The urgency of ethnic nationalism

A virulent nationalism, tinged with bigotry, is on the rise across much of the world. It helped elect Narendra Modi in India and sustains Vladimir Putin in Russia. It has vaulted Marine Le Pen to the final round of the French election. She is the underdog in the runoff, but it’s chilling to see that this weekend she seems to have won voters under age 34.

In the United States, Donald Trump won the White House despite – and partly because of – his disdain for Mexicans, Muslims and African-Americans and his flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes.

In the face of this ethnic nationalism, citizens often face difficult choices. They have to decide how much of a priority to place on combating it.

Should voters eschew their favorite candidate and vote for one with the best chance to defeat the nationalist? Should policy experts be willing to work in an administration that plays footsie with intolerance? Should a museum dedicated to fighting hate, like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, host a hateful president?

These choices often end up being more complicated than they first seem, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But a disturbing pattern is still emerging.

Too many people – well-meaning people on both the left and right – have grown complacent about nationalist bigotry. They are erring on the side of putting other priorities first, and ethnic nationalism is benefiting.

Let’s start on the political left. And, no, I’m not about to lapse into false equivalence. Ethnic nationalism is largely a force of the right. But the left needs to decide how to respond, and it hasn’t been effective enough so far. It has underestimated the threat and put smaller matters ahead of larger ones.

After France’s first round of voting, the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to endorse the last person who can prevent Le Pen from becoming president, Emmanuel Macron. A Le Pen presidency, to be clear, would likely tear Europe asunder, marginalize French citizens who hail from Africa and the Middle East and lead to a big expansion of security forces. It would be the biggest victory for Europe’s far right since World War II, by far.

Yet Mélenchon still won’t back Macron – a centrist former banker who was until recently a member of the Socialist Party. It’s a classic case of political purism that may feel good, but can do grave damage.

Just look at the United States. Updated presidential vote totals show that Trump’s margins in Michigan, in Pennsylvania and in Wisconsin – which together would have swung the result – were smaller than the tally of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. It’s impossible to know whether Stein’s campaign cost Hillary Clinton the election, yet it clearly hurt. In a very close race, parts of the American left aided Trump.

I understand that this point enrages backers of Stein and Mélenchon. They have real differences of opinion with center-left candidates, and they want to win those debates. But the final round of an election that includes a viable white nationalist isn’t a time to hash out the future of progressive politics. It’s a time to defeat racism.

A version of this dilemma also applies to the political center. Apolitical institutions have to decide whether they will treat ethno-centrists like Trump and Le Pen differently from other politicians. These institutions are right to resist becoming part of “the opposition,” because society needs nonpartisan institutions. But they also have to avoid compromising their mission.

The Holocaust Museum has put itself in a tricky spot. It invited Trump to give a major speech Tuesday morning, much as previous presidents have done. Of course, previous presidents didn’t retweet neo-Nazi sympathizers, vilify Muslims or try to airbrush Jews out of the Holocaust.

Maybe the museum’s leaders are confident Trump will use the speech as a turning point, which would be wonderful. But by conferring the museum’s prestige on Trump, those leaders have a new responsibility to call out future dog whistles from the administration. The Holocaust Museum has effectively invested in Trump.

Finally, there is the political right. Most Republicans despise the notion that their ideology makes room for bigotry. Theirs is the party of Lincoln and of individual freedom, they say.

Fair enough. But that history brings responsibilities. Today’s Republican Party has plainly made room for white nationalism, via Steve King, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions and Fox News, not to mention the president.

If the Holocaust Museum is now invested in Trump, Republicans are really invested in him and his fellow nationalists. You don’t get to call yourself the party of Lincoln and stay silent when voting rights are abridged, hate crimes are met with silence and dark-skinned citizens are cast as un-American.

I never expected to live through a time when bigotry would again be as ascendant. But we are living in that time, and it brings a new set of choices.