hands of foreign oppressors. By emphasizing the dangers facing their nation — invaders, oppressors, traitors — nationalists hoped to inspire patriotic pride, action and sacrifice.
Divided Poland, for example, became “the Christ of nations” in the eyes of 19th-century Polish nationalists, who prophesied that their suffering would ultimately lead to the resurrection and freedom of all oppressed nations. Verdi’s famed “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” written in 1841, became an unofficial anthem of the Italian unification movement while celebrating the “harmony of voices, which may instill virtue to suffering.”
The struggles of Balkan nationalist movements against the Ottoman Empire show the popularity and longevity of mobilizations around suffering and looming threats. Throughout the 19th century, many Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian and Greek nationalists developed extensive repertoires — diplomatic memorandums, poems, music, paintings — documenting their struggle for freedom and their suffering at the hands of “the Turks” (a label synonymous with Muslims).
Some of these works acquired lasting fame while kindling hatred against “the Turks.” “The Death of Smail-Aga Cengic,” written by Ivan Mazuranic, became a national classic after its publication in 1846. The poem was based on an actual event: an 1840 skirmish during which a group of Montenegrin brigands killed Ismail (Smail-aga) Cengic, a notable from an elite Bosnian Muslim family.
The popular epic dwelled on scenes showing “the Turkish overlord” impaling and torturing Christian peasants and brigands. Only in the final triumphant scene do the Montenegrin highlanders band together to kill the brute.
But a number of troubling questions accompanied this work. While the 1840 ambush was real, was the poem “authentic” in representing what happened? Did its author misrepresent the events? Did it matter if he did?
Some 19th-century critics pointed to factual inconsistencies, while others questioned the authorship of work. Even some opponents of Ottoman rule like the Bosnian Franciscan friar Grga Martic could not entirely endorse the epic. In 1893, Martic called the impalement scenes “a complete poetic fabrication which in the poem exaggerates the cruelty of the Turks and makes the scene horrific.”
But such documentary challenges appeared irrelevant to most nationalists who argued that the epic retained its “authenticity” precisely because of its “fantasy.”
For nationalists, fantasy was not the opposite of reality, but a more perfectly realized ideal. Fantasy referred to the ability to reimagine something, to pierce through the veil of superficial issues to reveal an “authentic” essence of the event whose sensationalism conveyed the true stakes of the danger. Writers like August Senoa argued that the fantasy of “Smail-aga” was necessary because it revealed a deeper “psychological truth” of the event.
Such fantasy-based accounts quickly gained political traction. New nationalist and Orientalist productions loosely based on actual events — from diplomatic appeals to epics to paintings — were widely disseminated.
The “Smail-aga” epic, for example, became an integral part of school curriculums in Croatia and Serbia and appeared in over 30 languages, including German, French, Russian and English translations by the 20th century. The poem became a symbol of Turkish violence, so vicious and sadistic that the 1891 Encyclopaedia Britannica described the poem as “the Epos of Hate,” renowned for “stimulating [Serbian-Croatian] hatred of the Turk.”
The videos tweeted by Trump cannot be equated with 19th-century productions like “Smail-aga.” Today’s technologies, audiences and international contexts are profoundly different. Nonetheless, nationalists continue to use “authentic-fantastic” narratives to inspire mobilization against a variety of “threats.” The videos retweeted by Trump did not simply disregard facts. The White House press secretary argued that they reveal the reality and “elevate the conversation” about deeper threats and sacrifices. In other words, the threat was so great that only a sensationalistic depiction could accurately convey it.
We must remember the dangerous consequences of such claims. In the Balkans, for example, certain stories of victimization long outlived their original inspirations. Basic templates could be altered and reinvented with new enemies or for other purposes. Many decades after overthrowing the Turkish yoke, Serbian nationalists could revive narratives about Turk-like enemies even in the late 20th century — with catastrophic consequences.
Slobodan Milosevic’s staging of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989 turned the 600th anniversary of the Serbian defeat by the Ottomans into rallying ground for fresh nationalist mobilization. Invoking the rhetoric of “revenge against the Turks,” Milosevic and fellow war criminals like Ratko Mladic then led genocidal campaigns against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.
Trump’s staging of different battles — real and imagined — could be just as dangerous. This may sound alarmist to some Americans who still believe that Trump’s relentless endorsements of hateful fantasies will pass and things will somehow return to normal. History offers little support for such blind optimism — but it also gives us cause to resist rising nationalism at every step, from the Balkans to the United States.