Trump may lose the battle with the coronavirus — but nationalists will win the war

Nationalism is a politics of fear and threat. Up until now, the lure of the closed society has been felt by a portion of liberal societies: those who fear cultural dissolution by outsiders through immigration, and those who live in places or work in industries that haven’t been thriving in the international marketplace. But COVID-19 has the potential to make many more converts to the cause.

On the most obvious level, there is the fear and threat of contagion. Instead of teaching us that the stranger, the outsider, the person different from us is interesting and intriguing — rather than tempting us to visit to the city and marketplace, to travel and make new experiences, to embrace diversity and unpredictability and pluralism — the fear of falling prey to the pandemic inspires suspicion of newness and crowds and “others” of all kinds. We long, instead, for safety and protection, for cleanliness and purity. For the comfort and security of home.

Then there are the economic consequences of this contraction of horizons. International supply chains slow or shut down, leading to shortages of products. Travel and mobility slow down or stop, leading to a collapse in oil prices. Spending declines. People hunker down — working and studying and entertaining themselves at home, far away from public spaces, where newly idle workers get laid off. None of this will last forever. But the short-to-medium-term economic consequences are likely to be real and consequential. A serious downturn would seem to be unavoidable.