If there’s one thing that elite opinion tends to agree about on the left and the right, it’s that nationalism is a very bad thing. If anything, this view has become even more entrenched as nationalism has demonstrated its potency in recent years, from the election of Donald Trump to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
When President Trump first openly embraced the term “nationalist” at a 2018 campaign rally, commentators reacted in horror. Patriotism is about love, nationalism about hate, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opined. Trump, insisted Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, is “normalizing a hateful political philosophy that is contrary to our deepest-held beliefs.”
As I write in my new book, “The Case for Nationalism,” this reflexive hostility to the concept is ill-informed and an attempt to deem nationalism a swearword and end all discussion on that basis.
At its most basic, the scholar Azar Gat writes, nationalism is “the doctrine and ideology that a people is bound together in solidarity, fate, and common political aspirations.” Historian Anthony Smith described the national ideal as “a belief that all those who shared a common history and culture should be autonomous, united and distinct in their recognized homelands.”
When Europe went off the rails in the early 20th century, nationalism as such didn’t cause its crash so much as social Darwinism, militarism and the cult of charismatic leadership. The aftermath of World War I added its own poison.
Regardless, American nationalism — which encompasses such diverse, rightly beloved figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — is not to be feared. As with so many other things about this country, it is more benign than the versions to be found in Europe and elsewhere.