The New Nationalism


This piece collects together essays in The New York Times, CNN, The Huffington Postand the 19 Nov. 2016 edition of The Economist here and here. They have been adapted for style and tense.


President Obama, in some of his strongest language since Donald J. Trump’s election last week, on Tuesday warned against the rise of nationalistic tribalism, apparently a reference to Mr. Trump’s decision to appoint Stephen K. Bannon, a hard-right nationalist, to a top position.

“I do believe, separate and apart from any particular election or movement, that we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” Mr. Obama said. “In the United States, we know what happens when we start dividing ourselves along lines of race or religion or ethnicity. It’s dangerous. Not just for the minority groups that are subjected to that kind of discrimination or, in some cases in the past violence, but because we don’t then realize our potential as a country when we’re preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life.”

When Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again!” he was echoing the campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Then, voters sought renewal after the failures of the Carter presidency. This month they elected Mr Trump because he, too, promised them a “historic once-in-a-lifetime” change. But there is a difference. On the eve of the vote, Reagan described America as a shining “city on a hill”. Listing all that America could contribute to keep the world safe, he dreamed of a country that “is not turned inward, but outward—toward others.”

Trump, by contrast, has sworn to put America first. Demanding respect from a freeloading world that takes leaders in Washington for fools, he says he will “no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism”. Reagan’s America was optimistic. Trump’s America is angry.

Earlier this week, President Obama was unapologetic and unequivocal on his record of inclusiveness. “My vision is right on that issue,” he said. “It may not always win the day in the short term in any particular political circumstance, but I’m confident it will win the day over the long term.” He noted, however, that the desire for change was a large factor in Mr. Trump’s victory, even the key to Trump’s election. “Sometimes people just feel as if we want to try something to see if we can shake things up, and that I suspect was a significant phenomenon,” the President said.

While Trump’s election victory and Britain’s surprising “Brexit” vote earlier this year in June to leave the European Union differ in important respects, the two electoral earthquakes both grew out of dislocations that have resulted from of a rapidly changing and globalizing world. “Globalization combined with technology combined with social media and constant information have disrupted people’s lives, sometimes in very concrete ways,” Obama said while standing next to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece. “A manufacturing plant closes, and suddenly an entire town no longer has what was the primary source of employment.” The effects can be psychological as well, he added, making people “less certain of their national identities or their place in the world. When you see a Donald Trump and a Bernie Sanders, very unconventional candidates, having considerable success, then obviously there is something there that is being tapped into – a suspicion of globalization. A desire to rein in its excesses.”


Welcome to the new nationalism. For the first time since the Second World War, the great and rising powers are simultaneously in thrall to various sorts of chauvinism. Like Trump, leaders of countries such as Russia, China and Turkey embrace a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.

My country right or left

Nationalism is a slippery concept, which is why politicians find it so easy to manipulate. At its best, it unites the country around common values to accomplish things that people could never manage alone. This “civic nationalism” is conciliatory and forward-looking—the nationalism of the Peace Corps, say, or Canada’s inclusive patriotism or German support for the home team as hosts of the 2006 World Cup. Civic nationalism appeals to universal values, such as freedom and equality. It contrasts with “ethnic nationalism”, which is zero-sum, aggressive and nostalgic and which draws on race or history to set the nation apart. In its darkest hour in the first half of the 20th century ethnic nationalism led to war.

Trump’s form of populism is a blow to civic nationalism. Nobody could doubt the patriotism of his post-war predecessors, yet every one of them endorsed America’s universal values and promoted them abroad. Even if a sense of exceptionalism stopped presidents signing up to outfits like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), America has supported the rules-based order. By backing global institutions that staved off a dog-eat-dog world, the United States has made itself and the world safer and more prosperous.

Now, Trump threatens to weaken that commitment even as ethnic nationalism is strengthening elsewhere. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has shunned cosmopolitan liberal values for a distinctly Russian mix of Slavic tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned away from the European Union and from peace talks with the Kurdish minority in favour of a strident, Islamic nationalism that is quick to detect insults and threats from abroad. In India, Narendra Modi remains outward-looking and modernizing but continues has ties to radical ethnic-nationalist Hindu groups that preach chauvinism and intolerance.

