Nationalism is not patriotism. Just ask George Orwell.
Normally, there’s a kind of catharsis in watching someone finally admit to themselves and the world who they truly are. Not here. It has never been much of a secret that Donald Trump, American president, is a nationalist. The debate is more often over what adjective might go in front. And yet it was singularly unnerving on Tuesday—in the context of a midterm election campaign in which he and his Republican allies are appealing to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment and fear in a strategy so explicit that The New York Times felt comfortable calling it out—to hear him declare, loudly and proudly, that he is “a nationalist, OK?”
The juxtaposition here between “globalist” and “nationalist” is a Steve Bannon joint—a nice hat-tip to the guy on a day where he could be found playing a near-empty conference room on Staten Island. It’s the kind of binary nonsense that authoritarian types feed on, an us-or-them formulation where the United States can succeed, or the wider world can succeed, but you can’t have both. In the context of a globalized, entirely interconnected world—a development Trump is powerless to reverse—it is fantasy. But it gets the people going.
Now that the President of the United States has embraced it as his own, it’s worth digging into what the term “nationalist” actually means and the historical baggage it carries. For this, we can turn once again to George Orwell, the legendary British theorist who, more recently, has become a prop for diaper-wearing right-wing propagandists who looked him up on brainy quote dot com. The essential point, also made eloquently by Charles de Gaulle, is that not only are nationalism and patriotism not the same, the gap between them is not some difference of degree. They are often wholly contrasting emotional forces, as Orwell writes in his Notes on Nationalism: