What's the Difference Between Patriotism, Nationalism, and Fascism?
Patriotism and its Associates
Right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a great demonstration of patriotism by the American people. Some of the intense patriotic sentiment has waned, but Americans still demonstrate it and do so often. We see patriotic displays at ballgames, at holidays, like July 4th, and at solemn observances, like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
However, patriotism has become suspect recently. More people seem to want to equate patriotism with nationalism or even fascism. After all, isn’t one the same as the other? Aren’t they really just variations on a theme? In this essay, I am going to make the argument that there is a difference between the three “isms” and that you should always be a patriot, never be a fascist, and be a nationalist only under certain conditions.
Vive la Différence
So, if there is a difference between a patriot, a nationalist, and a fascist, what is it? First, let's look at the patriot...
The Patriot—Person #1 believes that America is a great country and that she is worth fighting for. He believes in American values such as faith, hard work, and freedom. Furthermore, he believes that those values are worth defending and may be willing to enlist in the military to fight for those values as well as the well being of his loved ones if he feels they are being threatened by outside forces. I’m going to call this person a “patriot.” He's not spoiling for a fight, but he's willing to fight if he believes those American values are threatened. During World War I, Sargent Alvin York is an example of such a person.
The Fascist—Person #2 is trying to advance his state (whether that group be a nation or a race), asserting its superiority by suppressing the freedoms and privileges of others. He generates myths and legends to support his claims that his nation is preeminent and is often spoiling for a fight to suppress those that he thinks are inferior and advance his own nation. He appeals to the most passionate of the emotions to enlist in his campaign. He revels in war because it's in war that man’s energies are most put to the test and the aggression of war that is needed to extend his vision of a superior state. I’m going to call this person a “fascist.”
The Nationalist—is a person that is committed to the nation-state system as the best arrangement of the international order. So, he opposes globalism and is skeptical of international treaties or other agreements. A conventional wisdom is that “nationalism” is a hyped-up patriotism, but I think that that is also problematic. He is someone committed to the advancement of the nation-state as the system of global order. He believes that a nation should have a right to determine its future political destiny. A “patriot” may or may not be committed to the nation-state system. His commitments might be regional and very sectarian rather than the more cosmopolitan nationalist. I’m going to call this third person a “nationalist.”
In this final section, I would like to offer a way forward with respect to the use of these terms as they relate to our self identity.
First, fascism. We need a term that denotes a preoccupation with identities that are likely to divide a group of people (like race and gender) in order to engender greater power to the state, regardless of myth perpetrated. “Fascism” is that term. No one should use lies and bullying tactics in order to suppress the rule of law and intimidate people by mobs like the Brown Shirts did in Germany. Any group that seeks to isolate a group and tries to impose a hatred on another group because of their race like the Nazis did in Germany is espousing fascism. Today, both white supremacist groups and academics are preoccupied with the "whiteness" of people's skin or the "blackness" of their skin. Both viewpoints are likely to make distinctions that are unhelpful and probably going to end up being dangerous. No one should strive to be a fascist.
But, aren't we to make distinctions in society? Yes, but they should be along legal and moral lines. So, we make a distinction between the killer and the person that doesn't kill or the person that steals and doesn't steal. Those distinctions make a society safer which we all value from. We separate those that commit crimes from those that don't. But there is no value in making distinctions between the races since we must find a way to live together in our culture.
What about religion? We do make distinctions between religious views, but Americans have found a way to deal with those issues by acknowledging that, while religious people will make distinctions between their religion and another's, the First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion protects each person making a distinction about his religion. He may exercise his religion, but he can't do that to the detriment of someone else exercising his.
Next, what about patriotism? We need a term that denotes a person that loves his country and has a sentimental attachment to it and the people that inhabit it. Patriotism is that term. Patriotism is a sentiment of affection for one’s own place. The word “patriotism” comes from “pater” which means “father”. So “patriotism” is a belief about the land of one’s father. Now, a sentiment is not just a feeling. Webster says that a sentiment is a “thoughtful emotion” and that it is a judgment that has been refined that emanates from feeling. There are people of all walks of life that love their country, are grateful for its heritage, are willing to defend their country, and have no animosity toward other peoples just because they are different from them.
