SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Case for Left Nationalism

Make America Great Again. Trump’s campaign slogan was a direct appeal to nationalism. As a son of the Rust Belt city of Dayton, Ohio, I wasn’t surprised to see that it worked.

People in the postindustrial Midwest and in much of the rest of flyover country are tired of being ignored by the urban coastal elites who seem to think laid-off factory workers should shake off their blues and get a job as a coder. Not that the children of the dispossessed stand a better chance: Silicon Valley is a great wealth generator but a lousy job creator. Many highly skilled American tech workers are unemployed, cheated out of jobs by sleazy companies who abuse the H1B visa program to hire compliant foreigners for a fraction of the cost.

If you’re one of the millions of left-leaning Americans shocked and awed at Donald Trump’s first week as president, his “America First” inauguration speech, his orders to build his Mexican border wall, tear up NAFTA, start a trade war, and especially the sudden brutalism of his Muslim travel ban, I have news for you: there are just as many others who are cheering him on, thrilled that he’s keeping his campaign promises. As far as they’re concerned, the rest of the world — including refugees from countries whose wars were started by the U.S. — can go to hell.

After all, their hometowns already have.

As Sabrina Tavernise recently wrote in The New York Times, victims of economic decline and their attendant societal ills — depression, alcoholism, the meth and opioid epidemics — revolted in the 2016 election against elites “who lived in isolated islands of economic opportunity and sneered at people who didn’t.” She cited NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who sees a clash between globalists and nationalists. “The globalists, who tend to be urban and college-educated, want a world like the one described in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ — no religion, walls or borders dividing people. The nationalists see that as a vision of hell…They also want to limit immigration, an instinct that globalists are often to quick to condemn as racist.”

Globalism dominates economic policymaking in the Democratic Party. Beginning with the takeover of the party by the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s, Democrats have pushed through free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and the creation of the World Trade Organization. This has not come without consequences: Globalization eroded the power of Big Labor, formerly a major source of income and manpower for the party. It also turned off people in Ohio and Michigan and Illinois and Pennsylvania — those who lost their own jobs, as well as their friends, families and neighbors. Democratic politicians have been so blind to the suffering all around that they never even once proposed a bill that would have helped victims of outsourcing with money or job retraining. Some even publicly praised the fact that wages were going up in places like Mexico! Trump gave long-seething Americans an outlet for their rage.

The globalist left vs. nationalist right paradigm, however, is a recent thing. In fact, the right part of that equation only dates back to last summer; pre-Trump, exporting American jobs via trade deals was a point of bipartisan consensus.

The short history of Democratic globalism suggests that one way back from defeat and political irrelevance, both for the party and for the broader Left, is to make the case for a leftist nationalism.

Until the 1970s, Republicans promoted free trade agreements. Democrats opposed them. Protecting workers, especially the highly-paid blue-collar laborers, from foreign competition, kept union donations pouring into party coffers. But then party fundraisers found Wall Street. Big finance craves freedom of movement for capital so business owners can find the cheapest raw materials, supplies and workers in the world — and a broken, dispirited workforce unable to organize and bargain collectively. Wall Street told the Democrats: dump your other girlfriend. You can’t have us as well as big labor. Workers have gotten ground up under the bus ever since.

The grassroots campaign of Bernie Sanders — and of Donald Trump, whose fundraising tactics and social media-driven campaign emulated Sanders’ down to the fonts and spacing of his email solicitations — have broken big corporate donors’ hold on campaign financing. Meanwhile, look what happened to Hillary Clinton (“My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders“) and her base of corporate and wealthy individual backers. Nationalism, not globalism, is the future of American politics — but right now, it’s only the right that’s riding the wave.

