The new dawn of old nationalism

Published by The i paper (23rd January, 2017)

On Friday morning, as the world prepared to see a former reality television star sworn in to office as the world’s most powerful man, Ian Paisley Junior was on the radio reflecting on the retirement of Martin McGuinness due to ill health. The one-time IRA leader’s warm relationship with his firebrand loyalist father was one of the most remarkable political alliances in my lifetime, symbolising both extraordinary personal journeys and the welcome emergence of Northern Ireland from decades of self-destructive conflict.

‘The most important thing in any person’s life is not where their journey starts or even what happens along the road but where it ends,’ said Paisley. The Unionist MP is right: all too often the problem in today’s world is forgetting and showing forgiveness. The capacity of two veteran nationalists from rival communities to come together in the name of peace proved that there is far more that unites than divides people. It was also a display of putting a country first, which could be called patriotism.

So with such magnanimity ringing in my ears, I decided to give Donald Trump benefit of the doubt despite instinctive scepticism towards this bigoted billionaire. Yes, he told a barrage of lies during the campaign, flip-flopped all over the place politically, preached economic stupidity, showed breathtaking naivety in foreign affairs. And while posing as man of the people he was disablist, sexist and racist, displaying contempt for vast swathes of his fellow human beings.

But perhaps things would be different once he entered the White House and donned the mantle of power. As his defenders argued, give the man a chance. How quickly that idea fizzled out. How swiftly optimism dissolved. How rapidly any hopes the 45th president of the United States might show dignity towards his nation were dashed. Instead his first words in office were squalid, spewing out an inaugural speech designed to sharpen divisions with its nativist nonsense rather than heal wounds.

Exposed in the spotlight was a man who furls himself in the flag while displaying self-serving contempt for his nation’s values. Michael Gerson, once chief speechwriter to George W Bush, pointed out that Trump seems to have only one style of politics: to amplify resentments towards his intimate opponents. ‘It is truly shocking how disconnected this speech was from inaugural history,’ he said, adding that the dismal torrent of words took culture wars ‘to the solemn, center stage of American democracy.’

The property mogul’s takeover of his country was instantly underlined by symbolic purge of the White House website, removing mentions of climate change plus a page on lesbian, gay and transgender issues. He started to unravel Barack Obama’s health reforms, which extended cover to millions of those poor voters seduced by his anti-establishment rhetoric. And he stepped up war with the media by lying about low numbers attending his inauguration – then saying journalists were ‘the most dishonest human beings on Earth’, even as he sought to mend fences with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Welcome to the new world order. Trump is a small-minded nationalist, not an American patriot, so no surprise that even in his moment of supreme triumph he revived slogans of 1930s isolationists and nativists. Never forget nationalism is an inherently nasty creed fuelled by fear and intolerance. There is huge difference between optimistic love of one’s own community expressed through pride in national values and pessimistic mistrust of outsiders in which walls are built, divisions exaggerated and foreigners blamed for faults.

How telling that even as women marched in response to a misogynist being elected president by pale male voters, European far-right leaders gathered for a rally on banks of the Rhine. They talked feverishly of Brexit and Trump’s accession, heralding a ‘patriotic spring.’ Fresh from her trip to Trump Tower, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, proclaimed the birth of a new era. ‘2016 was a year when the Anglo-Saxon world awoke and 2017 I’m sure is the year when the European continent will also awake’.

Elections in Holland, France and Germany will show if this nativist insurgency can be stopped and the crisis of confidence for Western democracy can be cured. But no-one should be fooled by phoney talk of patriotism: promises to ‘Make America Great Again’, hostility to outsiders, economic ramparts and weaponising of anti-Muslim sentiments demonstrate this is a rebirth of gloomy nationalism. Which is why Trump, adroitly surfing the anger of some voters, cannot be compared with fellow Republican outsider Ronald Reagan, a gloriously optimistic politician.

Trump’s rise to power places Theresa May in a pickle, desperate to do a post-Brexit deal on trade with the United States and suspicious of immigration while rightly flying the flag for free markets and globalisation. But there are bigger issues at stake even then Brexit. For we witness the same nationalist resurgence around the globe from China and India through to Ethiopia, Turkey and Russia. This makes the planet a far more perilous place, especially as global institutions are weakened and the world’s most influential promoter of democratic values turns inwards in a fit of pique.

Maybe Trump will mellow in office, his protectionist excesses can be constrained, security chiefs can impress on him the dangers of dancing to Vladimir Putin’s tune. Perhaps events will bring him to his senses. Or he will even learn the real meaning of patriotism rather than simply ranting about ‘America First’. For as Mr Paisley said, it is not where a journey starts but where it ends that matters. Sadly, after his first three days the omens do not look good.

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