Illustration of brick walls with a number of national flags on them. Hands and feet are breaking through the walls in different directions.
Illustration by Sam Island

The New Nationalism

Around the world, anti-immigrant autocrats are on the rise. Defeating them – and what they stand for – won’t be easy

About The Author

Author image: Robert Schertzer

Early in January, Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as the president of Brazil. He ascended to the highest office of South America’s largest country through a visceral campaign that targeted political elites, minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community, and used social media to rally support from far-right nationalists. On his first day in office, he issued a number of executive orders to restrict the rights of minority groups.

With a few significant variations, Bolsonaro’s story is similar to Donald Trump’s in the U.S., Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary, Marine Le Pen’s in France, the Five Star Movement’s in Italy and Brexit. Protectionist, anti-immigrant nationalists are tearing down the post-Second World War consensus on the importance of pluralism and the free movement of goods and people. Around the world, liberal democratic values are in retreat.

To understand why, we must look to the working and middle classes, who are concerned their jobs may be automated or moved to lower-cost countries. To calm these fears, nationalist politicians are offering to protect jobs with seemingly simple solutions such as trade barriers. 1 At the same time, they’re painting the political, business and media elites as puppets of foreign interests, reinforcing the idea that only they can protect the less-educated workers. Only they can protect citizens from the impacts of free trade and migration. 2 They stoke anxiety about migration 3– to the point that their anti-immigrant position is their defining feature.

These nationalist leaders have become experts at getting this message out. Using largely anonymous platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, they craft posts that tap into the emotive power of nationalism – unique in its ability to mobilize people to act in constructive but also irrational and frightening ways. Nationalism is one of the few ideas, along with religion, that moves people to fight – and even die – on behalf of people they have never met.

As part of a research project, a colleague and I read all of Trump’s tweets – more than 5,000 in total – during the 2016 election campaign. In almost half of them, he presents himself as the protector of “true Americans” against Mexican migrants, Muslims and political elites. In comparison, he tweeted about policy issues such as health care, taxes and the Supreme Court fewer than 100 times each. This strategy was central to his success: 57 per cent of white Americans voted for him.

Beating back the rising forces of ethnic nationalism won’t be simple. It will require long-term, fundamental social and political changes and also short-term adjustments to how we participate in politics.

We can start by reducing the anxieties of the working and middle classes through policies that bolster the social safety net, reduce inequality and help prepare and retrain workers for jobs in the information-based economy. Pilot studies testing the effects of a universal basic income show promise. These programs provide workers with a guaranteed level of income regardless of their employment, which allows them to withstand losing a job and gives them support to retrain for a new one.

We also need to redouble our efforts to promote transparency and accountability in government institutions and to re-establish connections between the general public and their representatives. What continues to motivate support for Brexit is the view that the European Union doesn’t adequately represent the interests of the regular British citizen. A similar mistrust of government, or cynicism about politics, exists in many other countries.

Advocates for immigration need to convey to the public how logical, managed and well-resourced selection and settlement policies benefit both migrants and the host society. In Canada, there’s broad support for immigration largely because of our long-standing points-based model and a commitment to language training for recent migrants. America and many European states face high volumes of refugees and irregular immigration. But there, too, a process that selects highly skilled migrants could help alleviate fears that they weaken the economy and could buy public support for a more generous immigration policy.

Governments should hold social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter responsible for the content their users post, just as they do mainstream publishers and broadcasters. In other words, social media should be regulated.

Some suggest that to defeat nationalism, we should partly embrace what nationalists are saying. Supporters of this approach call for protectionist economic policies, less immigration, and more programs aimed at boosting the national culture. 4 They believe we need to take what nationalists are saying seriously in order to effectively address the grievances of many majority groups around the world, including Trump’s “true Americans.”

This would be a mistake. Giving in to the darker, exclusionary tendencies of nationalist dogma can too easily lead to violence and horrible injustices.

What I believe we need to do is embrace a politics that promotes the inclusive traditions present in almost all democratic communities. We need to encourage participation from all parts of society in political debate and decision-making processes. In this way, we will temper more extreme views and build trust for the system and its members.

We can’t ignore what’s happening. Nationalism is a resilient force. To defeat it, we need to hollow it out from within; we need to promote inclusive values as nationalist ones. In Switzerland there is a group doing just this. In the last few years, Operation Libero, a cross-party movement co-founded by 28-year-old Flavia Kleiner, got engaged in the democratic process: they campaigned hard to stress the inclusive values of Swiss society, used social media to build support among the electorate and won three referendums against restricting immigrants’ rights. As Kleiner explains, the group was “fed up with the passivity” of Switzerland’s established political parties and angry that the populist Swiss People’s Party had gained widespread support. Operation Libero’s tactics show how to manage the threat of the new nationalism: by participating in politics and using the power of an inclusive vision to lead a community away from its darker tendencies.

