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Emer O’Kelly: Nationalism at the root of much evil

Nationalism is the motivating factor behind what is happening in Trump’s US

When Steve Bannon got his walking papers as head of White House strategy from Donald Trump, it was seen by Washington commentators as a victory for the somewhat less radical figures in the chaotic administration.

Bannon, after all, was the only member of the administration who publicly supported the president's response to the Charlottesville riots. And that response notorious in itself, is crowned by having been welcomed by the head of the Ku Klux Klan.

But however the United States may lurch about in its current confused maelstrom, one thing is clear: nationalism is the motivating factor behind what is happening in the US. And people who consider themselves “democratic nationalists” in other countries as well as in the US are flailing around finding other terms by which they can distance themselves from what Trump stands for.

Except that nationalism is the problem. Under any definition. Not just in its most extreme form, which can still be identified by Nazism and every evil that it stood for.


It's only a few years since we in Ireland used the term "constitutional nationalism" to differentiate between those whose aim was the re-unification of Ireland by non-violent democratic means, and the murderous form of nationalism espoused by the IRA.

America first

The great French political philosopher Georges Clémenceau, who died in 1929, described nationalism with admirable clarity, when he wrote: “A patriot loves his country. A nationalist hates all other countries.”

Trump defines it as “America first”. And not surprisingly, the more deprived people are, the less educated they are, and the more indifferent they are to any welfare save their own, the more the two words appeal.

The definition of nationalism is to 'exalt one nation above all others, with primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests'. That's us, all right

It remains the secret of Trump’s appeal: he rose to power, not on the shoulders of fellow Republicans as wealthy, powerful, and privileged as himself, while recognising that compromise is what gives us a respected place among the nations, but on the votes of those who are at the bottom and see power as the ability to kick others in the face in your own favour. Not so much the community of nations, as the community of the school yard.

And the outside world despairs, and tries to distance itself. National(ist) parliaments shudder, and look to their commercial laws to see how they can protect their own interests in the face of a Big Brother as indifferent to their welfare as they themselves are to others who in turn are less prosperous than they are.

Ireland had its unique term for it, beginning in the 19th century: Sinn Féin. Ourselves alone. Not so different, when you think about it from “America first”.

The definition of nationalism is to “exalt one nation above all others, with primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests”. That’s us, all right. We howl about the European Union imposing alien values on us, we howl when the United Nations presumes to point out to us that our cultural norms are considered inhumane in international law.

We complain about the expense of EU bureaucracy, but consider it a triumph to have had Irish adopted as an official language of the EU, with a department employed solely to translate into Irish (and put on a shelf) every document produced by the community.

Authoritarianism has produced what some people are calling the Alt-right; others are calling it fascism

Because our values are not merely unique but superior, we believe. Arguably it’s only our size and tiny population which prevents us attempting to impose them forcefully, if not forcibly, on others.

Unapologetically proud

And of course, we remain unapologetically proud of our "influence internationally" despite our tiny size. But we spit tacks at Britain's international influence, although its size is not much greater than ours. And of course, our outrage at the nationalism currently displayed by the UK government under Theresa May is a livid sore on our national psyche.

How dare she attempt to put Britain first? She dares because she is an English nationalist, although not perhaps as successful a nationalist as the last woman prime minister, the late Margaret Thatcher: and even she got her comeuppance at the hands of more responsible fellow country men and women who realised that thumping a nationalist drum was outdated and damaging.

Now we’re seeing unabashed nationalism at work in the US. Authoritarianism has produced what some people are calling the Alt-right; others are calling it fascism. Many of those who applaud it are looking to an ugly past for inspiration: to the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

That’s where nationalism leads: it’s the first step, and we need to halt it now. There is no long-term advantage, and especially no moral imperative in nationalist “ideals”. . . in any country.