Trump, Le Pen and the enduring appeal of nationalism

In a globalised era, even a country as big as America can feel small. Mark Mazower on why politicians such as Donald Trump are in fashion
Donald Trump makes his entrance during a campaign event at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington © Damon Winter/New York Times/Eyevine

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The flags are flying, the anthems ring out. We live in the time of the homeland, of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Freedom party’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, fresh from his resounding victory in the first round of the Austrian presidential poll. Trump has called on Americans to resist “the false song of globalism”. “In a huge number of European countries, patriotic movements are surging vigorously,” was how Le Pen greeted news of Hofer’s victory last weekend. Nationalism is back like it never went out of fashion and, with it, the head-scratching, the puzzlement. How to explain the irrational, the commentators ask. Doesn’t the Brexit camp realise leaving the European Union is a crazy idea? Don’t Trump’s millions understand that he is promising the impossible?

There is still no better place to look for an answer than in a little polemic written more than 30 years ago. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) remains a classic effort to explain nationalism’s durability and to come to terms with the passions it can unleash. Nationalism, Anderson argued, is not an ancient phenomenon, nor did it emerge in Europe as most commentators seemed to think. Quite distinct from the dynastic appeals of Shakespeare’s Henry V — it is easy to forget that the battle-cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George” is uttered in the play by the king himself — modern nationalism originated, in Anderson’s view, around the time of the American wars of independence. From the outset, he says, it has been more than just another political “ism”, as its deployment of sacral idioms, of the idea of sacrifice and duty, shows. In fact its emergence is best understood in relation to religion, whose compelling power to motivate and inspire it often shares.

At the time he was writing, many analysts tended to present nationalism as a kind of false consciousness, preferring to see through it than to take it seriously. Anderson wanted to acknowledge its durability rather than to demonise it, and he asks us to think about what the changes in the modern world were that brought it into being and have kept it going over two centuries and now into a third. Connecting its emergence to the spread of capitalism, the rise of modern bureaucracies and mass literacy, Anderson argued that its unexpected midwives were colonial civil servants with an appetite for enumerating and classifying their subjects. In his telling, the idea of the nation was then taken up by anti-colonial revolutionaries, who enshrined the idea of the new kind of community in maps, hymns, museums, and monuments. For nationalists, from Bolivia to Uzbekistan, time itself was reimagined as a straight line with independence, the glorious realisation of the national spirit, as the end of history.

Donald Trump’s campaign too has been fuelled by the tropes of nationalism. There is the grievance that the country’s rightful place in the world has been jeopardised, and the confidence that all it takes is one man’s leadership to put that straight. There will be a new era and there is the nationalist’s promise of unity: “We will be unified, we will be one, we will be happy again” — in Trump’s case so hard to separate from the flexing of biceps and the belligerent talk home and abroad. This week’s foreign-policy speech was notable not for its policy details but for its defensive tone. America’s greatness, to read Trump, will return by doing less rather than more, and by protecting its own borders, not those of others — a shot across the bows to countries such as Ukraine, perhaps? And protecting its own workers, too: his campaign has tapped more successfully than any other into the country’s growing inequality and doubts about globalisation. Above all, there is the demand for respect, and the diagnosis of a problem — out-of-touch elites with their own agenda, not “the people’s”.


Anderson, who died late last year, had an intuitive sympathy for nationalism’s anti-imperial origins. This was underpinned by his view of history, which was shaped by a rare and unfamiliar perspective. At the time of Imagined Communities’ publication, he was a political scientist at the centre of the small community of westerners working on Southeast Asia. Not only his training but also his family background had equipped him, in ways his posthumously published memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries makes clear, to understand nationalism’s extraordinary insurgent appeal.

A child of late empire, he was born in China in August 1936 in the southern city of Kunming, much closer to the borders with the Raj and French Indochina than to what is now called Beijing. His Anglo-Irish grandfather had served in India; his father was an officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, a revenue-collecting agency imposed during the opium wars. His mother was an upper-middle-class English woman; his first nurse was a French-speaking Vietnamese Catholic. Home was Ireland but a Protestant with his background was never likely to feel entirely at ease in the Republic and, in any case, family tradition pointed to schooling in England.

Indonesian nationalists in 1965 carrying bamboo weapons and hatchets in Java © Getty

He entered Eton on a scholarship and later read Classics at Cambridge. Here he developed into a resolute anti-imperialist, dismayed by the need to stand for the national anthem at the art-house cinema where he was embarking on a life-long love affair with Japanese culture through exposure to the work of Kurosawa and Ozu. England, too, became somewhere from which to escape. A chance acquaintance took him to a temporary job at Cornell University teaching political science — he had never before taught in his life, nor studied politics — and he ended up staying there until he retired.

When Anderson arrived at Cornell, the postwar expansion of universities had not really begun and the US remained in a state of almost 19th-century ignorance about the world. The term “Southeast Asia” was a recent coinage, essentially a product of second world war strategists. University departments were tiny and faculty had to cover vast amounts of ground.

