Between the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s under-predicted emergence, squirming about refugee flows and assimilation in rich countries, and a growing ambivalence about globalization, it’s hard to think we’re not entering a new nationalist era.
Lots of people are overstating things, of course. For some in England, the European Union was actually the Third Reich. For others, British Leave voters and the American Trumpenproletariat are the closet Nazis. During the Greek crisis, Angela Merkel appeared in the Greek press and in effigy in Greece as a Nazi officer.
But a flurry of Nazi comparisons, especially in a negative connotation, don’t prove a nationalist era. After all, borderless liberals loathe the Nazis as intensely as anyone.
So what’s happening here? Is there just a combination of over-hot rhetoric and resentment at an oversold case for globalization from the 1990s?
That seems to be part of it, but another way of looking at it is that there was no non-nationalist era, rather a combination of economic growth and a lull in political conflict in Western countries that people mistook for the End of History.
After all, even the 1990s saw brutal civil wars across eastern and central Europe over questions of identity, a dangerous crisis in Taiwan over the question whether Taiwan was part of China, and a number of other nationalist flare-ups.
Every era in the modern age is a nationalist era, we just notice it sometimes more than others.
In the United States, questions of national identity and, yes, white identity politics are at the forefront of the presidential campaign, but nationalism had never gone away. Just look at the way in which American “exceptionalism” came up in our politics, and the way in which the first black U.S. president’s identity was constantly probed, and from every angle. There was a concerted effort to “other” Obama, totally apart from policy differences. Whether this was because elites believed that policy was too abstruse to inspire voters or whether something about Obama tickled their own identity politics button is unclear.
And since I’ve brought the subject up, a word on American exceptionalism. Obama got himself into trouble by starting an answer to a question about American exceptionalism with the sentence, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He went on to puff out his chest and tick off some of America’s accomplishments, but this didn’t satisfy his critics.
Obama was at an international summit in Strasbourg, France, with the president of France and the German chancellor. This was not the place for a Fox News late night soliloquy about how we’re so great and the rest of the world just doesn’t get it. As I wrote previously,
Imagine your coworker, or neighbor, or spouse, constantly parading about, preening and pronouncing that he is the greatest person ever to have been made and marveling at how lucky are those subject to his ministrations. Any impartial observer would forgive you for nudging him off a pier, and all the more so if he were, in fact, great.
Next week, we’ll push a bit more on this concept of exceptionalism, on how nationalism influences our policies, and on whether the coming months and years are likely to see an increase in nationalism and identity politics in the United States and the West.