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Outright Nationalism Is Donald Trump's Next Trick

26/08/2016 12:26 | Updated 26 August 2016

When you're a populist leader with your back against the wall, your first thought is always to up the ante and attack. This has never been truer than in the US Presidential race. So despite the comparative lull in proceedings, the US is bracing itself.

Last week I was working in New York and Boston. And while the papers on every newsstand screamed that Donald Trump was backtracking on his more outrageous statements, even perhaps showing signs of regret, many people I met were holding their breath. One said to me: "Oh, we're still in a phony war. Trump hasn't even got started yet. It's going to get very nasty."

When you spend time in American cities, this feeling of trepidation is everywhere. While most people I met were firm Hillary Clinton supporters, very few of them dismissed the Trump threat entirely. He might be losing ground in the polls over there, but most people seem to believe that it's not a terminal slump; Trump is just regrouping ready to launch his final devastating attack. His recent appointment of Breitbart News' former executive chairman to head up his campaign is a sure sign that things are about to change - and not for the better.

Populist leaders throughout history have always come out fighting. And the closer they get to decision time the more nationalist they become. They embrace nationalism towards the end of a campaign because it works. Much as we'd like to believe that our people are all immune to rampant nationalism, they're just not. No population is.

Patriotism is understandable and in many ways a good thing. We've all spent the last two weeks cheering on our Team GB Olympians - and it's been great fun. In politics, patriotism is just part of the game. There was an interesting study published by the Fabian Society in April this year, before the EU Referendum. It found, unsurprisingly that messages with a patriotic bent went down well with voters but suggested the Remain side could do patriotism too: "While Leave is leading the patriotic argument at the moment, there is evidence that increased patriotism from Remain would help to blunt some of this impact. We tested a patriotic Remain argument in contrast to a patriotic Leave argument, and the Leave lead was significantly less than for the equivalent 'first impressions' question."

So, I think we can agree that there is a difference between a general feeling of patriotism and outright nationalism. But when we look for, and find, real signs of nationalism, they make uncomfortable reading. The 2011 census of England and Wales contained a question on national identity for the first time: 'How would you describe your national identity?' People were given the following options and asked to tick 'all that apply': English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British and Other. More than 60 per cent of people in England only ticked English.

This should have rung huge alarm bells for the Stronger In campaign during the EU Referendum. When you're trying to get people to think of themselves as European, and tell the world that's what they believe by voting Remain, you're a long way off mission accomplished if you can't even persuade them to self-identify as British. It also shows you, in a curious way, that what people will tell a pollster over the phone and what they'll write on a form in private are two very different things.

Which leads me nicely onto the reason I still think that Donald Trump might just win the Presidential election. Nationalism is extreme patriotism; a feeling of superiority over other countries. The causes are historic for both the UK and US. Historian Professor Robert Tombs explored the reasons why the EU is popular in Europe but less so in the UK in an article for the New Statesman last month: "The simple reason for this is that Britain's experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic [than Europe's]. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European "superstate" is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons." Hence you can argue that many citizens in both the US and UK see their countries as having a 'superior' backstory filled with heroic deeds and victories.

But who is all this nationalist rhetoric aimed at in the US? In mid-July Michael Moore wrote an inspired piece on his website, entitled: '5 reasons why Trump will win'. In it he nails the target audience for nationalist rhetoric: "Endangered White Male. There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the "Feminazi,"the thing that as Trump says, "bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds," has conquered us -- and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we're supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it'll be eight years of the gays in the White House!"

So rather than seeing Trump's poll ratings as a sign that he's about to concede the race, I suspect he's planning to whittle down his messages, direct them solely at his core audience and use the polls as a stepping stone to a new campaign of nationalist propaganda the like of which the world has never seen before.

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