09 September 2020

The Catastrophic Bug in Nationalism and Why Trump is Working to Remove The Globalization Code that Fixes It

A bug can cause a piece of software - or even a civilization - to crash.

The new invention of the nation-state spread throughout the West during the 1800s. Inspired by Americans breaking away from the British Empire and French decapitating royalty, Europeans began turning themselves into nationalists. This new software of nationalism was largely installed by about 1900, but also had some catastrophic bugs that resulted in two tragic world wars between 1900 and 1950.

The West found out that nationalism worked great with the addition of new code called globalization, creating institutions like the UN, NATO, and the World Bank. Now neo-nationalists like Trump, Duda in Poland and Orban in Hungary are trying to un-install the globalists code. If they’re successful, it could repeat some of the catastrophes of the early 1900s.


The idea behind nationalism was to align a people with a government. Sometimes that meant breaking away: Czechoslovakia could break away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sometimes it meant consolidating: isolated, feuding regions could be combined into a nation state like Italy, Germany or the United States. (The American Civil War ended in 1865, turning a confederation into a union. In 1870 and 1871, Italy and Germany became nation-states.)

As a concept, nationalism is a great idea. In practice, it’s messy. At one point, Czechoslovakia is part of an Austro-Hungarian Empire, at another it is a country and at another point it is two countries - Czech and Slovak. And of course, no one can tell you which is “real.”

It took a long time to make nationalism real for everyday people. One bureaucrat who went out into the French countryside in the late 1800s asked a room full of school children what country they lived in. None could tell him. At the time of the French Revolution 75% of the country spoke a language other than French; a century later it was still a third.

In the US, the variety of language and cultures were even greater than it was in France. By 1900, 20% of Iceland had moved to the US and the US was home to more people who’d been born in Ireland than still lived in Ireland. Another 5 million had come from Germany. Immigrants weren't just coming from Europe. By 1870, Chinese immigrants and their children made up nearly 9 percent of California's population, and one-quarter of the state's wage earners, and one-third of Idaho's settlers. These new immigrants merely added to the variety of cultures and languages already here. 

The Mexican War and the Louisiana Purchase of the 1800s had left the US with large numbers of people who spoke Spanish and French. That variety persists. In California, 220 languages are spoken and 44% of Californians speak a language other than English at home. Some states have declared English as their official language; the US never has.

For the West, nationalism had become normal about 1900. And then the West discovered that nationalism contained a catastrophic bug.

World War 1 killed 10 million soldiers and 10 million civilians. (And the pandemic that spread as soldiers came back home at war’s end – the Spanish Flu – killed another 50 million around the world.)

The second world war killed four times as many people as the first, leaving 80 million dead.

One world war might be an accident. Two world wars suggest a terrible bug in this new phenomenon of nationalism.

Nationalism could work, world leaders realized, if they created global organizations like the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, and GATT. These institutions greatly decreased wars and increased prosperity. Since 1950, only 100,000 people have died in warfare in Europe, about 1% of the total killed in the two world wars. And GDP growth accelerated. Between 1900 and 1950, GDP in England grew 50%. Between 1950 and 2000, it grew 234%.

It bothers me that people are not more bothered by Trump’s focus on dismantling globalization. Who benefits from his vandalism? Well, Putin certainly would. Russia is no match for NATO but Russia can easily match any single country within Europe. If we’re back to nationalism, Putin is far more powerful.

But I don’t think that Trump’s nationalism is all about helping his buddy Putin. It is a way to rally the base. Talk about international law or trade deals and normal people will glaze over and conspiracy theorists will light up. Globalization may let people live in peace and prosperity but – oddly – it is not going to win any elections. Now talk about how “they” are rapists and murderers or our stealing our jobs and you’ll rally the base. Nationalism excites tribal impulses.

We have instincts for sex and violence; folks who write scripts exploit that to get higher ratings. We have instincts for tribalism and nationalism; folks who run campaigns exploit that to get more votes. Those impulses make for terrible guides to actual behavior, though. They can create chaos. We’ve seen the chaos that the worst impulses of nationalism and tribalism could create in the first half of the 20th century. If we don’t protect the project of globalization, we could see it again.

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