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  1. 31 Responses to “ The New Nationalism ”

  2. Alastair Grant says:

    Excellent article. But what are we in Ontario going to do about Doug Ford? He appears to be bent on hollowing out the education system and has no understanding of what is needed to prepare the youth of Ontario for a knowledge-based economy.

    He seems to forget that while he got a majority of the seats in the legislature in the last election, he received only 40 per cent of the popular vote. If he continues on his present path, he could well lose the next election, but that is three years away and the damage he could do in the meantime will take an age to correct.

  3. Michael Fedorov says:

    Trump is not anti-immigration. He is against illegal immigration, which is overwhelming the social, legal, educational, medical and resettlement infrastructures. He is advocating a Canadian-style immigration model based on merit. Trump is not anti-free trade. He is for fair trade with reciprocal tariffs. China has a more than $600-billion trade advantage over the U.S. yet uses high tariffs to restrict American imports. It also forces companies to share intellectual property as a condition of doing business in China.

  4. Brian Clark says:

    I am a Canadian citizen living in the U.S. and, while I am not a big fan of President Trump and his style of communication, I can state that he is not a protectionist, anti-immigrant nationalist, as he is characterized here. Rather, he is for fair trade and against illegal immigrants.

  5. Dr. Julio Furlan says:

    I am stunned with the comments in this article about the political situation in Brazil. As a Brazilian-Canadian citizen, I have observed that many Canadians are poorly informed on the situation in Brazil. Most Canadians are not aware that Jair Bolsonaro was assaulted and almost killed when he was campaigning on the street last year. It seems that most people just trust what they watch and read in certain media.

    Mr. Bolsonaro was democratically and legitimately elected by the Brazilian people against the corruption, injustice, and social and economic ruin brought by the Workers' Party and its allies for 16 years. Mr. Bolsonaro’s campaign was mainly against ongoing corruption and the communist political agenda. He was supported by millions of Brazilians. In fact, tens of millions of people took to the streets in several peaceful protests against the political “status quo” that was destroying the Brazilian people, economy and democracy.

    Mr. Bolsonaro’s comments on women and the LGBTQ community were taken completely out of context by the Brazilian media and most of the international media.

    It's an over-simplification to see the situation in Brazil as a win for the “far-right” over leftists. The Brazilian people decided on a solution after the corruption and criminal activities by the leftists were unveiled. If one defines nationalism as a popular movement of the vast majority of people in favour of democracy and social justice, then one can say Brazilian nationalists elected Mr. Bolsonaro.

  6. Elizabeth Sawyer says:

    Yes. We must emphasize inclusivity.

  7. David Tough says:

    Since Donald Trump has been in office, the U.S. economy has taken off. Job creation is a record levels, wages are increasing and the employment of people of all ethnicities is at record highs. This is a more equitable and sustainable solution than universal basic income programs -- another way of saying higher welfare payments.

    A well-managed immigration system is what the Trump administration is working to put in place. After years of neglect by both Democrat and Republican politicians, President Trump is addressing the problem.

    President Trump's fair- and free-trade policies are aimed at reducing trade barriers so that American companies and workers can compete on a more level playing field. A strong economy needs both an information and a manufacturing base to offer meaningful employment to a diverse pool of workers.

    President Trump doesn't just appeal to "less-educated workers." A detailed analysis of which segments of the population voted for Trump and the reasons they did can be found in the book The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, by Selena Zico and Brad Todd.

    The author suggests that governments regulate Twitter and Facebook. If he were the regulator, would he have censored candidate Trump's tweets and by doing so stifled the democratic process in the United States?

    As a Canadian living in the United States, I find it interesting how various groups react to the current administration's policies and results.

  8. Ronald Barnett says:

    This is absolute nonsense. The globalists and open borders advocates are allied with Islam to destroy western civilization. To encourage migration from countries with entirely different world views is not only suicidal for the host country but further destroys the countries these economic migrants are supposedly running away from. This insane policy will only bankrupt the host country paying to care for all these migrants with taxpayers' money but disenfranchise the citizens by imposing the supposed "rights" of the migrants. Wake up.

  9. Frances Clee says:

    No, social media should not be regulated.

    What we should do is go after those people who issue threats against others, the sort of backlash that women often get online. We can't go after them all but if we prosecuted some of them, the others would be more careful.

  10. Concerned Citizen says:

    It would be interesting to see more hard financial figures to support the claims of this article. Real wages have stagnated across the middle class, while the entrenched government elite, supported by and underwritten by loans from global banking conglomerates, always seem to get salary increases.

    What about the national debt? Who is going to pay for that? Are we, like the government, just supposed to ignore that?