Meanwhile, Chinese nationalism has become so angry and vengeful that the party struggles to control it. True, the country depends upon open markets, embraces some global institutions and wants to be close to America, but from the 1990s onwards, schoolchildren have received a daily dose of “patriotic” education setting out the mission to erase a century of humiliating occupation. And, to count as properly Chinese you have in practice to belong to the Han people: everyone else is a second-class citizen.

Even as ethnic nationalism has prospered, the world’s greatest experiment in “post-nationalism” has foundered. The architects of what was to become the EU believed that nationalism, which had dragged Europe into two ruinous world wars, would wither and die. The EU would transcend national rivalries with a series of nested identities in which you could be Catholic, Alsatian, French and European all at once. However, in large parts of the EU, this never happened. In June, the British voted to leave the partnership and in former communist countries, such as Poland and Hungary, power quickly passed to xenophobic ultranationalists. There is even a small but growing threat that France might quit—and so destroy—the EU with the ascendency of Marion Marechal-Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the rank of Prime Minister.

The last time America turned inward was after the First World War and the consequences were calamitous. You do not have to foresee anything so dire to fear Trump’s new nationalism today. At home, it tends to produce intolerance and to feed doubts about the virtue and loyalties of minorities. Over 300 incidents of radicalized violence have taken place since the Presidential election results were declared last week. It is no accident that allegations of anti-Semitism have infected the bloodstream of American politics for the first time in decades.

Abroad, as other countries take their cue from a more inward-looking United States, regional and global problems will become harder to solve. The ICC’s annual assembly this week was overshadowed by the departure of three African countries. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are incompatible with UNCLOS, and if Trump enacts even a fraction of his mercantilist rhetoric, he risks neutering the World Trade Organisation. If he thinks that America’s allies are failing to pay for the security they receive, he has threatened to walk away from them. The result—especially for small countries that today are protected by global rules—will be a harsher and more unstable world.

Isolationists unite

Mr Trump needs to realise that his policies will unfold in the context of other countries’ jealous nationalism. Disengaging will not cut America off from the world so much as leave it vulnerable to the turmoil and strife that the new nationalism engenders. As global politics is poisoned, America will be impoverished and its own anger will grow, which risks trapping Mr Trump in a vicious circle of reprisals and hostility. It is not too late for him to abandon his dark vision. For the sake of his country and the world he urgently needs to reclaim the enlightened patriotism of the presidents who went before him.


League of Nationalists

After the sans culottes rose up against Louis XVI in 1789 they drew up a declaration of the universal rights of man and of the citizen. Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched not just for the glory of France but for liberty, equality and fraternity. By contrast, the nationalism born with the unification of Germany decades later harked back to Blut und Boden—blood and soil—a romantic and exclusive belief in race and tradition as the wellspring of national belonging. The German legions were fighting for their Volk and against the world.

All societies draw on nationalism of one sort or another to define relations between the state, the citizen and the outside world. Craig Calhoun, an American sociologist, argues that cosmopolitan elites, who sometimes yearn for a post-nationalist order, underestimate “how central nationalist categories are to political and social theory—and to practical reasoning about democracy, political legitimacy and the nature of society itself.” It is troubling, then, how many countries are shifting from the universal, civic nationalism towards the blood-and-soil, ethnic sort. Marion Marechal-Le Pen, for example, has proudly claimed her political success is because she “is descended from the defenders of France.” As positive patriotism warps into negative nationalism, solidarity is mutating into distrust of minorities, who are present in growing numbers (see chart 1). A benign love of one’s country—the spirit that impels Americans to salute the Stars and Stripes, Nigerians to cheer the Super Eagles and Britons to buy Duchess of Cambridge teacups—is being replaced by an urge to look on the world with mistrust.

