False Flags

The Myth of the Nationalist Resurgence

Full of hot air: at the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, Brasília, Brazil, January 2019 SIPAPRE / SIPA USA VIA AP

There appears to be one indisputable global trend today: the rise of nationalism. Self-described nationalists now lead not only the world’s largest autocracies but also some of its most populous democracies, including Brazil, India, and the United States. A deepening fault line seems to divide cosmopolitans and nationalists, advocates of “drawbridge down” and “drawbridge up.” And it seems that more and more people are opting for the latter—for “closed” over “open.” 

They do so, many commentators claim, because they feel threatened by something called “globalism” and crave to have their particular national identities recognized and affirmed. According to this now conventional narrative, today’s surge of nationalist passions represents a return to normal: the attempts to create a more integrated world after the Cold War were a mere historical blip, and humanity’s tribal passions have now been reawakened. 

This, however, is a deeply flawed interpretation of the current moment. In reality, the leaders described as “nationalists” are better understood as populist poseurs who have won support by drawing on the rhetoric and imagery of nationalism. Unfortunately, they have managed to convince not only their supporters but also their opponents that they are responding to deep nationalist yearnings among ordinary people. The more that defenders of liberalism and the liberal order buy the stories these leaders (and associated movements) are selling and adopt the framing and rhetoric of populism, the more they allow their opponents’ ideas to shape political debates. In doing so, parties and institutions of the center-left and the center-right are helping bring about the very thing they hope to avoid: more closed societies and less global cooperation to address common problems. 


What the past few years have witnessed is not the rise of nationalism per se but the rise of one variant of it: nationalist populism. “Nationalism” and “populism” are often conflated, but they refer to different phenomena. The most charitable definition of “nationalism” is the idea that cultural communities should ideally possess their own states

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