At the U.N. General Assembly this week, some saw Donald Trump as the Leader of the Free World. Others said, no, he was there as the leader of the Nationalist International.
A September 22 rally in Houston lent support to the latter viewpoint. Before a cheering throng of 50,000, Trump shared a stage with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party might be described as Trumpian—were it not for the fact that the BJP preceded Trump’s “America First” movement by decades.
Together, Trump and Modi hammered their favorite themes. Connecting his concern about the security of the U.S. border with Mexico to India’s concern about its border with Pakistan, Trump proclaimed, “Both India and the U.S. also understand that to keep our communities safe, we must protect our borders.”
Eyeing his own re-election bid, the president added, “We are going to take care of our Indian-American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country.”
For his part, Modi was effusive toward his presidential host. The Indian leader lauded Trump’s “concern for every American, a belief in America’s future, and a strong resolve to make America great again.” And speaking of “my friend” Trump, he modified the Hindi words of his own BJP slogan for the USA: “Abki baar, Trump sarkar”—“This time, a Trump country.”
It was, in fact, a heady day in Houston. Politico described it under the headline, “At a rally like no other, Trump woos Indian American voters ahead of 2020: The president tried to appeal to the growing political force at a huge ‘Howdy, Modi’ event with India’s popular leader.” As the article observed, “It wasn’t your typical Trump campaign rally. Instead of red Make America Great Again hats, there were turbans and Islamic caps. Women in traditional Indian garb danced to drums. And tens of thousands of cheering Indian Americans chanted ‘USA!’ and snapped photos.”
Thus we are reminded that nationalist and religious display is, for lack of a better word, fun. That is, it’s fun, as well as both rooted and meaningful, to dress up in ethnic or tribal garb. To be sure, ethnicity is not the only motive for exuberant expression—sports fans, for example, demonstrate a related impulse—yet pride of origin is as enduring as anything in human nature.
To be sure, not everyone loves Trump, and not everyone loves Modi. He has long been a controversial figure in India, we well as in the U.S. In fact, in 2005, the U.S. government banned Modi, then a provincial minister, from entering this country over concerns that he had turned a blind eye toward human rights in his country. (Yes, those were the days when the Bush administration was dedicated to human rights everywhere—so much so that it preemptively invaded a sovereign country, Iraq, to bring to it the blessings of democracy.)
Still, even without the Bush blessing, Modi went on to win two landslide national elections, in 2014 and 2019, the second one bigger than the first. In fact, the BJP has won five of the last seven national elections.
In other words, India is firmly ensconced in the ranks of countries that, say, The Guardian—that leading U.K. journalistic voice of international progressivism—would describe as “right-wing nationalist.” By The Guardian’s own count, these nations include India, Australia, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, and Russia. And of course, to that right-wing roster we can add the U.S.—at least so long as Trump is in charge. (And other countries, too, including Austria, Israel, and Italy, have seen like-minded right-wingers at the helm.)
What’s notable about this list is how extensive it is. Indeed, if we were to consider other countries, not typically seen as “right-wing” but nonetheless nationalist, we would have an even longer list.
For instance, there’s the People’s Republic of China. Other than its commie name, it’s hard to think of anything left-wing about China. And in the meantime, the Han Chinese, who run the country, are cracking down anyone who doesn’t fit their Sinocentric vision, including Christians, Falun Gong believers, Tibetans, Uyhgurs, and, most recently, the free people of Hong Kong.
So is China left-wing or right-wing? Answer: That’s an irrelevant question, because China is China, a land where Confucian and Maoist concepts transcend any Western typology.
In fact, most countries in the world seem to practice politics based on some sort of ethnic-based dominion, for which democracy—if it exists at all—is a way for the ruling class, usually ethnically determined, to work out its differences and deliver decisions to the rest of the population.
By this reckoning, if one really thinks about it, about the only countries in the world that could really be called “liberal” are in the West—make that the Northwest. That is, there’s liberal Canada, plus the European Union, led by Germany. Yet even within the EU, many states are in some condition of disagreement—and even outright Brexit. Meanwhile, in the U.S., states such as Massachusetts and California are reliably liberal, as are many blue dots—and then, in opposition, there’s Trumplandia.
In other words, if we add up all the countries, we see that the number of nationalist countries is vastly larger than any liberal, or left, internationalist grouping.
We might dub the former group the “Nationalist International,” as an ironic homage of sorts to the International Workingmen’s Association, commonly referred to as the International, which first convened in London on September 28, 1864. For those who might wish to celebrate, the 155th anniversary of that convention is nigh upon us.
The First International fell apart in 1876, yet through an infinity of subsequent permutations, it embodied the hope for a left-wing international order—workers of the world uniting, and all that.
Such border-busting class uniting never happened, of course, although the internationalist dream has certainly survived in many political parties and in many more organizations and ideologies. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the executives and secretariats of globe-girdling entities—and associated stakeholders, donors, recipients, journalistic cheerleaders, woke capitalists, and zealous street activists—are just as true-believing in their internationalism as ever. Of course, the color of their belief has shifted from mostly red to mostly green (including the green of globalist cash), as well as the many hues of the LGBT rainbow.
So this is the great struggle of our era: who should rule—the nationalists or the internationalists? Should it be nationalist political leaders such as Trump, Modi, and their kind? Or, rather, the mandarins of the internationalist nomenklatura? As Lenin, who knew a thing or two about deep conflict, always put it, the crucial question is kto kvo: “who [eats] whom.”
This week, a particular flashpoint in New York City has been the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, powered by the world’s green energy—more ideological and financial, as opposed to renewable—has declared its aim to be the “de-carbonizing” of the the world economy by mid-century, if not sooner. Such a change, of course, would be the biggest shift since the world first started “carbonizing,” three centuries ago.
Indeed, the IPCC, engorged by the hopes, dreams, and clicks of every Guardian reader, surely rates as the newest planetary hegemon. So can the IPCC and its chattering allies correctly instruct the member-states of the Nationalist International to follow the dubious path of Germany, which is now sacrificing its crown jewel industry on an unforgiving altar? Can the IPCC’s many international tentacles—including politicized financial markets—throttle Trump and all other recalcitrant nationalist leaders?
Some will argue, of course, that the cause of combating climate change is so important that everything else—every leader, every institution, every nation-state—must bow down before it. Yet even if the climate science is as strong as the greens say it is, it’s readily apparent that the issue can be addressed with incremental, Burkean remedies.
In the meantime, it’s revealing that the IPCC and its youngest commissar, Greta Thunberg, have chosen to ignore the path of prudence and instead chosen the road of radicalism.
We’ve seen this sort of totalized thinking before. As we know, a different version of radicalism—which thought of itself, too, as scientific—sprouted up during the 19th century from groups such as the original International, and gained killer momentum in the 20th century.
Fortunately, in the 20th century, the International’s myriad tentacular descendants were thwarted by sturdy nation-states, notably the United States. We can observe that back then, the U.S. was fighting for freedom, but even more, it was fighting for its existence. That’s an enduring truth of nationalism: if a nation doesn’t exist, questions about its political system—and even its carbon dioxide emissions—are moot.
Now, in the 21st century, we see that the internationalist versus nationalist dynamic is back with us. So once again, it will be a fight.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.