Chart 1


Some perspective is in order. Comparisons with the 1930s are fatuous. Totalitarian nationalism is extinct except in North Korea, where the ruling family preaches a weird mixture of Marxism and racial purity, enforced with slave-labour camps for dissidents. And perhaps you could add Eritrea, a hideous but tiny dictatorship. Nonetheless, it is clear that an exclusive, often ethnically based, form of nationalism is on the march. In rich democracies, it is a potent vote-winner. In autocracies, rulers espouse it to distract people from their lack of freedom and, sometimes, food. The question is: where is it surging, and why?

The most recent example is Donald Trump, who persuaded 61m Americans to vote for him by promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, deport illegal immigrants and “make America great again”. Noxious appeals to ethnic or racial solidarity are hardly new in American politics, or restricted to one party. Joe Biden, the vice-president, once told a black audience that Mitt Romney, a decent if dull Republican, was “gonna put y’all back in chains”. But no modern American president has matched Mr Trump’s displays of chauvinism. That no one knows how much of it he believes is barely reassuring.

His victory will embolden like-minded leaders around the world. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the politician most responsible for Brexit, has already visited Mr Trump, greeting him with a grin wide enough to see off the Cheshire cat. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s immigrant-bashing prime minister, rejoiced: “We can return to real democracy… what a wonderful world.”

The consequences for the European Union could be disastrous. In France pollsters no longer dismiss the possibility that Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front (FN), could be elected president next year. Compared with other Europeans, French voters are strikingly opposed to globalisation and international trade, and few think immigrants have had a positive effect on their country (see chart 2). Ms Le Pen promises that she would pull France out of the euro and hold a “Frexit” referendum on membership of the EU. The single currency might not survive a French withdrawal. And if French voters were to back Frexit, the EU would surely fall apart.

Chart 2


The rush for the exit

European elites once assumed that national identities would eventually blend into a continental bouillabaisse. But the momentum is now with parties like the FN, including Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice party and Austria’s Freedom Party (one of whose leaders, Norbert Hofer, could win Austria’s largely ceremonial presidency next month). Ms Le Pen’s language is typical. She caters to nostalgia, anxiety and antipathy to the liberal international order. (“No to Brussels, yes to France”, goes one slogan.) She laments the decline of a proud people and vows to make France great again.

Unlike Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen has never called for a ban on Muslims entering the country; rather, she talks about curbing the “gigantic wave” of immigration. A lawyer by training, she defends her arguments with reference to France’s rules on keeping religion out of public life. Yet her voters are left in little doubt as to which sorts of immigrants she disapproves of, and whom she counts as French. An FN campaign poster for regional elections in 2015 showed two female faces: one with flowing hair and the French tricolour flag painted on her cheeks, the other wearing a burqa. “Choose your neighbourhood: vote for the Front”, ran the text.

Ms Le Pen’s popularity has dragged other politicians onto similar territory. Nicolas Sarkozy, a centre-right former president, wants the job again. As soon as you become French, he declared at a recent campaign rally, “your ancestors are Gauls.” At another, Mr Sarkozy said that children who did not want to eat pork at school should “take a second helping of chips”—in other words, that it was up to non-Christians whose religions impose dietary restrictions to make do with the food on offer, not up to schools to accommodate them. France is witnessing a “defensive nationalism”, says Dominique Moïsi of the Institut Montaigne, a think-tank, “based on a lack of confidence and a negative jingoism: the idea that I have to defend myself against the threat of others.”

Something similar is on the rise elsewhere in Europe, too. In 2010 the Sweden Democrats (SD), a nationalist party, put out a television ad that captured the popular fear that Sweden’s generous welfare system might not survive a big influx of poor, fertile Muslim asylum-seekers. An elderly white woman with a Zimmer frame hobbles down a dark corridor towards her pension pot, but is overtaken by a crowd of burqa-clad women with prams, who beat her to the money. At least one channel refused to air it, but it spread online. Polls suggest the SD is now one of Sweden’s most popular parties.

In the Netherlands Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, is on trial for “hate speech” for goading his audience to chant that it wanted “fewer Moroccans” in the country. Polls put his party in first or second place in the run-up to the national election in March; its popularity has risen since the start of the trial.

