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The word "nationalism" has been in the news a lot lately, from talks about trade wars and immigration to reports of racism and violence. But, what is nationalism? And how is it different than patriotism?

Nationalism Definition

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, nationalism is defined as "loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness," and "exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups."

What is Nationalism?

Historically, nationalism has been used to define and explain everything from radical political and militaristic movements like Nazism to strong protectionist policies controlling modern foreign policy and economy. While patriotism (an easily confused term with nationalism) is perhaps harmless (like that exuded on the 4th of July), nationalism is more sinister in nature.

Nationalism centers on a country's culture, language, and often race. It may also include shared literature, sports, or the arts, but is primarily driven by cultural associations. And, it promotes the nation at the expense of others. Nationalist countries or leaders don't join international organizations or associations, and maintain a superior view of themselves to the detriment of other nations. Nationalism has a positive view of conquering other nations as it sees itself as the ultimate nation. Any ideologies that undercut or contradict the nation are opposed.

Nationalism, in its extreme forms, has led to genocide, the Holocaust, and, more specifically, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Nationalism vs. Patriotism

Nationalism is not the same as patriotism. While patriotism is a bit more of a vague word to describe the love and devotion to a country, its ideals and values, nationalism is more the promotion of a nation's culture, language, and supremacy above others. In this sense, nationalism is often race or ethnicity-driven, which can have dangerous implications.

Patriotism can be seen in things like the singing of the national anthem at a World Cup soccer game, the decorations on a table for the 4th of July, or the dedication service men and women show through their heroism. It is far less ideologically destructive than nationalism and doesn't necessitate the same devotions.

Nationalism vs. Tribalism

Tribalism is the "tribal consciousness and loyalty, especially exaltation of the tribe above other groups," which is similar in nature to nationalism. However, there is a great deal more specificity in cause in tribalism than in nationalism.

While nationalism is confined by country borders, language, or other things like ethnicity, tribalism can be defined by common cause, religion, or traditions.

Although up to some debate, examples of tribalism can include the KKK. However, in 2014, the Huffington Post even called political parties like liberals and conservatives "tribes," claiming that "America's new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe (calling themselves liberals, progressives, and Democrats) hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other (conservatives, Tea Partiers, and Republicans)."

While it can be easy to confuse tribalism and nationalism (as they are often in association with one another), there are important distinctions - namely, the confines of the nation itself.

Nationalism in the Past

Historically, nationalism has used the economic, political, and cultural spheres as a means to promote the wellbeing and superiority of a given nation over that of all others.

Nationalism was first used in the 18th century as a common way to define and promote a nation according to "ethnographic principles." Although the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire had some nationalistic aspects, they were much more in favor of a so-called "world-state," spanning nations under one banner. By the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the French and American revolutions sparked a new age of nationalism that promoted a unified nation and its political and economic interests - namely, capitalism.

While Europe was in a state of political and ideological war with those like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Napoleon shaping nationalist ideals in France and Otto von Bismarck unifying Germany in 1871, nationalism began taking on stronger implications. And, alongside the strong sense of national identity came the more dangerous ideas of racial and national superiority.

Fascist regimes like those of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler used the economic and political turmoil of the early 20th century to subjugate individualism to the needs of the nation by banking on national identity and tradition. Most notably perhaps is the nationalism exhibited during World War II by the Nazi party in Germany. 

Hitler's Nazi party hinged on the ideals of the superiority of the Aryan race and the German peoples' supposed cultural, intellectual, and militaristic supremacy to all other nations. The Allied nations were ultimately successful in stamping out the nationalist threat from countries like Italy and Germany, but the rise of global organizations to combat nationalism, like the United Nations, have come with their own problems.

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Nationalism Today

With the likes of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin rising to power, the 21st century hasn't escaped nationalism. In India, self-professed "Hindu nationalist" Narendra Modi was elected as Prime Minister in 2014. Over concerns for economic wellbeing, Britain announced its exit from the European Union in 2016, dubbed "Brexit."