Though patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the first of the nativist, history shows us a long and honorable record of left-wing nationalism. The Chinese civil war turned in favor of the Communists over Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists after Mao Tse-Tung directed his cadres to lead the patriotic resistance against Japanese occupation. Most members of the French Resistance against the Nazis were communist. Fidel Castro was an ardent patriot/nationalist; so was Ho Chi Minh. These leftists understood that the oppression of workers by the ruling class often manifests itself via forms of globalization: invasions, colonialism, the establishment of puppet states via imperialism. It is not necessary to succumb to the dark forces of bigotry, or to deny refuge to victims of war as Trump did last week, to stand up for the citizens of your own country against those who would exploit or abuse them.

There’s nothing wrong with imagining a world without borders. It’s good for Americans, and for decency, when wages of workers in other nations increase — there are fewer wars and more consumers. As things stand today, however, nation-states are here to stay. In fact, there are more of them than ever before.

Is it really so unreasonable for American workers to expect the leftists who claim to care about them, to fight for them to earn higher wages? A left unable to appeal to nationalism has no future.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

24 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Case for Left Nationalism

  1. I think we need to define our terms.


    1) patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts.
    synonyms: patriotism, patriotic sentiment, flag-waving, xenophobia, chauvinism, jingoism
    “their extreme nationalism was frightening”

    2) an extreme form of this, especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries.

    3) advocacy of political independence for a particular country.


    the quality of being patriotic; vigorous support for one’s country.

    I’ve always considered myself a patriot, I do love my country – but a nationalist takes it further. There’s a big difference between “My country is cool” and “You suck.” While I understand what Ted is trying to say (I think) I’m a little concerned about the terminology. Nationalism: bad; Patriotism: good.

    Yeah, we – Americans – do need to think of ourselves first. That’s why we all got together and made a country in the first place. Nothing wrong with that. But when we decide we’re better than everyone else, and deserve a bigger piece of the pie ‘cuz red, white and blue, then we cross the line.

    Today, it’s an economic reality that we couldn’t just melt the borders down and allow truly free trade everywhere; although that is a worthy goal as Ted pointed out. Giving other countries a hand up is merely enlightened self interest.

    “There’s a difference between a hand out and a hand up” – Spider Robinson (at least, that’s where I heard it first)

  2. Hitler started with ‘Germany only for ethnic Germanics.’ Then he added ‘lebensraum’, or the entire world for ethnic Germanics. For Slavs, Hitler wanted to add an ‘e’. For ethnic Jews and Roma, he wanted worldwide extermination.

    Trump says he wants America for American citizens. Red, green, black, or white, nothing but reflected light. If you’re an American citizen, Trump reiterates that he’s colour blind. If you’re NOT an American citizen, Trump looks down on you, but he looks much further down on non-US-citizens of colour.

    Those foreigners from sects beginning with ‘M’ are the furthest down of all.

    • Hell, I don’t think Trump has it in for for all the “M’s,” except maybe the Mormons.


  3. Nationalism used to mean self-sufficiency, especially on the left. Mitterrand envisioned nationalizing key industries. The third world movement aimed at import substitution, producing added value (including high tech machinery) locally. This failed, and will be even harder today, given all countries are subject to the global supply networks and need to find their niche or get crushed.

    Even in the U.S. which has its own market to a large extent, practical power to produce or sell something is extremely circumscribed: there are tons of big box stores all essentially selling the same crap using similar logistics. Farms are run (down) in the same way. Deviation is possible at scale (one factory can’t be moved, without putting into place a whole infrastructure backbone), and usually with an even more brutal business model to shake down producers and consumers.

    In fact, making money increasingly means not producing or selling, which is subject to competition, but rather skimming off at one stage or other. Either by controlling monopoly market share (from ketchup: Heintz/John Kerry to web-services: Facebook, Amazon, etc.), or controlling patents (Apple, Microsoft), to controlling credit (big banks), and finally to profit off the volatility (hedge funds, vulture funds).

    The party establishments are beholden to the skimmers. Despite his rhetoric, Trump has tried his hardest to break into most of those business models, with increasingly implosive scams. Make America great again (for rentiers and snake oil salesmen).