Britain’s vote in June to leave the EU was also the result of a nationalist turn. Campaign posters for “Brexit” depicted hordes of Middle Eastern migrants clamouring to come in. Activists railed against bankers, migrants and rootless experts; one of their slogans was “We want our country back”. After the vote David Cameron, a cosmopolitan prime minister, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who says: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

Even before Britain has left the EU, the mere prospect has made the country poorer: the currency is down 16% against the dollar. Still, few Brexiteers have regrets. In Margate, a seaside town full of pensioners, it is hard to find anyone who voted to remain. Tom Morrison, who runs a bookshop, says: “[We] should be allowed to make our own laws…At least our mistakes will be our own mistakes.”

Clive, a taxi driver, is more trenchant. “All the Europeans do is leech off us. They can’t even win their own wars,” he says. He is glad that Mrs May has promised to reduce immigration: “We just physically haven’t enough room for them…The schools are overfilled with foreigners.” He adds that some of them are hard workers, but “in Cliftonville [next to Margate], you might as well be in Romania. A lot of them are gypsies.” Asked if being British is important to him, he declares a narrower identity: “It’s being English. English.”

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is not sure what to make of Mr Trump. Though he doubtless welcomes Mr Trump’s promise to reset relations with Russia, if America ceases to be the enemy, he will need another one. Mr Putin’s core belief is in a strong state led by himself, but since he first took power in 2000 he has harnessed ethnic nationalism to that end. In 2011 he faced huge protests from an urban middle class angry about both corruption and uncontrolled immigration by non-Slavic people. He responded by whipping up imperial fervour. When Ukraine sought to move closer to the West, he then annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. State media portrayed him as saving ethnic Russians from (historical) “Ukrainian fascists”.

With oil prices low, and after a long spell in the economic doldrums, nationalism is Mr Putin’s way of remaining popular. His version involves rejecting the universal, liberal values that the West has long promoted. That is why he so eagerly supports illiberal nationalist parties in Western Europe, such as Ms Le Pen’s FN. “We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are in effect turning away from their roots, including their Christian values,” he said in 2013. He contrasted this with an ethnically defined version of Russia as “a state civilisation held together by the Russian people, the Russian language, Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church”.

In China a similarly ethnic, non-universalist nationalism is being pressed into service by the Communist Party (see Briefing). The party seeks to blur the distinction between itself and the nation, and to prop up its legitimacy now that economic growth, long the main basis of its claim to power, has slowed. Soon after becoming president in 2012, Xi Jinping launched the “Chinese Dream” as a slogan to promote the country’s “great revival”. A “patriotic education” campaign extends from primary school all the way up to doctoral students.

The government often blames “hostile foreign forces” for things it does not like, including protests in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, a far-western province where Uighurs chafe against Han rule. State television tries to make other countries look stupid, dangerous or irrelevant. Anti-Western rhetoric has been stepped up. In 2015 China’s education minister called for a ban on “textbooks promoting Western values” in higher education.

China’s glorious victory over Japan has become central to history lessons (though in fact it was the communists’ rivals, the Kuomintang, who did most of the fighting). In 2014 three new national holidays were introduced: a memorial day for the Nanjing massacre, commemorating the 300,000 or so people killed by the Japanese there in 1937; a “Victory Day” to mark Japan’s surrender at the end of the second world war; and “Martyrs’ Day” dedicated to those who died fighting Japan.

My enemy’s enemy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the jingoism, many Chinese now see international affairs as a zero-sum game, believing that for China to rise, others must fall. A recent poll by Pew found that more than half of those asked reckoned that America is trying to prevent China from becoming an equal power; some 45% see American power and influence as the greatest international threat facing the country. Chinese antipathy towards the Japanese has also increased considerably.

The propaganda has been so effective that the government is no longer sure that it can control the passions it has stoked. In 2012 protests erupted across China against Japan’s claims to islands in the East China Sea: shops were looted, Japanese cars destroyed and riot police deployed to protect the Japanese embassy in Beijing. The government now censors the angriest online posts about nationalist topics.

