In a year defined by its unpredictability, the added stress of what may turn out to be the most consequential election in U.S. history could be enough to drive us all insane. Within one week’s time, Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to fill the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Trump and Biden sparred in the first presidential debate of the election cycle, and the White House announced Trump tested positive for COVID-19. Yet, in many ways, this year’s election is not all that unusual. As the election nears, Trump has returned to his old playbook — one that embraces nationalist sentiments and practices.
The clearest example of Trump’s tendency towards nationalism comes from the language he adopts. Trump’s favorite slogans — “America First” and “Make America Great Again” — are synonymous with nationalist ideology. This time around, he has paired his past catchphrases with added emphasis on the dubious notion that the election could be stolen from him, instructing his supporters at the debate to “go to the polls and watch very carefully” and later refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power. Trump’s pattern of behavior, however, is not unique. Around the globe nationalist parties have proliferated rapidly. By studying their shared features, we can identify the dangers inherent to the nationalist world-view and search for possible solutions.
Nationalism is dangerous because its rhetoric encourages violence towards specific groups that are characterized as not belonging to the nation. Nationalists do not merely profess love for a country. Rather, they advance claims about who should inhabit a country. In the U.S., this belief manifested in Trump’s exclusionary immigration policies and call for a “Muslim ban.” Elsewhere, this ideology results in the vilification of queer people, indigenous groups, and refugees. While these conjectures have always been present, there is a difference between citizens promoting xenophobic sentiments and a government adopting their rhetoric. The official backing of the state validates these ideas.
The greater the emphasis a government places on the idea that minority groups are dangerous, the greater the chance similarly minded citizens resort to violent measures. The success of Hindu nationalism in India, for example, has caused fear among the country’s Muslim population, who have become the targets of a wave of violent hate-crimes. With anti-muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the rise in the U.S., statistics illustrate a similar pattern. Based on The New York Times reporting, there were over 7,120 incidents categorized as hate-crimes by the F.B.I. in 2018, primarily against Latinos, Muslims, and Arab-Americans. Regardless of whether nationalism is an effective political tool, its language is not free from consequence, and a serious examination is needed to correct course.
Despite the clear danger nationalism presents, there are no obvious answers for how global leaders should respond because nationalists have weaponized populist rhetoric to frame themselves as the true voice of the people. In recent years, nationalists have tried to vilify opposing politicians, academics, and judges, painting them as forces trying to undermine democracy, and they often rely on direct referendums to win policy battles. By framing themselves through a populist lens, nationalists legitimize efforts to bulldoze democratic institutions.
A recent example comes from Poland where the Law and Justice Party currently holds power because of successful nationalist appeals. In 2018, in a controversial move the Law and Justice party attempted to increase its control of the judiciary by forcing up to 40% of the Supreme Court Judges to retire. Even after the international community stepped in, there appeared to be no change in the Polish political sentiments. The Law and Justice Party remained as popular as ever despite the international condemnation. This example underscores the central problem for addressing nationalism. Any attempt to overrule nationalist ideas risks bolstering their populist credentials, laying the foundation for future success.
The best way to prevent nationalism is to address its underlying causes. Although economic fears are often cited as the reason for the prevalence of nationalism, the data does not necessarily support these claims. A report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic on the 2016 election found that the majority of low-income Americans supported Clinton, not Trump. The single largest factor influencing Trump voters was “feeling like a stranger in America.” The root-cause of nationalism is a high level of cultural anxiety, not economic anxiety. Unfortunately, unlike economic solutions, cultural anxiety does not appear to have a quick policy fix. However, there are some actions the global community can take to mitigate nationalism.
While it may sound counterintuitive, greater cultural contact may be the key to addressing nationalist movements. Research has shown that as a person’s contact with foreigners increases, anti-foreign sentiment decreases. This may be why, when surveyed by Pew Research Center, Republicans who lived closer to the U.S.-Mexico border said they were less in favor of the border wall. It seems likely that when people have contact with different cultures, they learn to trust individuals from diverse backgrounds. Greater integration may be the antidote to the nationalist problem.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming nationalism. But leaders in countries seeing a rise in nationalist attitudes must not concede to nationalists’ demands. Countries can not let nationalist leaders monopolize democratic will. An equally impressive democratic movement needs to rise to defend the victims of the harmful rhetoric and policies of nationalists. Even if Trump loses this November, the U.S. can not turn a blind eye to nationalism at home or abroad because without any counteraction through mobilization by the people, nationalist ideas will become the uncontested voice of the people.