At his UN General Assembly speech, US President Donald Trump touched a raw nerve across world capitals when he said, “the future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots”.
On the surface, it appears to be a continuation of his defining political slogan of America First and MAGA (Make America Great Again), and of the post-liberal world. It is also a new kind of articulation of the ‘nativist nationalism’ that has taken root today as a pushback against hyper-globalism. The trade wars that the US has launched and the global reaction to the refugee influx are just two examples.
But what is really ironic is that Trump is speaking the same language of economic nativism today that the Left activists chanted outside the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999. Thousands showed up to protest economic globalisation and free trade.
Writing the nation away
How did we come to this? There have been signs all along. But many commentators sipping the globalisation Kool-Aid refuse to admit it.
In 1986, Stanford historian Carl Degler accused his colleagues at the American Historical Association event of “nothing short of dereliction of duty” because they had “abandoned the study of the nation”, according to an article in Foreign Affairs.
Degler added: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”
In all the clamour over a flat world and globalisation and transnationalism, the nation had been written away. Now, that pendulum is swinging back – be it in India, the US or the UK. Countries now want to reach in, not reach out.
Allure of globalisation
But not too long ago, globalisation wasn’t the dirty word it has now come to be. It was cool to talk and write about globalisation. In the much-celebrated flat world, geographical divisions and the idea of the nation was dissolving and it was possible to operate economically and culturally across multiple time zones. It was made possible by the principle of universal liberalism. But that architecture was undone by a series of events – the 9/11 attacks, the financial crisis of 2008, the Brexit vote and the 2015 refugee crisis. Many began saying it was time to hunker down and protect the borders once again.
Brexit was “the biggest defeat for the broadly liberal, outward-looking, cognitive elites” and of the post-nationalist future everyone had imagined.
Something else was also happening around that time. As transnational liberals and libertarians pursued globalisation in the last five decades – the Left and the progressives began to agitate against larger issues of climate change, free trade and the World Trade Organisation. They spoke of re-localising the economy, but their sites of activism moved away from the worker and peasant rights in their nations to the global arena.
This made it easier for the Right to move into these vacated sites in their nations and rebrand working-class people’s economic despair as cultural anxieties. This paranoia over immigrants taking away the jobs is evident in India and the US today.
This is why politics shifted from being about socio-economic issues to being about socio-cultural ones where notions of security and identity were predominant, said David Goodhart author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. He divided people into nowhere people (those with international concerns – the ‘Khan Market gang’ barb) and somewhere people (those with fix identities and geographies – rooted in religious identities like Hindutva).
Conjuring the nation again
To wean people away from the allure of globalisation, the nation had to be invoked again, and borders and one-ness of a people had to be emphasised politically. And for that, people needed to be reminded about the “a unifying myth of origin” and past glory, wrote American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in 2018.
That mythology of a great common past is evident in the BJP’s constant glorification of the Vedic period and Trump’s pledge to take America back to an imagined and perfect past (the ‘Again’ in MAGA).
“The backwards-looking nation builds walls to protect its boundaries, defines its citizens with ever-more precision, and protects the profits of its chartered corporations even at the expense of the climate, economy, and the well-being of its people,” Rushkoff wrote in 2018, adding that we think of nations as something forged in the past and not aimed towards the future.
The Left and the Centre
Liberals, Left and the progressives around the world are reacting. The rise of Justice Democrats – with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders – is how one section has countered it. Sanders just said billionaires must not exist at all.
But leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel tried to reclaim the centrist position by making the middle more muscular and appealing.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said that the antidote to the current wave of Right-wing populism is not the economic populism of the Left, but focusing on the cultural issues as well. “You don’t just dismiss them as anxieties,” Blair said recently on CNN to Fareed Zakaria.
Make citizens glocal again
Trump’s false binary of patriot versus globalist can be countered by invoking what Princeton University philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called “rooted cosmopolitanism” in his 2005 book called The Ethics Of Identity. He had said that it is possible to belong to a specific place, history and culture and yet be a global citizen. The two identities, according to him, could not be disentangled. He spoke about the obligation to the others – the conversations about global human rights and climate change. The boundary of your state need not be the boundary of your moral concerns, he said.
To participate in global moral conversations is imperative for people of the 21st century. But cosmopolitans are not people who have lost their roots. As feminist thinker Gertrude Stein said: “What good are roots if you can’t take them with you”.