National Column: Not all economic nationalists are like Donald Trump

by Thomas Walkom

Nationalism is in bad odour. It need not be.

True, an ardent form of nationalism has fuelled the rise of right-wing political leaders, such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France.

Nationalism is driving Britain from the European Union, a move that – whether justified or not – threatens to deal a major blow to the continent’s common-market experiment.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan adroitly uses nationalism to maintain and solidify his hold on power. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin does the same.

In its more extreme forms, nationalism can turn into xenophobia and racism. These are rightly denounced.

But the essence of nationalism – an attachment to place and culture – remains a powerful human force. It cannot be dismissed as the benighted nativism of the ignorant. It has to be acknowledged and worked with.

In Canada, the new nationalism is associated with Trump. Those who don’t like him (and there are many) decry his trade protectionism and his focus on illegal immigration. His key adviser, Steve Bannon, is often portrayed – incorrectly, I think – as a white nationalist.

Indeed, there is much that is wrong-headed about the Trump presidency. But his economic nationalism reflects a real mood in the country – a feeling among far too many Americans that globalization has failed them and that resistance is the better path.

As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter put it recently, Trump’s preferred solutions, such as tax breaks for the wealthy, may be wrong, but his diagnosis is correct. This is often forgotten.

In the rush to distance themselves from the more odious elements of Trump, too many Canadian politicians are ignoring the globalization-inspired problems that made his election victory possible.

For the Liberals, the solution to the ills of globalization is to press for more. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government praises the still-not-quite-yet-concluded Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union.

It wants similar arrangements with Japan and China. And it promises to remedy any dislocation caused by all of this with a vague cocktail of retraining programs and innovation subsidies.

The Conservatives remain wedded to the orthodoxy of free trade. Some of the party’s leadership candidates have flirted with the darker elements of Trumpian nationalism, such as his suspicion of Muslims.

But on the main theme of globalization, the Conservatives and Liberals are indistinguishable.

The New Democrats have a more complicated view of free trade.

They like some deals but not others. Among NDP leadership candidates, Ontario MP Charlie Angus comes closest to articulating the despair of those left out of the game.

But like their political rivals, the New Democrats find it hard to disentangle elements of the nationalism tapped by Trump. Their distaste for the U.S. president clouds their analysis.

This is odd. Canada has had much experience with economic nationalism, running right back into the 19th century, when John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government imposed protective tariffs to build up domestic manufacturing.

More recently, Canadian economic nationalism was very much a project of the centre-left. In the NDP, it was expressed first through the short-lived Waffle faction and later through the mainstream party. The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau implemented popular nationalist policies in the ’70s. The free-trade election of 1988 was fought over economic nationalism.

Nationalism in general and economic nationalism in particular were deemed respectable ideas.

So why are they not now? What is so dangerous about rooting for the home team? Why is anyone labelled close-minded and intolerant who is opposed to the unhindered movement of labour, commodities and capital across borders?

Why does the far right get to be the unchallenged champion for those critical of global capitalism? Where are the left and centre-left?

The unions are hip to the fact that the new nationalism is open-ended. Both Unifor chief Jerry Dias and Steelworkers’ head Leo Gerard seem to understand that there is something real behind Trumpism.

Canadian politicians? Not so much.

Copyright 2017 Torstar Syndication Services

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