I recently attended a nationalist rally in Kemp Mill, Maryland. Emotions were stoked by fire, slogans, catchphrases, speeches and a vision of what made America great.
This rally, however, lacked strobe lights, megaphones and shouts. At this neighborhood vigil opposing the violence that violated Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the light glowed from candles 250 parishioners of Saint Andrew Apostle Catholic Church carried while marching silently to Kemp Mill Synagogue.
The marchers’ slogans were “Love Thy Neighbor” and – implicitly – “Never Again.” The catchphrases – from the 150 or so overwhelmed KMS congregants – were “thank you,” “bless you.”
The speeches were short toasts celebrating religious and national unity, followed by a delighted clucking and chuckling of neighbors meeting one another that lingered longer than expected, into the cold night.
After mourning silently, we schmoozed: Americans of all ages, colors, faiths and – this being suburban Washington – all political parties.
This gentle eruption of American neighborliness and nationalism occurred 80 years after Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass,” when Nazis trashed 1,000 synagogues. In Hitler’s Germany and elsewhere, non-Jews marching toward synagogues wielding fire usually brought disaster; in today’s America, millions of non-Jews marching toward synagogues brought love, drowning out one deranged shooter.
Nazism exposed nationalism at its worst; these group hugs showcase nationalism at its best. Nationalism is a neutral tool. It’s the national glue, the bonding agent that creates political communities by which we organize the modern world. “Patriotism” is like romantic feelings; “nationalism” emphasizes the bond itself: what brought us together, what keeps us together, which also can bring out the best – or the worst – in us.
ACTING LIKE a real estate shark imposing soulless condo projects on once public parks, President Donald Trump loves branding particular terms, ruining them for millions of opponents. “You know what I am?” Trump recently crowed. “I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”
Trump’s bullying tone fast-tracked a post-Sixties, postmodern process of some liberals abandoning that useful word. “Nationalism is like cheap alcohol,” Daniel Fried, a veteran American diplomat, once said. “First, it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, and then it kills you.” While commemorating World War I’s armistice, France’s Emmanuel Macron just claimed, incorrectly: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”
That’s xenophobia, not nationalism. Europe illustrates the dangers of delegitimizing nationalism as group bigotry: governments fail to protect their own national interests and borders, triggering fanatic overreactions, further giving nationalism a bad name.
After Trump used that n-word, The New York Times reported wrongly that “as a general rule, presidents do not refer to themselves as a ‘nationalist,’” as it’s only associated “with racist movements.” No liberal, no proud, patriotic American should allow Trump or anyone else to hijack the term “nationalism” and seize it for one party.
Actually, most presidents use adjectives to distinguish constructive liberal nationalism from its evil twin. Since 1715, “nationalist” means “one characterized by national tendencies or sympathies.” Macron should know that “nationalism,” from the French “nationalisme,” emerged in 1844.
Back then, nation-states were forming. Abraham Lincoln used the word “nation” five times in his 272-word Gettysburg Address, defining an American nationalism that rejects racism and slavery, unleashing “the better angels of our nature.”
Theodore Roosevelt understood that good nationalists resist xenophobia. His “New Nationalism” challenged every American in 1910 to carry “on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your country, but the burden of doing well and of seeing that this nation does well for the sake of mankind.”
Harry Truman abhorred ultranationalism, narrow economic nationalism, excessive nationalism, while saluting Mahatma Gandhi, the “great Indian nationalist.” Understanding he was elected to be president of the United States, not of conservatives or the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan sang an expansive song of American nationalism. Reagan hailed the Statue of Liberty as “everybody’s gal,” embodying “the dream of a new world where… people of every nation could live together as one.”
Resisting liberals who made “nationalism” and “patriotism” dirty words, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama doubled-down. While condemning “extreme,” “far right,” “aggressive,” “white, “crude,” even “anti-American” nationalisms, in 2011 Obama resurrected Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” to “reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own.”
THE WORLD remains a network of nationalisms, with 193 nations in the United Nations. Some nationalists are noble, others noxious. Liberal-democratic nationalism infuses our natural human tendency to clump together with egalitarian ideals and constructive missions.
Countries without nationalism are like people without souls, unable to stretch, soar, mobilize. People say “find a better word”; I say “take back the night.” It will hurt America if nationalism becomes right-wing property. It will further delegitimize Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, among progressives – already too many mislabel any affirmations of Zionism “racist.”
Before deciding whom to let in, democracies must define who we are. We need New Nationalisms enriching our lives, defending our liberties, collectively pursuing happiness. That’s the nationalism of liberal democracies like America, Israel, even Canada. That’s the nationalism of the Kemp Mill rally.
Many of Saint Andrews’ youngest marchers clumped by a small, yellowing tree in KMS’s courtyard. Standing there, holding their lit candles, they made this droopy sapling, an all-American Tree of Life, Liberty and Happiness, representing the decent, expansive liberal nationalism that has long made democracies – especially America and Israel – truly great.
The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . www.zionistideas.com
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Professor of History · McGill University Leacock 628 · 855 Sherbrooke St. W · Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7 · Canada