The Nationalist Revival: Identify and Reclaim

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The Trump era could last another thirty years.” That was the headline last week on a widely discussed column by Gideon Rachman, principal foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. In the three years  since Brexit and Trump, Rachman observed, a global populist movement has gathered momentum: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Victor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, not to mention Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. The bad news, he wrote, is that such movements tend to last around thirty years.

Rachman was right about the cycle, I thought, wrong about the nature of the underlying movement – nationalism, not populism, is the dominant theme. Especially in the United States, the clock on the “populist era” is running down. If the path to re-election grows steeper, the likelihood grows that Trump will simply walk away.

Supporters hope that a buoyant economy will keep Trump in office. I doubt that it will, whatever the averages say. More firmly-based authoritarian (not populist) governments elsewhere will last longer, depending on local circumstances, but time is not on their side. The nationalist turn, on the other hand, is here to stay, at least for the next twenty-five years.

Rachman identifies three distinct eras in postwar Western politics. The period of rebuilding economies and extending welfare states that followed World War II, 1945-1975 – “les trente glorieuses,” as they were called in France; a period of rapid globalization followed, 1978-2008, “neo-liberalism,” to its critics; before giving way to whatever is going on now. He dates this new era from the global banking crisis of 2008.  I would have said it began with Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000.

A fourth such thirty-year sequence of events remains present in living memory, at least for a little while longer:  1915-1945, the decades of the Great War, the League of Nations, the Great Depression, and the cataclysm of World War II.  The period is often simply labeled “the interwar years,” Historian Adam Tooze’s title “the Deluge” evokes the years 1916-1931 pretty well; historian Tony Judt’s description of the rise of a state religion of “Planning” in the years after gets at the response.

Then the Cold War, a contest between the market democracies and the centrally-planned communist  states dominated the years 1945-1975, before giving way to a Market Turn (a better term, perhaps, than “neo-liberalism”) in the thirty years after that.  Beginning in the Oughts, the present nationalist era emerged. Rachman thinks “emulation followed by overshoot” drives the cycle. I think the zig-zag pattern is generated by shared experience.

Thus the Market Turn began out of a desire to throw off top-down central planning by administrative states. It showed up first in the Iberian world:  Chile, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico. After Mao Zedong died, in 1976, China jailed his heirs and set out to emulate Japan. The USSR lost control of its European satellites and collapsed. India, Indonesia, Argentina, and Brazil followed suit. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan often get the credit for initiating the Market Turn, but the parade was well underway by the time they arrived.

After Rachman got me thinking, I read, on the advice of a friend, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization, by John Judis.  It is a short book, 157 pages, five chapters packed with learning.  It took less than half a day to get through.

Judis is a public intellectual, a journalist determined to stay on top of the story. He was a child in the 1950s, in Elgin, Illinois, when his father lost his dress-manufacturing business to Asian competition – an early casualty of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. His first book, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, appeared in 1988. It was followed by a string of imaginative reports:  Grand illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century (1992); The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust (2000); The Emerging Democratic Majority [with Rudy Teixeira] (2002); The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (2004); Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (2014); The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (2016).

I thought Judis presented his argument backwards.  The penultimate chapter, about American expansionism after 1989, should have been first, followed by the one on the European experiment with federation, and then a chapter depth ofon the US experience with periodic waves of immigration and free trade. His introductory chapters, “Understanding Nationalism,” and “Why Nationalism Matters,” are especially good.  I came away with a better understanding of the extent to which the centralizing tendencies of the last thirty years had sought to override centuries of pluralism.

The argument of the book, Judis writes, is that

national identity is not just a product of where a person is born, or emigrated to, but of deeply held sentiments that are usually acquired during childhood. Nationalism is not simply a political ideology, or a set of ideas, but a social psychology. Nationalist sentiment is an essential ingredient of a democracy, which is based on the assumption of a common identity, and of a welfare state, which is based on the acceptance by citizens of their financial responsibility for people whom they may not know at all, and who may have widely different backgrounds from theirs.

The nationalist revival, I think, thus must have had its roots in the need to govern. China retained its system of political control and prospered. Russia abandoned its own system and lost heart for a time, before re-establishing a new sort of order under Putin.  The message was not lost on the leaders of other nations threatened by the burst of globalization that followed the end of the Cold War.

The European Union was already having difficulty absorbing eight former members of the Warsaw Pact when the sovereign debt crisis threatened its monetary union. Then a massive wave of immigration, from the Middle East and North Africa, threatened its political stability.

Meanwhile, the United States, which had been experiencing a widening gyre since 1992, when H. Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election, put Donald Trump in the White House, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Trump may not be re-elected, but his concerns – trade, immigration, less interventionism, except, perhaps, in the Western Hemisphere  – are here to stay.

The task now, Judis writes, “is to identify and reclaim what is valid in nationalism – and of the liberal internationalism of the post-World War II generation – from both the cosmopolitan liberals who believe in a borderless world and from the right wing populists who have coupled a concern for their nation’s workers with nativist screeds against outgroups and immigrants.”

It sounds like an altogether fitting agenda for the next quarter century. Walter Russell Mead put it this week last week in the WSJ, “Whatever comes after Mr., Trump, it won’t be a simple return to the Republican or Democratic version of the post-Cold War consensus.”.