Trump, Le Pen and the Enduring Appeal of Nationalism

Mark Mazower, Financial Times, April 29, 2016

The flags are flying, the anthems ring out. We live in the time of the homeland, of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Freedom party’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, fresh from his resounding victory in the first round of the Austrian presidential poll. Trump has called on Americans to resist “the false song of globalism”. “In a huge number of European countries, patriotic movements are surging vigorously,” was how Le Pen greeted news of Hofer’s victory last weekend. Nationalism is back like it never went out of fashion and, with it, the head-scratching, the puzzlement. How to explain the irrational, the commentators ask. Doesn’t the Brexit camp realise leaving the European Union is a crazy idea? Don’t Trump’s millions understand that he is promising the impossible?

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Donald Trump’s campaign too has been fuelled by the tropes of nationalism. There is the grievance that the country’s rightful place in the world has been jeopardised, and the confidence that all it takes is one man’s leadership to put that straight. There will be a new era and there is the nationalist’s promise of unity: “We will be unified, we will be one, we will be happy again”–in Trump’s case so hard to separate from the flexing of biceps and the belligerent talk home and abroad. This week’s foreign-policy speech was notable not for its policy details but for its defensive tone. America’s greatness, to read Trump, will return by doing less rather than more, and by protecting its own borders, not those of others–a shot across the bows to countries such as Ukraine, perhaps? And protecting its own workers, too: his campaign has tapped more successfully than any other into the country’s growing inequality and doubts about globalisation. Above all, there is the demand for respect, and the diagnosis of a problem–out-of-touch elites with their own agenda, not “the people’s”.

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The nation-state is basically no more than two centuries or so old, and in some places it is much younger than that. Yet the ideal of sovereign independence and political community it enshrines retains enormous appeal even in the face of the economic threat posed by globalisation. The new nationalisms seek to defend against this threat. The liberalisation of trade and capital flows may have started to equalise wealth across continents but they have brought a new degree of inequality within countries, eroded the prospects of middle-class life and finished off what was left of working-class communities in the old 19th-century industrial heartlands of the west in particular.

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This is why today’s nationalist revival is so prominent in the west itself and why on both sides of the Atlantic the answer, if there is one, to the new sirens of nationalism will be found not in decrying it as a form of political idiocy–populism by another name–but rather in developing alternative visions of national wellbeing. In particular we need to recover the capacity to see the national and the international as necessary complements. The pro-European nationalist and the patriotic internationalist will then perhaps re-emerge as possibilities, rather than the contradictions-in-terms they presently seem.

Ironically, it is the parties of the far-right in the EU that come closest to this–coalescing around the slogan of a “Europe of fatherlands”. The real problem is not so much with the idea as with what they in particular would do with it. Their version is heavy on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric; the alternative is not European federalism but something that stresses economic rather than racial solidarity, a return to some form of role for national governments in long-range investment planning, and a return to fiscal instruments for economic recovery rather than the current total reliance on central banks. That too would be a form of nationalism, internationalist in spirit, ethnically inclusive rather than repressive, and–as it happens–much closer than anything currently on offer to the mix of policies that underpinned European integration in its early and highly successful decades.

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