    Can the left challenge this system? Syriza in Greece had a popular mandate to retake control. However, the very idea of getting locked out of the global supply chains (i.e. becoming North Korea or Cuba) was unthinkable to the majority of their inner circles. They did not think it feasible to re-build i.e. their own pharmaceutical industry from scratch (which had existed in the 70s), only to see those industries go belly-up the moment they were re-admitted to the global predatory markets. Governments took notice what happened to countries which did not respect patents and investor rights (Serbia/Yugoslavia).

    From this perspective, weaning oneself off those logistic chains – from hipster transition towns to freegan going off the grid – seem a necessary first step towards radical change.

    • It’s not so strange that the skimmers see themselves as ‘makers’ and those of us who actually produce goods & services as ‘takers.’

      What is strange is that so many formerly productive proletarians have bought into that bullshit, proudly dedicating their lives to making the rich richer by making themselves poorer.

      I’m afraid P.T. Barnum vastly underestimated the suckers’ birthrate.

  4. Not only should we be suspicious of global corporate socialism, but we should also be very afraid of it. As it is currently managed on planet Earth, free-trade is an economic ponzi scheme where only the high and mightiest one-percent can play and not immediately be afraid of getting wiped out because a different gang of one percenters decided to move their infrastructures to a poorer population with cheaper living standards.

    To combat this social disease, regional nationalism is good. Globalist don’t want any ostensibly autonomous local regions on our planet to ever be completely self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is anti-globalist. A self-sufficient population can tell a globalist power broker to fuck off, and not worry about the consequences of that non-surrender impoverishing it to the point of national destruction.


    • «As it is currently managed on planet Earth, free-trade is an economic ponzi scheme where only the high and mightiest one-percent can play and not immediately be afraid of getting wiped out because a different gang of one percenters decided to move their infrastructures to a poorer population with cheaper living standards.» Indeed. And of course, «free trade» is merely the veil drawn over the agreements designed to support this so-called «globalist» edifice ; cf the 30 chapters of the TPP – how many of these are concerned with trade, as most of us understand it ? The essence of this proposed treaty rather lies in its Chapter 9, which details how corporate interests can be allowed to trump (no pun intended !) national sovereignty….

      Mr Trump is a dangerous, narcissistic arsehole, supported, for motives of their own, by other arseholes, mainly, but not exclusively, in the US Republican Party, but cancelling US participation in the TPP was a positive move, which hopefully will consign itself to history’s dustbin….


      • «which hopefully will consign itself to history’s dustbin…. » → which hopefully will consign it to history’s dustbin….

      • While I applaud the abandonment of the TPP, I dislike Don T. Rump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international politics. I suspect his primary motivation is simply to undo anything his predecessor did, regardless of whether he actually bothered to read the bill.

        Even that bull will occasionally break an ugly bit of tableware, but that doesn’t exactly make him an art aficionado.

  5. It’s not nation versus nation, it’s workers versus owners. “One Big Union.” Workers in the States are on the same side as workers in Mexico, and anywhere else. That’s the trick. It’s true, both parties in the states have dumped any pretense of being on the side of the working class, but they never really were. Unions were of course much better than no unions, but workers in this country shouldn’t be making it at the expense of workers in other countries, they should be making it at the expense of owners in this country (and others). The left should support the blue collar workers here, but they should support blue collar workers everywhere.

    • «Unions were of course much better than no unions, but workers in this country shouldn’t be making it at the expense of workers in other countries, they should be making it at the expense of owners in this country (and others). The left should support the blue collar workers here, but they should support blue collar workers everywhere.» Agreed, Suetonius, but with one caveat : the last sentence above should rather read : «The left should support the workers [i e, irrespective of the «collars» they wear] here, but they should support workers everywhere». This means supporting unions and union organising, not only for blue collar workers but for so-called «white collar» workers, such as those displaced by foreign workers hired at bargain basement wages via the H1B-visa programme. Some 96 % of workers in the fields of computing and mathematics are unorganised ; is it any surprise that they are exploited by their employers….