Chart 3


Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian president, uses all the resources of the state to promote the idea that he is the father of his country. His regime blames Islamists for everything: when heavy rains caused flooding in Alexandria last year, the interior ministry blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group, for blocking the drains. Last summer, after splurging $8bn on expanding the Suez Canal, he declared a public holiday and sailed up the waterway in full military regalia, as warplanes flew overhead. State television broadcast shots of the new canal to the bombastic theme tune of “Game of Thrones”, a television show.

A similar story is playing out in Turkey, a country that only a few years ago appeared firmly on course to join the EU. Now its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vows to build a “New Turkey”, bravely standing up to coup-plotters and their imaginary Western enablers. He recently attended a mass rally celebrating the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. He accuses Turkey’s duplicitous Western allies of trying to “pick up the slack of crusaders”. Such rhetoric is intended to justify the arrests of 36,000 people since a coup attempt in July.

In India ethnic nationalism, never far beneath the surface, is worryingly resurgent. Since 2014 the country has been ruled by Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party seeks to distance itself from radical Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups, which criticise it as “soft” on Pakistan, Muslims and those who harm cows (which are sacred to Hindus). And Mr Modi is urbane, pro-business and friendly towards the West. But he is also a lifelong member of the RSS (National Volunteer Organisation), a 5m-strong Hindu group founded in 1925 and modelled loosely on the Boy Scouts.

Members of the RSS parade in khaki uniforms, do physical jerks in the morning, help old ladies cross the street, pick up litter—and are occasional recruits for extremist groups that beat up left-wing students. And last year Mr Modi’s minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, said that a former president was a patriot “despite being a Muslim”. The minister remains in his job.

Hindutva purports to represent all Hindus, who are four-fifths of India’s population. It promises a national rebirth, a return to an idealised past and the retrieval of an “authentic” native identity. Its adherents see themselves as honest folk fighting corrupt cosmopolitans. They have changed India’s political language, deriding “political correctness”, and calling critical journalists “presstitutes” and political opponents “anti-national”. The RSS also exerts huge sway over education and the media. Some states and schools have adopted textbooks written by RSS scholars that play up the role of Hindutva leaders and marginalise more secular ones.

The BJP has made a big push to control the judiciary by changing rules for appointments, but has met strong resistance. It does not control most states in the east and south. Many of the educated elite despise it. And banging on too much about Hinduism and not enough about the economy is thought to have cost it a state election in Bihar last year.

So India will not slide easily into Turkish-style autocracy—but plenty of secular, liberal Indians are nervous. The police, especially, are thought to favour the ruling party. A reporter nabbed by cops for the “crime” of filming angry crowds outside a bank in Delhi this week says they threatened him with a beating and said: “Who gave you permission to film? Our government has changed; you can’t just take pictures anywhere you like any more.”

Nations once again

Inquiring after the roots of nationalism is like asking what makes people love their families or fear strangers. Scholars have suggested that nations are built around language, history, culture, territory and politics without being able to settle on any single cause. A better question is: what turns civic nationalism into the exclusive sort? There are several theories.

In rich countries, pessimism plays a role. As chart 3 shows, slower growth lowers support for globalisation. Inequality hurts, too. Educated people may be doing just fine, but blue-collar workers are often struggling. Mr Trump did remarkably well among blue-collar white voters. One of the best predictors of support for Brexit or Ms Le Pen is a belief that things were better in the past.

In developing countries, growth is often faster and support for globalisation higher. But people still have woes, from rapacious officials to filthy air. For the new-nationalist strongmen such as Mr Sisi and Mr Putin, nationalism is a cheap and easy way to generate enthusiasm for the state, and to deflect blame for what is wrong.

The new nationalism owes a lot to cultural factors, too. Many Westerners, particularly older ones, liked their countries as they were and never asked for the immigration that turned Europe more Muslim and America less white and Protestant. They object to their discomfort being dismissed as racism.

Elite liberals stress two sources of identity: being a good global citizen (who cares about climate change and sweatshops in Bangladesh) and belonging to an identity group that has nothing to do with the nation (Hispanic, gay, Buddhist, etc). Membership of certain identity groups can carry material as well as psychological benefits. Affirmative action of the sort practised in America gives even the richer members of the racial groups it favours advantages that are unavailable to the poorer members of unfavoured groups.

