Remember when the sun never set on the British Empire? Remember when political decisions made by dentally challenged limeys on some dank Atlantic island had far-reaching implications for the entire globe? Of course you don’t, but that might change in the very near future.
When the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016 (a move popularly designated as “Brexit,” as in “Britain + Exit,” get it?! Yes, yes, very droll indeed), global markets shook, and badger-bouffanted blowhard Donald J. Trump went to Scotland to congratulate the Highlands’ heroic William Wallaces who “took their country back,” even though the Scots voted to stay in the EU. As he does about every world event about which he knows nothing, Trump has an opinion about Brexit, and like most of his opinions, it’s spectacularly wrong.
The implications of the Brexit vote will be extensive on a range of issues, from global trade, to immigration, to nationalist sentiment, but I’m most concerned with the latter. When viewed alongside the growth of Trumpism in the United States of ‘Murica, Brexit signals a significant rise in ethnic nationalism in the Western World — a predictable but nonetheless virulent side-effect to the now de-facto global international order of free trade, open immigration, and borderless finance. As beneficial as globalism has been in some ways, it’s also significantly neutered once-powerful nation-states in their ability to firmly delineate important stuff like citizenship, economic borders, national defense policies, and even their own legitimacy as geo-political entities.
Consider two boorish louts separated by the Atlantic Ocean but linked in spirit by their balls-to-the-wall xenophobia.
Donald Trump built his successful run for the Republican Party nomination by railing against “political correctness” that downplays American greatness. He also advocates a gonzo set of policy proposals (building a wall to keep out the Mexicans, deporting the Mexicans already here, and putting the clampdown on Muslim immigration) designed to keep undesirables from sullying America’s amber waves of lily-white grain. Trump also touts a heavily protectionist economic policy designed to kick China in the metaphorical groin, bring manufacturing back to the American Heartland, and generally reassert American dominance over a global order that has relegated the U.S. to merely one (albeit powerful) player on the world economic scene.
Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, Brexit champion and leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has for years promoted a right-wing populist vision for Britain that includes a strong platform of ethnic nationalism and reactionary economic policies.
Beyond being vociferously anti-European Union, UKIP’s gargantuan Believe in Britain Manifesto reads like Trumpism with tea and crumpets on the side. It seeks to “reinvigorate British culture and values” by rejecting the “liberal metropolitan elite” who denigrate British patriotism. It calls for ending multiculturalism in favor of “integrating into our [British] majority culture.” The UKIP is also “committed to promoting the English language as a common ingredient that will bind our society together.” In addition to its sops to ethnic nationalism, the UKIP platform also invokes Trump in its stated preference for slashing taxes and closing the “open door” policy for European labor “that has driven down wages in recent years.” On immigration, UKIP wants to “take back control of our borders” in order to prevent immigration from taking jobs away from Britons. No wonder some have characterized Brexit as “The U.K.’s Donald Trump Moment.”
The beating heart that’s giving life to both Trumpism and anti-European Union sentiment in Britain is, in large part, an intense rise in ethnic nationalism among segments of the American and U.K. populations that feel betrayed by globalization. The flattened economic world has significantly diluted the standing of “traditional” white Anglo groups and has hamstrung their ability to shape national policies in their own favor. As a result, both sides of the Atlantic have experienced outbursts of prejudice as whitey tries to stick it to them dirty im-ee-grints. Donald Trump rallies, for example, have resembled surreal mini-Nurembergs in which the orange one appeals directly to his supporters’ xenophobic sentiments. Meanwhile, the U.K. Brexit vote was often characterized by anti-Polish and anti-Muslim sentiments, as well as a general antipathy towards “non-British” outsiders.
American right-wing outlets have also praised the undercurrents of ethnic nationalism and its attendant anti-globalism that’s fueled Brexit. Breitbart, for example, describes Brexit as the first blow in “a popular revolution against globalism,” which it describes as the elites’ “attempt to superimpose a manufactured civic identity over proud nation-states with rich and complex histories.” Similarly, conservative Twitter praised Britain for taking a bold stance as “a sovereign nation.” This is straight-up nationalist chest-puffing, the likes of which our interconnected, borderless, free-trading tiny world was supposed to abolish.
So why the return of nationalism now? More specifically, why the return of ethnic nationalism now?
The thing is, nationalism never went away. It’s been one of the defining organizing ideas in the modern world, especially since the great Age of Nationalism characterized by revolutions in France, Germany, Latin America, Russia, and other regions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, nationalism has always resisted a singular definition thanks to the fluidity of the concept itself, as well as the inability of ego-stroking scholars to come to any sort of genuine agreement on the idea.
In terms of the modern era, historian Paul Quigley defines nationalism as “the conviction that each nation — a group of people with a distinctive identity, typically based on some combination of language, descent, history, cultural values, or interest — ought to be aligned with an independent unit of governance in the modern institution of the nation-state.”* Since the 19th century, the modern world has largely organized itself around this conception of nationalism, which matches a functioning state as the collective vehicle for a group of people with shared interests.
Ethnicity has always been a crucial component of the modern conception of nationalism; it’s perhaps the most potent way of distinguishing who belongs in the nation and who doesn’t. In his short book on modern nationalism, Steven Grosby elaborates on the “us vs. them” mentality that underlies ethnic nationalist movements. When people with shared traditions actively “understand themselves as being different from those who do not,” Grosby writes, they exhibit a “collective self-consciousness.”* The nation, in turn, is a social relation of this collective self-consciousness.
The problem with nationalism, however, is that it tends to breed insularity, reactionist outbreaks, notions of self-superiority, and suspicion towards outsiders that historically has exploded in violence and wars. Grosby notes that, “central to the existence of the nation is the tendency of humanity to form territorially distinct societies,” and these societies must be vigorously defended from — and even forced upon — outsiders real and perceived.* Thus, ethnic nationalism drove great 19th-century conflicts such as the American Civil War. During this war, the northern states invoked white ethnic solidarity to justify stopping slavery from spreading into the American West, thereby keeping the Western Territories a “white man’s country,” while the southern states united around white ethnic nationalism to justify and perpetuate the institution of black slavery. Ethnic nationalism also drove the brutal totalitarian movements in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia that thrust humanity into the Second World War.
Nationalism’s history of violence, as well as its penchant for fueling insularity and provincialism makes its rise in Trump-trumpeting America and Brexit-bragging England deeply disturbing. Yet the return of ethnic nationalism nonetheless makes sense in an era where long-standing beliefs in the ability of nation-states to guide their own destinies has given way to a globalized order dominated by the stateless hegemony of turbo-capitalism. Both Trump supporters in the U.S. and pro-Brexit voters in the U.K. see a world in which the pre-existing levers of political and economic control no longer function. Sure, they’re reacting in the most reactionary and xenophobic ways, but when political nationalism fails, ethnic nationalism is there to wrap would-be fascists in the comforting blanket of tribal identity.
There are plenty of legitimate critiques of globalization, such as its concentration of wealth into the hands of one percent of the world’s population and its de-facto insistence that consumerist market values are the only values suited to the human experience. But the response to globalization ought to be a vigorous reassessment of the nature of consumer society, not the xenophobic tribalism best relegated to history’s proverbial dustbin.
* See Paul Quigley, Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 11.
* See Steven Grosby, Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 10-13.