Patriotism is essential for any society. One of America's founding fathers was Benjamin Rush who said that "Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families." Edmund Burke called patriotism the "first principle of public affection." Patriotism is a social glue that helps bind the society around love and affection. So, first and foremost, patriotism is a sentimental attachment, a love for one's country. In this sense, everyone should be a patriot.
Now unfortunately, there are a number of people--sadly, they are academics--that look down on patriotism as something for the hoi polloi, a judgment that they pass on the masses as they nurse a nosebleed high aloft their ivory tower. Now, I have to admit--I tend to be the enemy of all things hokum. But with patriotism, I have to remember that the many hokey things that are done in its name without a lot of thought, but they are not done without heart. And no matter how committed you are as an apostle of rationalism, it's hard to sneer at genuine love.
There may be some rare exceptions, but as a rule, everyone should be a patriot.
What about nationalism? This one is more difficult. Unlike the terms “patriotism” and “fascism” we need a term to denote those that believe that that the nation-state is the rightful repository of state sovereignty and that the collection of nation-states should be the rightful arrangement of the international order. This “nationalist” is likely to oppose globalism and pseudo-governments like the United Nations. I believe that this is what President Trump was getting at during his address to the United Nations in 2018. Trump sees himself as a nationalist, that is, someone that embraces the Westphalian nation-state system and wants to operate in that arrangement. As a “nationalist” he sees the nation-states as the most legitimate governments and the international organizations like the United Nations as less legitimate.
Such a view is not inherently dangerous. At the same speech, Trump talked about “national interest” but he called on every nation to pursue its own national interest. In this sense, he was inviting all nations to exercise the same practice of pursuing their own interests in the international order. Such a vision provides both unity and diversity: unity, in that all participate in the same game; diversity, in that we have many players.
But isn’t this the same thing as fascism? I don’t think so. Nationalism (at least Trump’s nationalism) invites all to play by the same rules; fascism tries to advance one group, by denouncing others as “non-players.” One can pursue their nation’s security, for example, without bearing animosity toward other nations. A part of maturity is competing with others, yet keeping your emotions in check. We can respect, even admire, our competition. If a nation is pursuing its security interest, that doesn’t mean that they despise a specific group of people. They are looking to secure a good, not impose an evil.
Having said that, I have to admit that I’m uncomfortable calling myself a “nationalist,” even though I favor the nation-state arrangement and believe, like Trump, that nation-states are the highest repositories of sovereignty on earth and that, globalism—which asserts that the boundaries between states should recede—is a bad idea. My reluctance is because of the dubious associations that the term “nationalism” has had with fascism. But perhaps the time has come to rescue the term “nationalism” from that association. Besides, one is not necessarily a fascist if one is a nationalist and vice versa. Still, in using the term “nationalism” when identifying people and political movements, we will probably have to quality the use of it.
It has been a modern political ploy to try to associate nationalism with conservatism and then fascism, but this is merely tactical, not historical. Believing that the nation-state is the best system for global order and that the nation is that group that should have the right of autonomous political self-determination is not owned by the right or the left. The fact is that people on both the right and the left have been nationalists. For example, Woodrow Wilson was the great promoter of nationalism in the early 20th century and he was a founding father of progressivism. Furthermore, no one would deny that Ho Chi Minh or Nelson Mandela were both nationalists and men of the left, but few people are going to accuse them of being “fascists.”
So, let me offer this creed to harmonize the conflicts that exists between the concepts of patriotism, nationalism, and fascism:
I am a patriot because I love my country and I love its heritage. Just because I display a great love for something does not mean that I am equally displaying a great hatred of something else. I do not magnify my country because I hate the country of others, but because of my great love of my own. I am not a fascist. I don't value dividing people along cultural lines and intimidate the marginalized to generate hatred and empower the state. We should value moral division, not cultural. Finally, if I am a nationalist, it is only in the sense that I believe that a nation should direct the state and should pursue its own interests when dealing with other states. The nation-state still remains the safest repository of sovereignty and the best current arrangement to maintain both unity and plurality in the international order.
© 2019 William R Bowen Jr