Most recently, President Trump has been widely criticized (alongside other international leaders like Russia's Putin) for the resurgence of nationalism. 

Nationalism in Politics

The effects of nationalism can be felt through the political sphere. Nationalism in political leadership is seemingly dominating many of the current major world players - becoming a sort of pseudo-platform disguised in catch phrases like "make America great again" that can easily be molded to the nationalistic intentions. Still, while the MAGA platform, to many, represents a patriotic (not nationalistic) sentiment, truly nationalistic policies are quickly coming into effect.

'America First'

President Trump's so-called "America First" campaign has been widely compared to a coined "new nationalism" seeking to restore a kind of pseudo-nationalism. But, the movement has its roots in the America First Committee (AFC), founded as far back as 1940. The president's recent support of the idea has been widely publicized.

"From this day forward, it's going to be only America first," Trump once claimed. "America first."

The implications of this new wave of nationalistic policies and opinions are both political and economic. Still, they have their beginnings much further back than 2016.

As far back as the founding of America, French author Alexis de Tocqueville likened America to a special kind of nation that stood as an "asylum for repose and freedom," while centuries later, Ronald Reagan called it a "city on a hill." From authors to politicians to modern-day journalists, this view of America has been widely held.

Still, nationalism, new or not, is comprised of a desire to succeed over (and often at the expense of) others. This is evidenced in many of the recent policies regarding the "America First"-esque campaign, widely accruing accusations of being isolationist. Still, the president has denied this correlation, claiming in an interview with The New York Times in 2016 that "I'm not isolationist, but I am 'America First.'"

Leaders of all of the major countries including China, Russia, and America are enthralled in what The Economist in 2016 called a "zero-sum game" for power and supremacy. While very political in nature, it is often felt through economics.

What is Economic Nationalism?

Economic nationalism is a form of nationalism that promotes domestic industry, jobs, and economy over multinational corporations or trade. Still, some economists claim that economic nationalism isn't actually a policy, but an argument to shift blame for economic failures onto other countries, according to Forbes in 2017.

However, economic nationalism is anything but a new modus operandi. In fact, protectionist policies led economists such as Adam Smith to hypothesize that free trade between other countries (the opposite of the economic policies of the day) actually promoted economic growth for all countries involved.

However, current protectionist policies for domestic economy often seem to overlook some of the basic principles like comparative advantage.

In fact, many assert that the problem isn't 'them' but us. Economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in 2016 for The Washington Post that "the danger of economic nationalism is that it deludes us into thinking that our problems mainly originate abroad and can be fixed by 'tougher' trade policies. Not so. It's worth recalling that the two largest economic setbacks since World War II were both domestic in origin: the high inflation of the late '70s, ... and the 2008-2009 financial crisis."

Still, according to Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, the Trump Presidency will deliver an "economic nationalist agenda."


As one of the most common nationalistic policies, protectionism is defined as a "policy of protecting domestic industries against foreign competition by means of tariffs, subsidies, import quotas, or other restrictions or handicaps placed on the imports of foreign competitors."

These policies, like tariffs, for example, have been making big headlines in recent weeks. As promised in his inaugural speech, President Trump seems to be attempting to make good on his promise that "protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."

Protectionist policies are often instated over a concern for a decline in domestic jobs, manufacturing, and industry. And, tariffs are a central part of a supposed remedy.

Trade Wars

Trade wars have been raging for a long time.

In the 1930s, President Herbert Hoover signed legislation imposing tough tariffs, further sinking the United States into the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929. President George W. Bush also tried his hand at imposing steel tariffs in 2002, receiving backlash from the European Union.

Most recently, the looming trade war with China, instigated by President Trump, has the potential for dire consequences for many American businesses.

The president has scheduled a first round of tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imports for June 6, 2018. Big companies like Harley-Davidson (HOG) - Get Harley-Davidson, Inc. Report , Toyota (TM) - Get Toyota Motor Corp. Report , and MillerCoors (TAP) - Get Molson Coors Beverage Company Class B Report are already feeling the effects.