The virtues of this situation, which professionalisation and the siloisation of academia have largely destroyed, were that one could roam across subjects without worrying about treading on someone else’s turf. Anderson could mix social science and literature, because in those days it was accepted that people who could speak the language had an advantage that no amount of “theory” could make up for. Unlike the European colonial powers, the Americans had no colonial archives of their own for this part of the world. But that too was an advantage because it encouraged the larger view; European scholars, by contrast, tended to bed down in their own particular patch.

But once the US began to see the cold war as a truly global struggle, money from foundations and government poured into academia, and “area studies” was born as a means of producing expertise about parts of the world the country thought it needed to understand. As a generalist, educated in a very different era, Anderson was alert to the drawbacks of area studies as well as their virtues. In particular, because they tend to draw boundaries around themselves, they can create pools of ignorance as well as expertise. South Asia was thus hived off from Southeast Asia, with unfortunate consequences for the study of both. Indonesia, Anderson’s own specialism, arguably suffered too — despite its outsized importance in the world — because in the postwar division of intellectual labour, east and south Asia loomed larger than territories between.

If one reason to nurture the study of far-flung parts of the world is geostrategic, there is another, much better reason to do this. As Anderson’s career suggests, often the most fertile insights into contemporary problems come not from those in the mainstream but from the more adventurous spirits who have charted their own intellectual course. Viewing the issue of nationalism from London, Washington or Berlin elicited one set of answers. Viewing it from the perspective of Jakarta elicited another. It gave Anderson an appreciation of the power of culture and belief, a view from the bottom up that often eluded more western-focused social scientists who took culture for granted and could not see the oddities of social custom and worldview that lay under their noses.

Another thing his Indonesian expertise taught him was the key importance of the colonial periphery in nationalism’s emergence. De-centring the usual story was one way of drawing attention to the relative historical novelty of the phenomenon, gleefully showing up the absurdity of all those European claims — themselves mostly the product of romantic 19th century historians — that their nation was rooted in some centuries-old tradition. Anderson was struck by Europeans’ deep need to believe in the antiquity of their national pasts. (Even French peasants, as another historian, Eugen Weber, reminds us, began thinking of themselves as French only rather recently.)

He was equally impressed by North Americans’ reluctance to think of their politics as national at all. To be sure, Ronald Reagan was speaking in 1980 about the need to “make America great again”. But it is only now, as Trump reprises the refrain in an anti-globalisation key, that we can see Americans embracing the nationalist’s sense of insurgency and liberation from an alien yoke that Anderson identified so long ago as one of its key characteristics. Under the globalisation juggernaut, we all feel small now, even the US, and this is perhaps the main difference between Reagan-era Republican tub-thumping and Trump’s.

The nation-state is basically no more than two centuries or so old, and in some places it is much younger than that. Yet the ideal of sovereign independence and political community it enshrines retains enormous appeal even in the face of the economic threat posed by globalisation. The new nationalisms seek to defend against this threat. The liberalisation of trade and capital flows may have started to equalise wealth across continents but they have brought a new degree of inequality within countries, eroded the prospects of middle-class life and finished off what was left of working-class communities in the old 19th-century industrial heartlands of the west in particular.


This is why today’s nationalist revival is so prominent in the west itself and why on both sides of the Atlantic the answer, if there is one, to the new sirens of nationalism will be found not in decrying it as a form of political idiocy — populism by another name — but rather in developing alternative visions of national wellbeing. In particular we need to recover the capacity to see the national and the international as necessary complements. The pro-European nationalist and the patriotic internationalist will then perhaps re-emerge as possibilities, rather than the contradictions-in-terms they presently seem.

Benedict Anderson

Ironically, it is the parties of the far-right in the EU that come closest to this — coalescing around the slogan of a “Europe of fatherlands”. The real problem is not so much with the idea as with what they in particular would do with it. Their version is heavy on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric; the alternative is not European federalism but something that stresses economic rather than racial solidarity, a return to some form of role for national governments in long-range investment planning, and a return to fiscal instruments for economic recovery rather than the current total reliance on central banks. That too would be a form of nationalism, internationalist in spirit, ethnically inclusive rather than repressive, and — as it happens — much closer than anything currently on offer to the mix of policies that underpinned European integration in its early and highly successful decades.

In one of his last books, Under Three Flags (2005), Anderson turned his attention to the radical, mostly anarchist thinkers of the late 19th century who helped to shape the simultaneous emergence of movements for national independence around the globe. At a time when nationalism’s twin obsessions with community and sovereignty have a conservative tint, with the memory of fascism lurking in the background and racism never far away, it is valuable to be reminded of when things were very different, when nationalism was a means to bring people together rather than to keep them apart, when nationalists were radicals who believed in social equality and human progress, free trade and Europe, workers’ rights and the toppling of the mighty. “No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first,” Donald Trump reminded us this week. True, but the national interest is susceptible to many definitions and Anderson’s work reminds us that for many periods in nationalism’s long and chequered past, building bridges was often regarded as more in the national interest than building walls. And perhaps in the future, too.

Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia University and author of ‘Governing the World: The History of an Idea’ (Penguin). ‘A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir’ by Benedict Anderson (Verso £14.99/$24.95)

Photographs: Damon Winter/New York Times/Eyevine; Getty Images

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