Nationalists dislike the balkanisation of their countries into identity groups, particularly when those groups are defined as virtuous only to the extent that they disagree with the nation’s previously dominant history. White Americans are starting to act as if they were themselves a minority pressure group.

Lastly, communication tools have accelerated the spread of the new nationalism. Facebook and Twitter allow people to bypass the mainstream media’s cosmopolitan filter to talk to each other, swap news, meet and organise rallies. Mr Trump’s tweets reached millions. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, made his name running a white-nationalist website.

For Mrs May’s “citizens of nowhere”, all this is deeply worrying. But they should not despair. Liberals can use social media, too. Demagogues fall from favour when their policies fail to bring prosperity. And demographic trends favour pluralism.

In many countries the university-educated population—typically cosmopolitan in instinct—is rising. In the post-war period about 5% of British adults had gone to university; today more than 40% of school-leavers are university-bound. In Germany 2m citizens were in tertiary education in 2005; a decade later that number had risen to 2.8m. The share of 18- to 24-year-old Americans in that category rose from 26% in 1970 to 40% in 2014.

Chart 4


And immigration, which has done much to fuel ethnic nationalism, could, as generations are born into diverse societies, start to counter that nationalism. The foreign-born population of America rose by almost 10m, to 40m in the decade to 2010. In Britain it rose by 2.9m, to 7.5m, in the decade to 2011. Western voters aged 60 and over—the most nationalist cohort—have lived through a faster cultural and economic overhaul than any previous generation, and seem to have had enough. Few supporters of UKIP and the FN are young; the same is true for Alternative for Germany, another anti-immigrant party (see chart 4).

But youngsters seem to find these changes less frightening. Although just 37% of French people believe that “globalisation is a force for good”, 77% of 18- to 24-year-olds do. The new nationalists are riding high on promises to close borders and restore societies to a past homogeneity. But if the next generation holds out, the future may once more be cosmopolitan.

Populist politicians are gaining ground across the democratic West. In Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Nordic countries so admired by Bernie Sanders, the most successful anti-elite movements are broadly of the right, not the left. Even in Greece, where radical leftists hold power, soak-the-rich populism is allied to nationalist resentment at foreigners causing austerity. This is no accident. Populists of the left talk about fairness: an abstract idea. They call for government to break up big banks, make sure the rich pay taxes or erect tariff or regulatory barriers to keep globalisation at bay. Populists of the right happily borrow leftish lines about putting domestic workers first, and curbing the might of international finance. But then instead of talking about fairness, they talk of safety and control, of defending precious values that are under assault, and of keeping The Other at bay. Rather than fixing the system, they talk of taking their country back. If it suits their needs, populists of the right will present government itself as an agent of tyranny. Those are potent slogans that appeal to the gut, not the head, and in America just helped Republicans to elect a billionaire who calls tax-avoidance “smart”. They are reasons why the center-left should beware of choosing to fight the right on populist ground.


Still, the nomination of Steve Bannon to a senior level cabinet position in the Trump administration is evidence that American nationalism has taken a heavily racist turn. President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor swept a new term out of the fringes and into the mainstream: white nationalism.

Bannon, the Trump campaign CEO and executive chairman of Breitbart News, has called his site “the platform for the alt-right,” a far-right movement that has been linked to white nationalism, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. So, what exactly is “white nationalism”? Activists on the front lines of fighting racism say it denotes white domination and superiority.

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, said white nationalism is a term for a form of white supremacy or separatism. Its supporters defend “country by white racial identity.” They promote the interests of whites exclusively and denigrate all others. “Bannon established himself as the chief curator of news for the alt-right,” he said. “And when you describe Breitbart as a platform for the alt-right that’s not insignificant. Under his stewardship, Breitbart emerged as a leading source for the extreme views of a vocal minority who peddle bigotry and hate.”