      • Well yes, sorry, I meant anyone who actually has to sell their labor to support themselves. Which include plenty of CS and math folks. I’m a mathematician, but I’m organized, I belong to a union…

      • «I’m a mathematician, but I’m organized, I belong to a union…» Fascinating, Suetonius – my own basic academic training was, in fact, in maths. Now, by way of sinology and psychiatry, I find myself keeping the small grey ones active by helping retirees with their computer problems, so I seem to have come, if not full circle, a good part of the way ’round….

        Would it be indiscreet of me to inquire as to which union you are a member ?…


      • Whatever, the AAUP. I’m a university professor. And over the decades I’ve turned into the person everyone comes to for computer help too (In between college and graduate school I programmed for a living), so I know about that sort of thing 🙂

  6. Americans are at a disadvantage in pursuing nationalism. To be a nationalist it helps to start out with a nation. Most nations exist as nations before they become unified under a State.

    Since Americans have no distinct nation in the same sense, as for example, France, Britain or Germany does, their only sense of nation (if they have it at all) is as a divided people loyal to a State.

    Most members of nation states have their own national traits such culture, language, and adaptations to a local environment developed over tens of thousands of years, and they are also recognizable by characteristic skin tones, facial features, and body morphology.

    If you are white and living in America, you are not of an American nationality; even if your ancestors have been here for hundreds of years most nationality indications will be of your Old World national origins. The largely exterminated indigenous peoples were established here for over 10,000 years it takes to develop recognizable nationalities.

    Ask most Americans what their nationality is and they are likely to refer to Old World nationality.

    • For the most part, the native peoples of the North American continent had no extensive idea of what a “nation” really was, at least in the Western-world sense. The extended “Indian” nation was at best a collaboration of cooperative tribalism. civilizations limited to oral histories aren’t too advanced in the map-and-border arena.


      • «civilizations limited to oral histories aren’t too advanced in the map-and-border arena.» On the other hand, Dan, when a civilisation not limited to oral histories presents ancient maps and border descriptions as evidence for territorial claims, the nature of that evidence is derided….

        Heads I win ; tails you lose….


      • @DanD

        “Tribal” is exactly what nations were during their tens of thousands of years of development, and that which persists even under the modernity imposed upon them by the modern nation-state.

        Modern American tribalism is expressed in the weak form of party loyalties, be they Democratic or Republican, and in religions subordinate to the State religion in that loyalty demands the total destruction, death before dishonor, of Mutually Assured Destruction.

        I am atheist to the conceptual object of political theology.

      • «… I dislike Don T. Rump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international politics.» Somehow, CrazyH, I doubt that you will find anyone who frequents this thread – with the possible exception of one poster – who will disagree with you. Mr Trump seems to be taking Richard Milhous Nixon’s policy of scaring the world with the US as a rogue state to new – and extremely dangerous – heights….


      • I was talking to one RWNJ the other day who didn’t understand why people were protesting. “He’s just doing what he promised to do”

        Uh, yeah. THAT’S WHAT WE’RE PROTESTING!!

      • Interesting, when one considers that powerful figures like US presidents are usually criticised for not doing what they promised to do when running for office – cf Mr Obama’s promise to close the US concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, etc, etc. Now Mr Trump is being criticised for doing what he said he would do during the campaign (and a lot of other things he left vague). I suppose this is one more instance of the fact that our brains are hard-wired to prefer harm avoidance to obtaining benefits. But it does say something about US politics that the best thing that one can think to say about a certain president is that he at least didn’t do everything that he said he would do….


  7. Dear Ted, please read again the article you link regarding the h1b abuse: I have the impression that it doesn’t really say what you write about Silicon Valley treatment of h1b workers. I am not trying to defend them, but I think that especially now, an adherence to facts and a correct representation of sources is important. Anyhow, carry on the good work!

  8. Love that alternative universe pick for Secretary of State! However, it’s difficult to process “Imagine” as an example of ‘globalism’ in this context. Those lyrics include “imagine no possessions.”