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[Andreas Kluth] Only patriotism can save the US from nationalism

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 4, 2024 - 05:31

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It’s patriotism when love of your own people comes first; it’s nationalism when hate for people other than your own comes first. That definition comes from Charles de Gaulle, a former national hero and president of France. It’s worth keeping in mind as we enter an election year in the US where these two deceptively similar and yet utterly contrary forces will clash.

De Gaulle was onto something subtle but big. Patriotism, when you observe that warm feeling welling up inside of you, is fundamentally positive. By contrast, nationalism, whenever you perceive that emotion in you, is negative and potentially jingoistic.

Political scientists describe this distinction as “inclusive” patriotism versus “exclusive” nationalism.

Nationalism, unlike patriotism, needs an Other as a target of its primary energy source, which isn’t pride but resentment. That Other can be foreign or domestic. In the past as today, the role has often fallen to outside foes but also, say, to immigrants, Jews or political enemies at home. So it’s not patriotic but nationalistic to extol a “real America,” with the implication of an unworthy and “unreal” alternative. And it’s vile to claim -- as Donald Trump, a self-declared nationalist, recently did -- that illegal immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

George Orwell concluded that nationalism was “inseparable from the desire for power,” even at the cost of obsession and self-deception. Patriotism, by contrast, is as likely to be cooperative as combative. After all, patriots want their country to thrive, which is best done in harmony with other people, whether those are domestic groups or foreign countries (whose trade and investment can make your own nation wealthier, for example). That’s why the world’s preeminent multilateral forum is called the United Nations -- not, say, the World Union -- a nuance that eludes nationalists who disdain the UN as a talking shop for “globalists.”

As different as they are, though, patriotism and nationalism easily become conflated. I’ve thought a lot about that phenomenon, because as a dual citizen of the US and Germany, I’ve encountered the different ways in which my two countries confuse the concepts.

Postwar West Germany accepted that the Third Reich’s hyper-nationalism (the “Naz” in Nazism) was evil and had caused nothing but suffering, genocide and destruction. The reborn country therefore aspired to be “post-national,” atoning for its past and aspiring to a higher -- supranational and therefore European -- identity.

Along the way, however, the West Germans confused their new post-nationalism with anti-patriotism. Waving or even showing flags was rare and frowned upon, as was singing the anthem in sports stadiums. Soldiers of the Bundeswehr were spat on in the streets when wearing uniforms around town. The turning point only came as late as 2006, when Germany hosted the soccer World Cup. The Germans placed third in that tournament, but set psycho-emotional records in the joyful -- and ebulliently inclusive -- celebration of their own team and flag alongside those from across the world.

My other country, the US, is in the opposite default state. Here, flags flutter everywhere, from houses to cars and clothes; the anthem is played at almost every high-school game, and most people not only stand for it but place their hands on their hearts.

The post-nationalist anti-patriotism of West Germany was neither healthy nor sustainable. Too many Germans couldn’t maintain the rituals of national shame. In a psychological ricochet, some became susceptible to a new nationalism, which today manifests in the record popularity of a far-right and xenophobic political party called the Alternative for Germany, which polls around 20 percent.

By contrast, the genuine patriotism of the US too easily becomes contaminated with a messianic exceptionalism that tempts Americans to ignore or gloss over the dark chapters in their history. Even if the narrative of liberty dominates, the truth also includes mass enslavement, ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, and episodes of Otherization such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 19th century and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- and of course the racism that many Americans of color still encounter in everyday life. A patriotic culture that is selectively and deliberately blind to reality can turn into nationalism, such as the White or Christian variants increasingly in vogue on the American right.

The tension between patriotism and nationalism is also playing out across much of the world. In Poland, a nationalist party has for years been stoking resentments at Brussels, Germany, Russia and LGBTQ+ people, but has now been replaced by a patriotic government that wants to make Poland inclusive and open again to the world. In next-door Hungary, a hyper-nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, vilifies domestic Others while provoking neighboring countries with maps of “Greater Hungary” that include chunks of Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. Nationalism is also on the rise from Turkey and India to China and beyond.

Owing to its global stature, though, the US is more likely than any other country to bend the arc of history. And here, voters in the primaries, and then in the general election, will incessantly hear both kinds of entreaty in the coming months, the nationalist and the patriotic.

Some candidates will pander to voters’ resentments. Others will appeal to ideals such as truth, civility and tolerance. Some will postulate American decline and promise renewed Greatness. Others will celebrate the greatness of America as it is. Some will demand loyalty to themselves and their group. Others will ask for loyalty to the republic and its constitution. All will drape themselves in red, white and blue. But some will be nationalists, others patriots. And then, come November, just one of them will win.

Andreas Kluth

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)