As a result of the atrocities committed by the National Socialist Party during World War II, the terms nationalist and nationalism gained a baleful connotation. Consequently, in the post-war era it was very rare for people, especially politicians, to publicly refer to themselves as nationalists for fear of being associated with Nazism.
More recently, however, this norm is being challenged in the United States. At a campaign rally on October 22, 2018, President Donald Trump openly identified himself as a nationalist by saying:
“A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word–it’s sort of became old-fashioned–it’s called a nationalist. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong.”
Trump is not the only one who is trying to mainstream nationalism. U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio has advocated for “new nationalism.” Additionally, U.S. Representative Steve King infamously questioned why the term “white nationalism” is offensive while speaking to the House of Representatives.
Three people holding some of the highest offices in the United States government have now openly pledged support for an ideology that is notoriously associated with brutal dictators like Adolf Hitler. While Trump has insisted that he “has the best words,” French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to school him on the difference between nationalism and patriotism saying, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
So the question is, is Macron correct? Are these men confusing nationalism with patriotism? According to nationalism expert Dr. Anton Pelinka, “The difference between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ depends on semantics, traditions and periods.” Most dictionary definitions of both words involve the concept of a country or nation-state. However, while the definition of patriotism does require a country, nationalism has a larger variety of definitions because a nation does not necessarily have to be a country, such as Nation of Islam, Aryan Nations, Navajo Nation. Political scientist Dr. Benedict Anderson captured this idea when he wrote about nations being “imagined communities” in his book of the same name.
This is not the only distinction that is frequently made to distinguish the two words. The other distinction is that nationalism usually involves a sense of superiority of one’s nation over others. Distinguishing two words with very similar meanings may seem trivial, but the distinction is important. The love and support for a nation or country that is common to the definitions of both patriotism and nationalism poses no real threat.
The issue that arises is in the part of the definition which is unique to nationalism: the concept of superiority. Since the aforementioned politicians began arguing for nationalism (even if they may be confusing it with patriotism), it has offered a sense of affirmation to true nationalists.
One group known as white nationalists, who were previously considered extremists and outcasts, have crept back into the mainstream. They proudly and dangerously tout their belief in the superiority of their imagined community over all others. Almost two years ago, the images of white nationalists including neo-Nazis and members of the KKK marching through Charlottesville, Virginia stunned people worldwide.
Yet, anti-Semitism continues to increase globally. The United States alone witnessed a sharp increase in both hate crimes and anti-Semitism according to the FBI and Anti-Defamation League. Most notably, there were two fatal shootings at synagogues. One in October of 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in which 11 people were killed, and the other in San Diego, California in April 2019 where one person was killed and multiple were wounded. The perpetrators in each of these shootings had both espoused anti-Semitic and racist beliefs aligned with those of white nationalists.
Nationalism has a menacing history surrounding it, especially regarding anti-Semitism. Patriotism, on the other hand, does not carry this particular baggage. Obviously, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump are not white nationalists, and some might argue they are not even nationalists, but their advocacy for nationalism may be emboldening extremist groups. Whether the increase in anti-Semitism is directly related to calls for more nationalism made by these politicians is almost impossible to definitively conclude.
However, one would think that with the anti-Semitic history that accompanies the word, politicians would be much more careful and reluctant to use it. As anti-Semitism continues to rise, it will be important to note whether these politicians continue to push for nationalism or if they revert to advocating for the more frequently used and traditionally safer patriotism.