‘Dark,” “divisive,” and “dangerous” were a few of the negative descriptors that critics attached to President Trump’s inaugural address, and those were just the ones that start with “d.” (A few threw in “dystopian” for good measure.) The critics took him this way in part because he depicted the last few decades of American life as a hellscape from which he would shortly deliver us: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the critics also had this reaction because the address had a theme — nationalism — that has itself long been assumed in many quarters to be dark, divisive, and dangerous.
That assumption has never been justified and should now be discarded. Nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force. Since nationalistic sentiments also have wide appeal and durability, it would be wiser to cultivate that kind of nationalism than to attempt to move beyond it.
Fear of nationalism became very widespread, especially in Europe, after the world wars, and it remains a core premise behind the sputtering drive toward further European integration. A few months ago, European Union president Jean-Claude Juncker recalled François Mitterrand’s admonition, “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre,” adding, “This is still true, so we have to fight against nationalism.” Juncker also called borders “the worst invention ever made by politicians.” Any attempt to loosen the bonds of European unity is held to mark the beginning of a descent back into European carnage.