In nationalism and patriotism, a battle over words and ideas

Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest white nationalist-type groups in the country, attend a rally at the state capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 10.
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The recent rise of national-populist politicians in Europe has, in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron, stirred the “old demons” of the past century that fueled two cataclysmic world wars. For postwar Europe, nationalism was a genie that had to go back in the bottle. By praising nationalism, President Trump appears to be uncorking the genie. In his slogan, “America First,” European leaders hear an unwillingness to compromise and a blunt rejection of their concerns, from international trade to climate change. Yet Mr. Trump’s self-identification also reflects a US perspective that nationalism is a uniting force based on its own historical experience. “Americans simply have not suffered as much from nationalism,” says Anatol Lieven, who has written on how nationalism is defined and used on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Macron prefers to appeal to citizens’ sense of patriotism, not nationalism. As a French novelist once wrote, “Patriotism is love for one’s own people; nationalism is hatred for the others.”

Why We Wrote This

Nationalism shapes the politics of both Europe and the United States, but their historical experiences with it differ. In Europe, the distinction between “nationalism” and “patriotism” defines the continent’s past and, perhaps, its future.

When French President Emmanuel Macron marked the recent centenary of the end of World War I with a spirited attack on nationalism, many saw it as a rebuke of one of his guests, President Trump, a self-proclaimed nationalist.

But Mr. Macron was also addressing the swelling ranks of voters who are lining up behind national-populist politicians across Europe, stirring what he called “the old demons” that had contributed to two world wars. Speaking at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, he appealed instead to Europeans’ sense of patriotism, which he branded “the exact opposite of nationalism.”

These are slippery words, open to multiple interpretations that have cast a long shadow over US and European history.

Why We Wrote This

Nationalism shapes the politics of both Europe and the United States, but their historical experiences with it differ. In Europe, the distinction between “nationalism” and “patriotism” defines the continent’s past and, perhaps, its future.

Sometimes “nationalism” and “patriotism” are used in ways that suggest “a distinction without a difference,” in the words of Anatol Lieven, author of “America Right or Wrong: an Anatomy of American Nationalism."

More often they signal different ways of expressing attachment to your country. And the terms are freighted with very different meanings on either side of the Atlantic. Nationalism fueled the world wars that ravaged Europe but left America relatively unscathed. “That created a quite different historical legacy,” says Mr. Lieven. “Americans simply have not suffered as much from nationalism.”

Many writers have sought to distinguish between patriotism, which is universally admired, and nationalism, which until recently has been a dirty word in Europe. The 20th century French novelist Romain Gary put it pithily: “Patriotism is love for one’s own people; nationalism is hatred for the others.”

George Orwell, author of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” described patriotism as a benign “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” with “no wish to force [it] on other people.” Nationalism, he argued, was the malign “habit of identifying oneself with a single nation … placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

That is what most observers in Europe see in Mr. Trump’s slogan “America First” – not a patriot who defines his community by whom it includes, but a nationalist whose chief criterion is whom it excludes.

They see it too in his actions, his readiness to fight trade wars that risk harming the world economy, or his rejection of the Paris climate treaty, which put long-term global interests ahead of individual nations’ short-term economic interest.

Indeed, Trump draws on an American nationalist tradition dating back to President Andrew Jackson (whose portrait currently hangs in the Oval Office) that sets little store by international agreements or treaties. That outlook is the antithesis of the European Union’s founding principle that there is strength in unity and that unity is made stronger by compromise and cooperation among nation-states.

‘I love my country’

Exactly what Trump himself means when he calls himself a nationalist is unclear. At a recent White House press conference he said, “you know what the word is? I love our country.” That unexceptional sentiment would put him squarely in the patriot camp, for most people.

Then he added, “you have nationalists, you have globalists,” presenting them as two modern ways of looking at the world, which is very different from Macron. In his speeches, the French president posits “nationalists” and “progressives” as opposing camps, clearly identifying them as embodying the past and the future.

Unlike in Europe, where wars sparked by nationalism discredited the ideology for decades, nationalism has never gone away in the United States. It has shaped both Republican and Democratic administrations for most of the past century, says Lieven, either as the defensive, chauvinistic strain that Trump exemplifies, or as “civic nationalism” that expresses itself in terms of loyalty to American values, such as free speech, and institutions.

In Europe, nationalism was a modern force 150 years ago; 19th century stirrings of national pride in central Europe heralded the collapse of outmoded empires. But it proved a difficult force to tame. In the aftermath of WWII, the continent’s leaders made a deliberate effort to create the European Union as a post-national entity.

Yves Herman/Reuters/File
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. TALK ABOUT EUROPEAN IDENTITY (alfredo's note)

At one level, it has worked. The EU has brought prosperity and made war between members unthinkable after many centuries of conflict. But at the human level, the European Union project has not stirred many hearts.

Just two percent of EU citizens identify themselves simply as “European,” a recent European Commission poll found. Another four percent see themselves as “primarily European.” Ninety percent still see themselves only or primarily as belonging to their country of origin.

'Take back control'

Few of those 90 percent would likely call themselves nationalists, but a great many of them worry about the EU’s tendency to undermine – or even erase – the national sovereignty that their parliaments once exercised. Nowhere is that concern clearer than in Britain, where anti-EU campaigners won the 2016 Brexit referendum that pulled the country out of the EU with the slogan “Take back control!”

That attitude is also making inroads in Eastern Europe. Countries such as Poland and Hungary may have joined the EU in order to preserve their national independence after half a century of subjugation by the Soviet empire. But their leaders are proving reluctant to pay the price the EU demands in terms of solidarity and burden-sharing when it comes to welcoming migrants, for example.

In Poland, Hungary, Italy, Austria, Sweden, France and the Netherlands, national populists are either in government or the second largest party. It remains to be seen whether their challenge will prompt EU leaders to recalibrate their dreams of a federal continent, and whether Macron and his allies will be able to divert the current tide of nationalism into the more manageable channel of patriotism.

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