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Glory days of nationalism never really existed

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

The “Trump Phenomenon” in the United States is often described as “populism” and an anti-establishment revolt. It is no such thing. It is merely the next step in the evolution of the Tea Party movement. It is thus, an excess of nationalism, above all else.

And a peculiar form of nationalism too. This is not strictly speaking about America. It is about White America. And blue-collar, reactionary White America of a mythical past where everyone was Christian, where the word “gay” meant nothing except “joyful”, women knew their place, and black people were only ever singing while picking cotton.

You can tell that this is so, because the battleground for this revolt is what they call political correctness. The one thing that sets Trump apart is his unapologetic refusal to conform the way he speaks to what the “liberal media” would call decency.

He is not an especially gifted or talented businessman. As one observer noted, if Trump had put his inheritance into an S&P 500 index linked savings account, he would have been between $1 billion and $6 billion wealthier than he is today. He most certainly does not “say it like it is” – because the majority of what he says is a complete fabrication. But he does do one thing better than anyone else: he trolls the “liberal media”, up to and including Fox News.

This is the nasty outburst of a class of people who have been left behind by globalization and who do have every right to be aggrieved, but who, as things sadly often happen, have chosen to articulate their grievances in the tribal language and rituals of a shallow, unenlightened, bigoted nationalism. Einstein once said: “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” Even if you do think that nationalism can take benign forms, it is hard to argue that America now is indeed suffering from a nasty, infantile collective disease.

Take Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again”. America, for all its faults, is a better place now than it has ever been for virtually every single identifiable demographic, except one: blue-collar white men. That there is the only fact you need to know to understand the Trump phenomenon. But, of course, defending white male privilege in America in explicit terms will no longer fly.

Even the Trump demographic would no longer be comfortable with explicitly racist or sexist arguments. So their grievance at the loss of their relative status in society has taken the form of cheap ‘fly-the-flag’, bumper-sticker nationalism. But a nationalism which, though intellectually thin and barren, is becoming increasingly radical and visceral. And a nationalism that is now swaying many people outside of the traditional Tea Party.

Beyond America

But this kind of cheap nationalism is far from a uniquely American phenomenon at the moment. Right now, it seems almost every country has a version of this. When I visited Turkey they continuously refer to the great achievements of the Ottomans and how they must go back to those glory days. In Greece, a country now on its knees and on the verge of bankruptcy, they spend more time daydreaming about the glory-days of ancient Greek civilization, than actually trying to fix the present.

In Greece, a country now on its knees and on the verge of bankruptcy, they spend more time daydreaming about the glory-days of ancient Greek civilization, than actually trying to fix the present.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And the same is true of Muslims around the globe who simply cannot accept the loss of power of Islamic civilization, and the complete failure of the Muslim nations to produce anything of substance for centuries after having led the world in science, mathematics and engineering whilst Europe was in the dark ages.

Of course, “the glory days” never really existed. Or at least, they never existed as advertised, as some sort of pristine, morally unspoilt, lost paradise. And America surely must be the best example of this. Name any “golden decade” or any glorious period of time of your choosing, and then only go and read up on what life was actually like for ordinary people in that time, trying to make ends meet. And then read up on what life was like for people at the very bottom of society. Can any blue-collar American genuinely believe that it was better to be a blue-collar American during Jim Crow? Or during the Gilded Age? Or during the United States’ colonial wars in the 19th Century? That is absolute nonsense.

This is not to say that they are not right to be angry. But angry about what? They should not be angry that the technology and globalisation is changing the world rapidly. That is the given fact. They should be angry that they have been deprived of the education and the opportunities to make the most of this new world – largely by politicians they have elected to cut taxes and also cut investment in education for the past four decades. The problem with fixing the education of an entire culture is that it takes resources and over a generation of hard work and dedication. Would it not be much simpler to blame everything on Muslims and Mexicans?
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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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