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Trump, Johnson and Netanyahu: Western nationalism’s embattled icons

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Rising public passions sparked by the growing prominence of the “cancel culture,” and increasingly heated exchanges between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden to that topic, strongly suggest that American nationalism and what it means will be central to the coming presidential election. To bring perspective and context to that issue, it is useful to look more closely at Trump and two other leading nationalists of the Western world.

Arguably, President Trump and Prime Ministers Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are the most controversial, vilified, infuriating, wily, resilient and consequential Western politicians of the 21st century. Although each has a singular profile in his country’s history, collectively they embody the surging forces of Western nationalism that have powerfully challenged the impulse toward globalization, which ebbs and flows with time but only five years ago seemed to be an irresistible tide. 

Through the emotional chords they have sounded among large proportions of their populations, and the unforeseen political success that resulted, these three men have demonstrated that, far from being a spent force, the idea of nationhood — which long has animated human history — still commands an enduring loyalty among the peoples of the West.

Yet, to fully understand what these men have wrought, they must be seen in the company of other, even more assertive nationalists now extant on the world stage: China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Looking at this broader context, we are compelled to reexamine the long-held notion central to the concept of globalization — that the world was progressively evolving toward a multinational ideal of governance best expressed through the “soft power” of international organizations and multilateral agreements.

Seen in this light, the electoral success of Trump, Johnson and Netanyahu cannot be dismissed as “political accidents” or temporary aberrations that could be “put right” with a single “good” election, but rather as predictable reactions to some of the economic effects of globalization on large swaths of middle- and lower-class populations that heretofore had voted reliably for parties of the left. These populations openly revolted against the forces of globalization that destroyed or offshored millions of good-paying jobs while offering little in return but bromides about “retraining” or permanent dependence on government handouts.  

Adding insult to injury, these people saw their long-cherished traditions of religion, patriotism and culture undermined — and sometimes openly mocked — as mere symptoms of a decaying and bigoted underclass without which the world probably would be a better place.

The opening salvo in this revolt was the astonishing, against-all-odds victory of Brexit in June 2016, followed only five months later by America’s even more astounding electoral earthquake that propelled Trump to the White House. Taken completely unaware by these elections, Anglo-American elites were further infuriated when Johnson and Trump proceeded to deliver on their main promises — “get Brexit done” in Johnson’s case and, in Trump’s case, “put America first” while turbo-charging the economy, at least before its coronavirus-related collapse.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, like his Anglo-American counterparts, was correctly reading what many  observers may have missed: Underlying forces were steadily changing the political allegiances of national electorates. After a half-century of a Middle East “peace process” that had delivered only unrelenting hostilities, key segments of the Israeli electorate — mostly, younger voters — apparently concluded that any “solution” that would please “international opinion” would do nothing for their security or hopes for a normal future. They evidently further concluded that, despite his controversies, the only national political leader they could trust to advance their aspirations was Netanyahu.

Of course, the ultimate legacies of these men cannot yet be judged — each remains embattled within polarized political environments. However, without doubt, their unyielding commitment to national sovereignty has dramatically changed their societies in ways that cannot be easily reversed.

In concert with determined nationalist adversaries such as Xi and Putin, and unpredictable friends such as Modi and Bolsonaro, these three men are demonstrating that the future direction of world affairs largely will be driven by leaders elevated to power in individual nations, rather than faceless, unaccountable corporations and supranational organizations.

Through all of this, it also has become evident that it is not nationalism but rather globalization that is the recent aberration — something that now must be reformed in ways that make it less an engine of income inequality and misery for the less fortunate, and perhaps even redeeming its early promise of being their beneficiary instead.

William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.  

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Boris Johnson Donald Trump Globalization Joe Biden Nationalism Populism Vladimir Putin Western leaders

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