Trump, Le Pen and the enduring appeal of nationalism

By Mark Mazower – April 29, 2016

The Financial Times

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?

There is still no better place to look for an answer than in a little polemic written more than 30 years ago. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) remains a classic effort to explain nationalism’s durability and to come to terms with the passions it can unleash. Nationalism, Anderson argued, is not an ancient phenomenon, nor did it emerge in Europe as most commentators seemed to think. Quite distinct from the dynastic appeals of Shakespeare’s Henry V — it is easy to forget that the battle-cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George” is uttered in the play by the king himself — modern nationalism originated, in Anderson’s view, around the time of the American wars of independence. From the outset, he says, it has been more than just another political “ism”, as its deployment of sacral idioms, of the idea of sacrifice and duty, shows. In fact its emergence is best understood in relation to religion, whose compelling power to motivate and inspire it often shares.

At the time he was writing, many analysts tended to present nationalism as a kind of false consciousness, preferring to see through it than to take it seriously. Anderson wanted to acknowledge its durability rather than to demonise it, and he asks us to think about what the changes in the modern world were that brought it into being and have kept it going over two centuries and now into a third. Connecting its emergence to the spread of capitalism, the rise of modern bureaucracies and mass literacy, Anderson argued that its unexpected midwives were colonial civil servants with an appetite for enumerating and classifying their subjects. In his telling, the idea of the nation was then taken up by anti-colonial revolutionaries, who enshrined the idea of the new kind of community in maps, hymns, museums, and monuments. For nationalists, from Bolivia to Uzbekistan, time itself was reimagined as a straight line with independence, the glorious realisation of the national spirit, as the end of history.

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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