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The “Paradox” of Transnational Nationalism

Damon Linker has a good column in The Week [1] about the launch of American Affairs [2], a new journal which, in Linker’s words, aims to “explore the meaning and shape of American nationalism in the age of Trump.”

Linker’s main point — and it’s a trenchant one — is to note the belatedness of the effort: National Review and Public Interest took years or even decades to bring the fusionist New Right and neoconservatism respectively to a position of political dominance, whereas American Affairs was only founded after Trump’s unexpected triumph. But I want to comment on something Linker says at the end of the piece about our nationalist moment:

The central paradox of the present historical moment is that nationalism is on the rise — but the trend is taking place simultaneously across the West, as a kind of byproduct or inverse of internationalism itself. Trump himself seems to understand intuitively that he’s part of something bigger than himself. Hence the cheerleading for Brexit, support for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France, criticism of Germany’s Angela Merkel, praise for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians, and more far-reaching mischief-making with regard to NATO and the European Union.

I totally agree that this is the essential trend — and that it requires explanation that extends beyond domestic factors. But I’m not sure why it’s a paradox.

In the 1930s, nationalism was also on the rise, along with its hypertrophied cousin, fascism. But the fascists, notwithstanding their fanatical nationalism, shared with and borrowed from each other, and in many cases wound up as allies — the German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian and Japanese fascists all made common cause with one another.

To some extent, the common cause they made was due to factors unrelated to ideology. Germany, Italy, Japan and Hungary were all revisionist powers, aiming to overturn the established international order and remake it to radically enhance their positions. Poland and China also were ruled by nationalist parties in the ‘30s, but they lined up with the liberal democracies because they were the targets of the revisionist powers.

But to some extent it really was ideological affinity — that factor does seem necessary to explain the extent of the domestic French support for the Vichy regime. And both the major liberal powers (the U.S. and Britain) and the illiberal left-wing regime of the U.S.S.R. took on a distinctly nationalist cast in the 1930s and during the war. Stalin’s Soviet Union got more Russian even before the Great Patriotic War, and Roosevelt’s New Deal drew some of its inspiration from Mussolini’s Italy, even as other aspects were inspired by the radical left and the bulk of it was inspired by prior home-grown experiments within the liberal tradition.

The point being: there’s nothing obviously weird about nationalism, as an outlook, having a transnational dimension. Nationalism is an outlook that is particularist and collectivist. Why shouldn’t people who share that outlook discover they have something in common even if their particularisms differ? After all, traditionalist Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and Jews discovered they have things in common even though they have radically incompatible theologies, practices and eschatologies.


I’ll give my thoughts on possible transnational factors driving nationalism in subsequent posts.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The “Paradox” of Transnational Nationalism"

#1 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 23, 2017 @ 11:03 am

As usual, Noah Millman is one of the smartest commentators at a very smart publication. And I say this as someone who very often disagrees with him.

#2 Comment By Articuno On February 23, 2017 @ 11:12 am

It’s not a paradox – it’s the nature of relationships between nations. Nationalism is often used as a buzzword and it has no clear meaning. It arose alongside the democratization mantra of 18 and 19 century and with the social advancement of peasantry. So this is one side of nationalism – a sort of egalitarianism and solidarism – this is how Action Francaise or polish nationalists viewed it

Then there’s the other side of nationalism, specific for Protestant nations. That of national egoism and machiavellianism. Own national church, own national religion (Luther) and own national morality (as J. G. Fichte advocated for). And of course literary Romanticism as an attempt to create an alternative cult to christianity, again, it was the strongest in Protestant Germany

So when people tremble and point to WW2, then they most likely mean that ruthless Protestant nationalism which reached its peak among the nihilistic Germans. Otherwise many of them would be terrible hypocrites. If you’re a democrat and egalitarianists, then you have take into account “nationalism”. But it would be best if people just stopped using that word, when what they really mean is chauvinism

#3 Comment By Nom On February 23, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

Damon Linker’s paradox is right there Noah, where you mentioned Poland and China. I guess Nazis Germany and Imperial Japan can find common ground because they literally don’t have any common ground?, being a continent away from each other. The moment one Nationalism meets another Germany/Poland and then Germany/Russia … watch out! This is not true of liberal democracies is Linker’s contention I think.

You see this play out in the alt history show on Amazon now, The Man in the High Castle. Germany and Japan eventually came to blows once they conquered the world. The Germans even enslave and exterminate the Latin Spaniards and Italians in the original book.

#4 Comment By Alex On February 23, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

There is growing ultra-nationalism in china. Pakistan and china – the only 2 countries of concern.

#5 Comment By MMCCANN On February 23, 2017 @ 11:56 pm

The 1930s were hardly an aberration or even high point of of ‘trans-national nationalism’. The European Rebellions of 1848 seems like a much better parallel to draw on:

A collection of national elites, theoretically in competition with each other, united by a common university educated culture and mutual fear of growing popular insurgencies. Nationalist Rebellions in Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Romania, all without coordination and planning to occur at the same time, but riding on popular sentiment.

#6 Comment By mdc On February 25, 2017 @ 9:33 am

Well said. Related: it often seems to me clarifying to reflect that one can praise the citizen of foreign county for his or her patriotism. It’s unfortunate that this thought has become out-of-place, and antique-sounding.

#7 Comment By beejeez On March 3, 2017 @ 8:41 am

“Roosevelt’s New Deal drew some of its inspiration from Mussolini’s Italy.”

Uh-huh. You were doing so well for a while there, Mr. Millman.