    This compounding debt is not going to be paid, or simply disappear, anytime soon. Meanwhile, we, and realistically, the next two generations at minimum, are beholden to the escalating interest.

  11. Alidad Mafinezam says:

    I especially like the proposed solution:

    "We need to encourage participation from ALL parts of society in political debate and decision-making processes. In this way, we will temper more extreme views and build trust for the system and its members."

    Let's begin with U of T, Canada's largest university, and the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. To what extent have they nurtured and reflected the views and voices of diverse Canadian communities? How many of the writers at the Globe and the Star and the hundreds of faculty teaching the social sciences and humanities at U of T are non-white or of non-European origin? I suspect the percentage is low -- too low for a country as multicultural as Canada. Is this intended to pre-empt the development and emergence of new voices who may reimagine Canada? Why are all the commentators and columnists in the academic papers noted above white?

    Given that Canada's century-long Indian Residential School System was officially abolished in 1996, Canada has a unique opportunity to be a bridge-builder among peoples and countries. The Greater Toronto Area today is one of the world's most diverse jurisdictions, with over half of the population belonging to a visible minority.

    Shouldn't this be reflected better in our public sphere?

  12. Luiz says:

    I am Brazilian. I can say that this article is extremely biased. It also ignores important information, such as the attempted assassination of President Bolsonaro by a militant member of the extreme left.

    In addition to receiving popular support from all strata of society, including black and LGBT people, Bolsonaro ran the cheapest presidential campaign in the country's history. The left destroyed Brazil ethically and financially.

  13. Joel Tatelman says:

    Without immigration, Canada's economy—and tax base, and population—would enter free-fall. But of course there are those who would welcome that -- the conservative elites and those they have hoodwinked, who would bear the brunt.

    Those who look to the Doug Fords and Donald Trumps of this world to improve life for their citizens should look back on all the previous ultranationalisms and see what devastation they caused. Then they should look at South Korea's economic and educational policies since the Second World War to see one example how it can be done right. All that politicians such as Ford and Trump care about are power and wealth for themselves and their friends, and obedient acquiescence from everyone else. All their rhetoric and policies serve this end.

    It is the neo-liberal policies of the past 30 years that have brought the world to its present desperate impasse. Many, if not most, governments have surrendered much of their power to transnational corporations. The real buying power of much of the population has been declining for about that length of time. Those who have benefitted don't care about the rest.

    What John Kenneth Galbraith observed two generations ago is as true now as it was then: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

  14. Joel Tatelman says:

    I find it telling that Ronald Barrett's comments about "globalists" and "Islam" are exactly the sentiments that, in previous generations, many Canadians (and Americans) believed and publicly stated about Indigenous peoples, about Jews, about Irish, and about Poles—just to name a few. Don't forget that the pioneering industrialist, Henry Ford, distributed, at his own expense, hundreds of thousands of copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," that classic antisemitic fantasy, cooked up by the Czarist predecessor to the KGB, and cherished by the Nazis. Scapegoating, the true opium of the people, is a primitive, ignorant ritual no more effective now than it was in archaic Greece.

  15. John Smith says:

    Trump is not a problem. He is a symptom of the deep crisis of western liberalism, which is mistakenly seen by its beneficiaries as the final stage of societal evolution (or at least the elites, including university professors, want you to believe this). Liberalism and its global economic system of oppression is not the end of history. It's replaceable, and what comes next is unavoidable. Read Marx.

  16. Ary says:

    Regarding the recently elected Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, the author of this article does not cite any sources. He claims that Bolsonaro targeted "minorities, women and the LGBTQ community" but this is not shown in Bolsonaro's social media channels, his official campaign website or his full government program, which was made publicly available at the beginning of the campaign at Brazil's electoral justice website.

    Opinion without facts is biased commentary.

  17. Mark Morrison-Reed says:

    I have a suggestion that would help undercut the move toward nationalism. We should implement Universalist Service. Every young person (including citizens, immigrants and refugees) would be drafted at age 18 to serve for two years in environmental, social or military service. Preparation for service would include physical training and literacy and civics lessons in diverse groups that reflect Canada's multicultural makeup. Subsequently, government would cover three years of education and basic expenses for college, university or apprenticeship. It is clear we cannot compete with labour costs in developing countries. Building a highly trained and flexible workforce of engaged citizens is the way forward.

  18. Sam says:

    Switzerland is not an inclusive society. Its laws, languages and attitudes are engrained in rich history of isolationism. While it is convenient to say that Canada and Switzerland "have so much in common", they do not. What they have in common is that they also drive with daylight-running lights like we do - and that's about it. Canadian society and social values are light-years ahead of those in Switzerland.

  19. Steven Salamon says:

    The policies Prof. Scherzer espouses have pushed Western countries beyond where we can sustainably pursue social goals. The drive for ever-larger government is weighing on Western economies, while ill-conceived immigration policies drain government resources.

