The Return of Nationalism in a Trump-Brexit World

Donald Trump talks ethnic nationalism in Scotland, seemingly unaware that Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU.

Donald Trump talks ethnic nationalism in Scotland, seemingly unaware that Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU.

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.

Nigel Farage holds the unofficial title of "Britain's Donald Trump." That's a yoooge deal.

Nigel Farage holds the unofficial title of “Britain’s Donald Trump.” That’s a yoooge deal.

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.

Brexit xenophobia. Chaps, you aren't even trying to hide it.

Brexit xenophobia. Chaps, you aren’t even trying to hide it.

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.

Trump supporters: they're an open-minded bunch.

Trump supporters: they’re an open-minded bunch.

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.

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  1. I think you’re broadly correct, but I would place a bit more emphasis on anti-elitism sentiment as opposed to ethnic nationalism (though the latter is obvious an important factor). A significant portion of the working-class in both countries feel (understandably) betrayed and abandoned by the ‘Establishment’, and feel they were sold out so elites could reap the benefits of globalization. That’s a big reason why the Remain campaign failed – all of the expert pronouncements that Brexit would result in the apocalypse fell on deaf ears, because much of the working-class doesn’t believe anything experts say (Gove, one of the Brexit leaders, explicitly said experts weren’t to be believed anymore). Basically a working-class that loathed the Establishment was given a chance to destroy the one project that pretty much the entire Establishment supported – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they embraced the opportunity with relish.

    It’s the same with Trump – all of the denouncements by Republican leaders made no difference in the primary, because Trump supporters believed that anything the Republican Establishment said was by definition false, simply because it was the Establishment that was saying it. For the general election, elites attacking Trump will, if anything, make him more popular, on the theory that anything the elites hate must be good.

    If the forces that support Brexit and Trump are to be held back, I think a starting point needs to be an honest inquiry into why they are angry, and attempting to address their concerns where possible. Otherwise, they will continue to vote their outrage.

  2. The problem for many of those who back Trump is that the economic forces at play are not working in their favor. For the first time ever, the largest sector of the workforce is those with a college degree. It is not a coincidence that the majority of Trump supporters do not have a college degree. That group is being marginalized. The recovery from the Bush Depression has been similar to previous economic recoveries since the 1960s.

    These people seem to think that electing Trump will solve this problem. It will not. Trump cannot control these forces any more than Hillary Clinton can. Those forces are beyond the power of government. Yet, no politician will ever admit that because that would show the limited impact of politicians upon the economies of the world. It would also reveal just how little politicians actually know about economic forces.

    Of course, most of the people supporting Trump do not know much about economies either. They are just reacting to what they perceive: They are being left behind as the economy continues to change. Also note the ages involved. Older workers who do not really have the time to learn new skills or obtain a college degree before retirement. The world they entered has changed and they have not adapted to the change.

    I do not see a way to address their concerns. Government cannot fix it. I also think that the reason this group and the older demographic are able to achieve victories at the polls is due to the Baby Boom. The sheer number of people in that bracket are greater than the next generation. It distorts their power and gives them additional power that they would not have otherwise. Eventually natural attrition will break that numerical advantage, but that’s at least another decade away at the earliest. Meanwhile, our politics have to take them into consideration for better or worse.

    • Well stated. The frustration and anger that’s driving Trumps numbers is real, although I think both their assumptions about who’s responsible and what President Trump can do to reverse these trends are misplaced. It’s bigger than any political party or leader.

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