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the term white nationalism means white domination. It isn’t necessarily an endorsement of a 100% pure white society, a goal now regarded by the far right as unrealistic, he said. “White nationalism is more the idea that whites should dominate,” he said, that the culture should dominate and policies that jibe with the idea should be supported, such as opposing nonwhite immigration. White nationalists believe the country “should be built by and for white people.” They “tend to be less about ethnic slurs, less about Nazi slurs, tend to speak more academic language.” Some people who embrace the white nationalist identity refer to themselves as “race realists” — generally speaking, that means people who believe the races can’t live together. They may also call themselves “Identitarians,” a movement that emerged last decade on the French far right. The movement is linked to the opposition to multiculturalism and anti-Islam attitudes.

Paul Gottfried is the former Horace Raffensperger professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is also the president of the H.L. Mencken Club, which calls itself a “society for the independent right.” He said “white nationalism is more often used by the left than on the alternative right” and that “white Identitarian” and “race realist” are the terms more common on the alt-right. Gottfried rejected the view that Bannon is a racist, an anti-Semite, a white Identitarian or race realist. Instead, Gottfried said, Bannon comes from the world of Washington politics and journalism. “The people I’m describing don’t live in Washington,” he said, when making reference to race realists and Identitarians. “I don’t think he knows any of those people.”

A major voice of the alt-right is Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and the editor of Radix Journal. He defines “white nationalism” as a U.S.-focused movement concerning white racial consciousness and identity. “I don’t use the term white nationalist to describe myself,” he said. “I understand it’s a fairly fair term. Obviously white refers to race, of European descent.” To the extent that nationalism means caring for one’s family, that is a good thing, he said. But the word “nationalism” reflects deep-seated historical grudges, “ethno-nationalism,” in which Europeans warred with one another. “We want to get beyond these things,” Spencer said. “I like the term alt-right. It has an openness to it. And immediately understandable. We’re coming from a new perspective.” He prefers the terms Identitarian and alt-right. Alt-right, he said, “has a new starting point from conventional conservative. That was the origin of it. It’s been filled out and come into its own. It’s an Identitarian movement. Race realism is a component of it. It’s an understanding of European identity.”

Daryl Johnson is the owner of DT Analytics, with DT standing for domestic terrorism. He is a security consultant and a former counterterrorism expert at the Department of Homeland Security. Johnson was the primary author of a 2009 report about right-wing extremism that drew fierce outrage on the right. White nationalism is a “new buzzword,” Johnson said, but the first time he saw the term was in “white supremacy literature.” The far rightists used “white nationalism” to appear more credible and patriotic, Johnson said, and the term detracts from the stereotypes conjured by white supremacy. But make no mistake, he argued, white nationalism is a euphemism. “They want to distance themselves from white supremacy.”


White nationalists tried repeatedly throughout the presidential campaign to sanitize their language to appeal to mainstream voters as they threw their efforts behind electing Donald Trump and, in the process, play down their white nationalism. They won a victory this week as the president-elect not only chose Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon as his chief strategist ― a man who heads a website that regularly airs white nationalist viewpoints ― but many news outlets also are reluctant to use the specific label “white nationalist,” instead calling Bannon a “flame-throwing outsider” and a “nationalist media mogul.

Of course, calling a person a “white nationalist” who hasn’t self-identified as one is somewhat fraught. In Bannon’s case, the website he runs peddles racist and misogynist conspiracy theories and is a go-to resource for white nationalists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

Whether or not Bannon personally holds white nationalist views, it’s indisputable that his website has perpetuated them. As David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, said, it’s useful to look at an individual’s statements, associations and sentiments. “It becomes one of those ‘if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck’ kind of things,” he said.

The Trump campaign denies allegations that Bannon is a white nationalist or a part of the so-called alt-right, the movement’s latest preferred moniker. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s irresponsible for anyone to even make such a baseless accusation,” said Jason Miller, communications director for Trump’s transition team, in a statement provided to The Huffington Post. But in July, Bannon told Mother Jones: “We’re the platform for the alt-right” and that the site espoused a “nationalist” philosophy but argued that its attraction for racists was incidental.