    The best remedy for Canada's 21st century challenges is a vibrant economy and a return to thoughtful immigration and refugee policies. Canada is better than any other country at integrating new citizens, but the backlash has begun and will only accelerate if we remain on the present course. Canadian government spending and debt relative to GDP are approaching the crisis levels of the 1990s. Governments must reduce their share of the economy from the present 45 per cent to well below 40 per cent.

    As for anti-democratic policies, we should focus our attention at home. The Liberal government's $600-million, old-media bribe will only serve to promote more and bigger government. The Pravda-ization of Canadian media is a bigger threat to our democracy than "fake news" tweets are to America's. Social media controls and legislation such as Bill C-16 will strangle free speech and Western liberal values.

  20. Gail Lord says:

    Good article. What do you think museums can do to help?

  21. Mendicant says:

    At the G7 summit in 2018, Trump and agreed to work with the European Union towards ZERO tariffs; do not confuse protectionism with trade negotiation.

    A recent two-year Finnish study showed universal basic income (UBI) recipients did NOT have more work days or higher incomes than those in the control group -- despite the UBI recipients now having the better incentive to work.

    Votes can also be for a change, a party or repudiation of a candidate (Clinton). On a percentage basis, Trump had fewer white votes than Mitt Romney in 2012 and more Black, Latino and Asian votes than Romney. The decisive factor was urban/rural, not race.

    Levels of permanent residencies or citizenship are no different under Trump than for the past 18 years.

    Individual publishers should be responsible for content, not platforms. Neither platforms nor government should regulate content short of criminality or defamation.

  22. Julia says:

    From the perspective of someone who comes from a country where speech is regulated, I find the idea that a Canadian is calling for the government to regulate social media too scary to contemplate. I thought the West was a safe haven for intellectual freedom. I never thought we would ever have to watch our tongues so closely to avoid getting into trouble.

  23. Jorge Rodriguez says:

    Born in Nicaragua, I am now a Canadian living in the U.S. I got my engineering degree at U of T and now own a thriving business here. My business has grown exponentially since Trump has been in power due to his sensible pro-business and inclusive policies.

    Every country's first obligation is to its citizens. Immigration needs to be legal, and it should be based on merits to ensure the country benefits. I’m extremely glad leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump are standing for the rights of the people who elected them.

  24. Victor Torquato says:

    As a Brazilian citizen, I can tell you that Bolsonaro was elected by fake news. It was a campaign without ideas or plans -- just hate, personal attacks and lies.

    Bolsonaro's agenda is basically to make Brazilian labour cheap, sell our oil reserves for pennies, and eliminate the rights that were gained over the past 16 years.

    A lot of things are wrong here. These are shady times for us.

  25. JD says:

    I disagree with this article. Liberal and globalist politics are the sole reason people like President Trump and other nationalist leaders around the world were elected. People who saw their hopes and dreams wash down the drain after the last recession now have to upgrade their skills to compete in a tough job market. This means going back to school and racking up more debt.

  26. Yahya Marei says:

    To people who have commented that Trump is against only illegal immigrants, I ask: have you heard his actual words? He has stated many times that he believes immigrants from developing countries are hurting the economy. The fact is that there is no correlation between immigration levels and the economy -- or crime for that matter.

    On immigration, Trump's purpose is to distract people from other issues, such as the fact that he has lowered taxes for the rich.

  27. Fernando Konitz says:

    For the world to work well, it is necessary to listen to opinions of all beliefs, policies, faiths, groups and classes. But I disagree that the current president of Brazil is ultra-right-wing. What is happening here is that the population was deceived by the left for almost 16 years. Therefore, anyone who speaks the truth seems ultra-rightist.

  28. Awyt says:

    The widespread corruption in Brazil might have necessitated the rise of a right-wing government to tidy up the mess and restore law and order. However, an autocratic far-right government in the long term without any policy of inclusiveness might become a breeding ground for bigotry (such as gender bias) and extremism.

    The idea of universal basic income has already met with strong opposition from the right. If that scheme is abandoned, the government should at least provide funding for the retraining of workers who have been knocked out of the labour market by advances in technology. This could help maintain the massive base for leftism in politics, which is necessary to counterbalance the power of right-wing politics. The argument against the universal basic income because of budget deficits is a pessimistic view that will steer our society towards stagnation and even regression.

  29. Prashant kumar Yadav says:

    Excellent article.

  30. Sam says:

    You labelled this movement “anti-immigrant," which shows that you misunderstand it.

    If I drank four cups of coffee a day because any more then that made me feel bad would I be pro-coffee or anti-coffee? Would you label me as somebody who liked coffee or disliked coffee?