Boris Johnson becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom is seen in some circles as another example of the rise of the nationalist right, in particular the "alt-right" tied to white nationalism. Some of the most important elements of this nationalist right are said to include violence against immigrants and refugees, efforts to preserve "white majorities" in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and a distrust of international trade agreements and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Aside from Johnson becoming the U.K.’s prime minister, other examples of the political nationalist right are said to include the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the political gains of right-wing nationalists in Europe everywhere from Sweden to Hungary to Poland. Some critics connect these politicians to the rash of shootings and violence by alt-right thugs over the past few years.
This has led to nationalism being almost seen as synonymous with racism. That’s more of a problem than people realize, and not just for the danger it poses to immigrants, refugees and minorities. The thing is that, in a world where more and more immigrants and refugees come to Canada, the U.S. or Europe, a lot of native-born people in these countries aren’t sure what it means for their national identities. How much accommodation are they expected to make for the new arrivals’ beliefs, languages and practices? What changes should the new arrivals be expected to make to fit in with their new homelands?
Unfortunately, a lot of people feel like they can’t ask these questions. If they do, they’re worried about being attacked as hateful, racist bigots by critics, particularly on the left. The end result is that politicians like Trump, and the alt-right white nationalists who try to latch onto their success, can present themselves as the only ones capable of defending peoples’ national identities and addressing their concerns. It leads to what John Ralston Saul called “negative nationalism”, rooted in a fear and loathing of anyone who doesn’t form part of the nation, and discrimination against them.
Leaving the whole concept of nationalism open to the alt-right is a critical mistake. It only increases the danger to immigrants, refugees and minorities. What Saul called “positive nationalism” – which actually addresses native-born people’s concerns about national identities, and shows the efforts immigrants and refugees make to fit into their new homes, and shows how they can all live together – is a better alternative.
The fact is that most immigrants and refugees work really hard to fit into Canada. They study its history, learn to speak English and/or French, and can become just as hockey-crazy as anyone whose family has been here for 300 years.
Many of the people who support Trump, Johnson and other politicians like them aren’t motivated by racism. They’re just uncertain about their futures and livelihoods. One of the best things opponents of the alt-right can do is show that white nationalists aren’t the only ones who care about peoples’ national identities.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.