Nationalism without a nationalist

Nationalism, by which I mean here vigorous push back against excessive internationalism and immigration, scored its second major victory of the year when Britain voted to leave the EU. The first victory came when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. His closest rival, Ted Cruz, was also nationalistic in the sense described above, though not as vigorously so as Trump.

Trump, though, is the underdog in his race against Hillary Clinton. Most likely, he will suffer a similar fate to that of French nationalist Marine Le Pen and her father before her — success in the run-up but ultimate failure at the ballot box.

Nationalist politicians have also made significant inroads in other traditional European democracies without quite getting over the hump. Austria is the most recent example. But to my knowledge, only in the former Eastern Europe have nationalists achieved ultimate electoral success.

There are many reasons why Brexit won. An important reason, I think, is that it was a referendum on pure nationalism. The internationalists could not win the election by demonizing an unsavory nationalist seeking office.

To be sure, certain English politicians were strongly associated with the “Leave” campaign. Most of them, to my knowledge, were “respectable.” In any event, they weren’t on the ballot. This was an election about issues, not personages.

It is rare for a country to hold a national referendum (though more will follow in Europe now that Brexit prevailed), and in the U.S. it is unheard of, I think. Thus, resistance to excessive nationalism requires winning standard elections, i.e., contests between candidates.

It may be that, as internationalists become ever more aggressive, unsavory nationalist candidates will begin to win big elections. By definition, this would be a mixed blessing for nationalists.

The key, then, is to run nationalists who are not unsavory. By that I mean, for example, a candidate who takes a hard line on illegal immigration, but does not propose rounding up all illegal immigrants and sending them home (only to allow most of them back in). Or a candidate who seeks to exclude entry to the U.S. of potentially dangerous individuals without imposing the near blanket exclusion of Muslims). Or a candidate who isn’t an obvious SOB.

The Republicans might have nominated such a candidate this year had it not been for the GOP’s overreaction to the 2012 loss. Most readers will remember the party establishment’s call for a softer line on illegal immigration.

In my view, that call had its intended consequence of deterring presidential candidates from adopting a nationalistic line. It also had the unintended consequence of paving the way for Donald Trump (recall his repeated boast that, if not for him, no candidate would be talking about illegal immigration).

To the extent that Republican contenders were cowed by mush emanating from the likes of Reince Priebus, it’s fair to question the level of their commitment to nationalism. Hopefully, the next wave of respectable potential GOP contenders will display a genuine commitment.

Some, most notably Tom Cotton, already have.

In that event, nationalism might very well succeed electorally even with a nationalist.