Back on October 22nd, President Trump referred to himself as a nationalist. While the comment itself sparked the usual conversation of Trump ‘dog-whistling’ somehow racist rhetoric, another discussion emerged over the use of the word ‘nationalist’.
On the left, some instantly painted nationalism as an evil word. On Colbert, the hosts of ‘Pod Save America’ argued that nationalism fell out of favor because “it was associated one of the worst and most deadly and racist movements in the history of planet Earth”, as Jon Lovett put it. Tommy Vietor delved deeper, contrasting patriotism and nationalism. “Patriotism is good,” he said. “Patriotism means we like what we’re doing, you do you but that’s fine. Nationalism means we’re going to project our values onto you.” Colbert added in a quote from Charles de Gaulle, a French politician who led the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, saying that “patriotism is ‘I love my country’; nationalism is ‘I hate yours’”. To top it all off, Lovett ends the conversation by saying, “Nationalism is what sh*tty people think is patriotism is.”
On the right, there were some who interchanged patriotism and nationalism. Rush Limbaugh defended Trump’s comment, stating, “He’s saying, ‘I’m a patriot & you PC people can’t make me quit using the word ‘nationalist.’’ He’s just a guy who loves America. He’s a nationalist versus a globalist. He’s gonna Make America Great Again.” Throughout the segment on the topic, Rush doesn’t seem to offer a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Other voices on the right, however, did treat nationalism and patriotism as having different meanings. Ben Shapiro does state that the two meanings are different but offers a confusing analysis of how they differ. “Patriotism is a philosophy of national values”, he states. “American patriotism prizes God-given individual rights protected by limited government.” However, Shapiro does not give a clear-cut definition of nationalism. Instead, Shapiro says. “Our patriotism encompasses American nationalism: We believe that America must come first so that America can be strong enough to promote her values where appropriate.” From this, you can interpret that nationalism means that your country and its interest must come before the interests of other countries. An example of this would be going into a trade-deal negotiation with the goal to make a deal that will benefit your country, even at the economic expense of the other country. Shapiro also states that the opposite of nationalism is internationalism, which makes his definition of nationalism clearer.
This debate over the use of the word nationalism leaves out an important detail: what nationalism even means. First, it is important to properly define nation, which obviously central to nationalism. A nation is a group of people who have shared common ancestry, history, culture, religion, and/or language. An example of this would be the Anglo-Nation referring to descendants of the Anglo-Saxons inhabitants of the British Isles, better known as the English. Countries with significant populations of people descended from Anglo-Saxons would include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, to a lesser degree. This group of countries has been called the Anglosphere due to their shared ancestry, history, language, and culture.
Many have defined the United States as a nation, but it can be argued that the United States is not one nation. For example, since its founding, the United States has had a large minority of African descendants who were ethnically and culturally different from their English and Scottish-descended counterparts. The country has never been ethnically or racially homogeneous, although absolute homogeneity isn’t required for a country to be considered a nation, which would mean the case for one nation of shared ancestry is a weak argument. The classification of the United States as a single nation is tricky and requires an entire discussion of its own.
Nationalism can be defined as loyalty, support, and devotion to one’s nation, even in disregard or at the expense of other nations. This term can be broadly applied to many political movements throughout history, ranging from Nazi Germany to Gandhi’s push for India’s independence. Someone who advocates for their particular group, whether that would be someone who is Hispanic or Jewish or French-Canadian, would qualify as a nationalist. Nationalism is similar to a broad label, like ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’, and less like an ideology, like ‘paleoconservative’ or ‘classical liberal’. The term alone is harmless, and it cannot denote good or evil by itself. The efforts of those of the left to equate nationalism with elements of imperialism is a dishonest tactic. This recent mischaracterization of nationalism is likely due to people wanting to criticize Trump for using the word. Basically, nationalism is guilty by Trump-association.
Patriotism is described as devotion and support for one’s country. Patriotism is to country as nationalism is to nation. A country and a nation are rarely ever the same thing. Poland has around 38 million ethnically-Polish people living within its borders, but there are another 22 million people with significant Polish ancestry living outside of Poland. Poland is a country that is 97% ethnically-Polish but the Polish nation extends beyond Poland’s borders. Countries have territory with borders while nations have people with similar characteristics.
Commentators on the right have done a poor job of defining nationalism for one of two reasons. They either believe that nationalism is a synonym of patriotism or they don’t wish to sound divisive or insensitive. By properly defining nationalism, someone can easily be viewed as dividing up multi-cultural America into a country of competing tribes. A suggestion that America may not be one unified nation would draw criticism from the right with accusations of engaging in ‘identity politics’, where you only view people by the groups they are apart of and not as individual people.
Nationalism will be an increasingly popular topic in the coming decades due to the rise of populist and ethnic nationalism in Europe and the United States. Political movements that can be called ‘nationalistic’ have seen recent electoral victories in Italy, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the United States. It is important that nationalism is correctly defined and honestly discussed so that, in the future, we can properly understand new political developments that may arise due to its growing influence.