It’s helpful first to parse the various terms that have been thrown around. “White supremacy” refers to a “full-fledged ideology” that asserts whites should have dominance over people of other races, according to the Anti-Defamation League.“White separatists” promote physical separation of races. A “white nationalist” emphasizes that countries or regions should be defined by a white racial identity. Other ideologies under the nationalist umbrella ― Neo-Nazi groups, for example ― openly praise Adolf Hitler. The founder of Aryan Nations, Richard Butler, wanted an all-white homeland in the Pacific Northwest. But delving into the specifics of each of these subgroups can sometimes miss the point. “Very often it’s useful to call people what they are: racists or white supremacists,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Complicating these distinctions even further, white nationalist groups often use euphemisms to make their ideas appear less repugnant. Jared Taylor, publisher of American Renaissance, a website that regularly features racist screeds, says that he is not a white supremacist, a Nazi or a racist. “A ‘racist’… is always considered to be a moral inferior,” he wrote in an email. “I totally reject that view.” Terms that Taylor and others who hold similar views prefer: “race realist” or “white advocate.” They may also refer to themselves as advocating for “Western civilization” or “European heritage,” or say they are merely combating white “dispossession” or the “administrative removal of Americans of European extraction.”

They also love the term “alt-right,” which SPLC defines as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals” who believe white identity is under attack. The term is merely “a relabeling of white nationalism for the digital age,” said Potok. “It’s a little more pitched to young people,” he said. (Millennials may be well aware that being seen as a racist is a bad thing, even if they embrace racist viewpoints.)

Breitbart has published a glowing guide to the alt-right, suggesting its members are different from “old-school racist skinheads” because they are “a much smarter group.” In a post earlier this year, a headline described political analyst Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” Another article published last year, weeks after the mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina, celebrated the Confederate flag, a symbol embraced by racists.

“I am very frustrated by the normalization of these ideas and the notion that they are finding acceptability in mainstream discourse,” said Ted Shaw, a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill. He noted that it should be “terrifying” that the alt-right has found legitimacy in Bannon’s appointment to serve in the White House.

Taylor strongly denies that Bannon is a white nationalist. But many self-identified individual white nationalists told The Huffington Post that they are excited that he was picked to serve on Trump’s team.

The Trump campaign has sought to distance Bannon from the website’s posts that traffic in white nationalism. “Here’s what folks need to know about Steve Bannon: He’s worked with people of all backgrounds and has embraced diversity throughout his career,” Miller said Thursday. In response to a HuffPost inquiry, the Trump transition team also referred to a statement from Republican Jewish Coalition board member Bernie Marcus, who defended Bannon’s appointment and said the charges against him are false.

Earlier this week, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told the “Today” show that Bannon is “not as scary” as he has been portrayed and that the “charges are very unfair.” But anti-extremist groups, such as the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League, disagree with the Trump camp’s characterization of Bannon. “[He] was the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill,” SPLC said on Twitter this week. Breitbart News is “the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” said ADL.

After Bannon’s appointment, progressive commentators criticized some news organizations for using euphemisms to describe him. They argued that not explicitly referring to him as a “white nationalist” ignored or downplayed Bannon’s role in promoting extremist rhetoric. Conservative media organizations also defended Bannon, calling him a “brilliant strategist” and “a patriot.” They said the allegations that he promotes white nationalism are “smears” and “slander,” and claimed Breitbart’s publications should not be linked to Bannon because that content is merely “designed to attract audiences.”

But Cheryl Harris, a UCLA law professor who focuses on civil rights and race, said, “These debates obfuscate the issue with respect to Bannon, which is whether Bannon self-consciously and explicitly created a platform for white nationalism to flourish, and it seems that he did, proudly and by his own admission. There is also a great danger of normalization as Trump takes state power. Many will be reluctant to call out the president for racism, either in his tactics or his policy.”

Jim Crow Museum founder Pilgrim said he has “no doubt” that as time goes on, alt-right adherents will be seen as promoting white nationalism, even if they’re not dressed up like neo-Nazis or wearing Klan hoods. “We’ve allowed someone, and I’m not sure whom,” to restrict the use of the term “white supremacist” “to only the guy in the racist uniform.”

Further Reading:

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