The Fight over Nationalism Is About to Get Messy

The Fight over Nationalism Is About to Get Messy

President Trump needs to start caring about the war of words.

The storm is gathering. The next great battle in the world war of ideas will be over the meaning of nationalism. It’s a fight the United States cannot afford to lose—and one that the Trump administration will have to go “over there” to win.

Fire in the Mind

When a new idea lights up the world, there is always a dispute over what it means. At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Thomas Jefferson , then the U.S. minister to France, described it as the “brave & valiant citizens who have sealed with their blood the liberty of the nation.” The Irish statesman Edmund Burke called the upheaval a “strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.”

Similarly, in the 1930s, some Americans embraced communism as the brave new way forward. Others denounced Stalinism as the crime of the century.

Movements get really messy when they rise from the bottom up. Populist movements are particularly prone to generating admixtures of ideologies. No idea generated more confusion than the America First movement , an assemblage of Americans drawn to the anti-interventionist cause. After one gathering, one of the movement’s leaders, Charles Lindbergh, wrote in his diary, “some were solid citizens; some erratic; some intelligent; some stupid; all types are present at these meetings.” For the most part, all were welcomed to the fold—from pacifists to those arguing for “moral rearmament” or for real arms build-up—as long as they were against American entry into the war.


America’s other major modern antiwar movements weren’t that much different from America First. The anti-Vietnam protests crossed over political party lines. Everyone from potheads to popular intellectuals populated the picket lines. And while Code Pink might have been the face of anger over Iraq, there was no coherent political movement behind it, which was why the crusade largely evaporated as a national presence after President George W. Bush’s exit and the 2008 elections. The glue that held these movements together was opposition to a war.

Antiwar movements are not unique. Other recent waves of populist sentiment were more rainbow coalitions than a solid phalanx of purposeful agendas. The Tea Party movement exploded in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections. But as chapters popped up all over the country, attempts to corral them under a national umbrella failed. Likewise, efforts to pigeonhole the movement in terms of views on national security or other issues fell flat.

Occupy Wall Street, the progressive backlash to the Tea Party movement, erupted across the United States. Though definitely “anti-establishment,” the movement’s purpose was never clear. A typical rally included pleas for environmentalist causes, rants against corporate greed, speeches on homelessness, antiwar diatribes and demands for a “living wage.” The movement soon splintered among the constituent causes that rallied to deliver its initial momentum.

New Face of Populism

Today, the people’s movements are back. A new tide of populist fever is represented by Brexit—the shocking and unexpected vote in Britain to leave the European Union—and the surprising election of Donald Trump. Both events, as well as rising political unrest from France and Germany to Italy and Central Europe, are the freshest face of populism.

In the United States, we call it Trumpism. In Europe, it is generally described as the rise of nationalism. Some love it. Some hate it. There is no question that, with three big national elections coming up, nationalism has some Europeans feeling nervous.

For some, nationalism grates likes nails on a chalk board. In 2013, former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso equated nationalism with “xenophobia and racism and intolerance.” It was, he insisted, the cause of Europe’s horrific experience in the interwar years and World War II. “What we don't like is the discourse,” he warned.

That comment gets to the root of challenge—which face of the new populism is your problem?  Barroso sees nationalism as having an ugly face. Trumpism has encountered similar disdain in the United States. Hundreds of thousands marched on Washington the day after Trump’s swearing-in and accused the administration of every sort of evil.

On the other hand, many Americans and some Europeans view a revival of nationalism as a reaffirmation of popular sovereignty and the protection of individual liberty, arguably the bedrock of the liberal enterprise. They think that it is a good thing.

Like many bottom-up movements, new populism is a mess. It does include “destructive nationalism” that believes Hitlerian marches were the good old days. The other face is “constructive nationalism,” embraced by folks who think John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and Friedrich von Hayek were on the right track.

War Against Ideas

It might difficult to discern between the two faces of nationalism because part of the battle of ideas is to discredit them by lumping them together—either carelessly or by intent.