Column: When patriotism becomes nationalism, watch out

George Orwell put it this way: Patriotism is love of one's country, nationalism is imposing that love on others.
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s  St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.
Published Feb. 8, 2019

Editor's note: The author will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs Tuesday night through Friday. Click for more details.

By Don Morrison

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

It's a miracle I was ever born. My father, a bomber pilot in World War II, got shot up, shot down and almost didn't come home. He called himself lucky. I call him a victim of nationalism.

Ah, nationalism — the warm, clubby feeling that makes people cheer their athletes at the Olympics, wave the flag on national holidays and, in some cases, go to war. My father, of course, was fighting the Nazis, those exemplars of nationalism's bad side: a fondness for ethnic and religious purity; a tendency toward militarism and territorial expansion; the subordination of independent power centers like the press and the judiciary to a "strong" leader; the Holocaust.

Wait, you say, I'm confusing nationalism with its good twin, patriotism. Thick books have been written about the distinction. I prefer George Orwell's succinct version: Patriotism is love of one's country, nationalism is imposing that love on others. Still, the line remains blurry.

Into this definitional debate has stepped our president. At a rally in Houston a few months ago, he declared: "I'm a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!" A week later, the president offered a reassuring clarification to Fox News' Laura Ingraham: "It means I love the country. It means I'm fighting for the country."

If only he had left it at that. "I look at two things," he added, "globalists (emphasis mine) and nationalists. I'm somebody that wants to take care of our country, because for many, many years … our leaders have been more worried about the world than they have about the United States." That addendum is troubling.

On its face, it is a legitimate critique of the postwar world order. My dad's generation came back from the conflict determined to contain nationalism within a rules-based system of military alliances and multi-lateral institutions: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, the European Union. That arrangement helped keep the peace for decades, bound former enemies into a web of global trade and led to historic prosperity.

Then cracks appeared. Free trade and technology created many jobs but destroyed others. Greater freedom of movement and rising inequality brought tides of immigrants, dismaying the native-born. Meanwhile, the technocratic elites who ran multi-lateral institutions and democratic governments were slow to address those concerns.

As a result, a new political movement — right-wing, isolationist, ethno-nationalist — gathered strength. It has produced Brexit in the U.K. and anti-immigrant opposition parties across Europe. It now controls the governments of Italy, Hungary, Poland, Brazil and, some would say, the United States.

President Donald Trump shares with this group a fondness for using the word "globalist." In the ethno-nationalist universe, the term has a specific meaning: the purported cabal of international-minded, mostly Jewish financiers and policy makers — George Soros is a current villain —- who allegedly control the global economy. The Anti-Defamation League has branded "globalist" an anti-Semitic slur.

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The president surely doesn't intend that meaning, and he is hardly an anti-Semite. But he does count ethno-nationalists —- including white supremacists — among his supporters, as his response to the 2017 racial violence in Charlottesville and a few other comments seem to indicate.

Indeed, Trump has expressed support for several of the new nationalism's tenets: immigrants are criminals; whites are systematically discriminated against; opponents of racism are themselves racists; liberal elites are inherently corrupt; trade deals, climate activism and the "deep state" are globalist plots.

The president also shares the movement's distaste for international institutions and treaties. He has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, the U.N. Human Rights Council, UNESCO and the Iran nuclear agreement. He wants to quit the NATO military alliance.

None of these arrangements is perfect, but they were all essentially created by the United States and have helped advance its interests. Trump, however, sees an America that doesn't need global institutions as much as his personal relationships with other "strong" leaders — in Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, evidently, North Korea.

Reminds me a little of Europe in the 1930s, when nationalist leaders joined forces to reject the League of Nations, the World Court, arms limitations, free trade, treaties, immigrants and the ethnically impure — while the rest of the world stood by.

My father, who nearly lost his life to that outburst of nationalism, could tell you what comes next. It might make me wish I'd never been born.

Donald Morrison, a former editor at Time magazine, is the author of "The Death of French Culture" and "How Obama Lost America," a professor at Tsinghua University, Sciences Po and a syndicated commentator.