“You really have to be an idiot to be a nationalist,” says one of the characters of Robert Menasse’s prize-winning novel, “The Capital”.

At first sight the judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, even when accounting for the fact that supporters of nationalist candidates skew less well-educated across Western Europe and across the U.S. Surely, the lack of a degree doesn’t imply stupidity.

Upon closer investigation, however, the claim may can be upheld if one were to define a “nationalist” as someone who:

(1) considers his own nation superior to others and

(2) prefers closed borders to international exchange

Clearly, there is no scientific evidence for (1) while an adoption of (2) would lead to economic collapse, since no nation is capable of producing all of its goods and services. If you disagree with the statement, I dare you to acquaint me with a German smartphone, an Austrian car, Norwegian wine or Nepali genetic engineering.

Nevertheless, we will argue that the adoption of either viewpoint (1) or (2) alone will not automatically qualify you as a moron, while supporting both of them most likely will.

Let’s consider two specific examples of “semi-nationalists”: Frank from Fantasia and Nina from Narnia.

(1) Frank holds the view that his nation of Fantasia simply is the best country on Earth. Due to their superior quality, Fantasia’s products are bound to conquer global markets. The nation’s wealth is therefore maximised if everyone trades freely with Fantasia. Frank is also unafraid of immigrants, since foreigners simply can’t measure up to the innately more talented Fantasians and pose no threat on the job market. It is therefore entirely logical for Frank to adopt position (1) but reject position (2)

(2) Nina is the scion of a Narnian dynasty that financially benefits from a national monopoly. Since the products of Nina’s family empire are inferior to those traded on global markets, Nina’s privileged position depends on Narnian borders to remain closed. Privately, however, Nina is an avid world traveller. She has many foreign friends, enjoys international cuisine, listens to world music and sees herself as a truly global citizen. Thus she rejects position (1) but supports position (2) out of economic self-interest.

The case study reveals that it is logically inconsistent to hold both position (1) and position (2) at the same time. If your nation is truly superior to others, your nation has most to gain from opening its borders while nothing to fear from doing so. Closing them down would only restrict your own opportunities as well as your country’s.

Conversely, if you happen to support closed borders, it is surely not from a position of strength. You do so because you want to protect something that would be swept away by foreign competition—foreign products, services, workers or even foreign culture. Shutting yourself off is an implicit admission of perceived inferiority.

We could therefore conclude that believing both (1) and (2) could be an indicator of low intelligence because of the evident logical inconsistency of the positions.

There is one important exception, however: politicians like Orban and ideologues such as Bannon who advocate both positions as part of a cynical power play.

Clearly, they’re not stupid. They are evil.

Populists like Orban or Bannon derive their power from a dual argument, which they put forward mainly to less educated voters. Funnily, their policies rely on closed borders because their nation is superior and inferior at the same time.

How could that be possible?

First of all, nationalists argue that their own nation is “culturally” superior and henceforth the “purity” of its culture must be defended against foreign influence. Orban even advocates “preserving” the Hungarian culture in “exactly” the same form as it was one thousand years ago, when the first “Hungarian” settlers erected their dwellings along the Danube. Interestingly, Bannon has similar things to say to the ultimate nation of immigrants, the United States, which he sees under threat from Islamists and Mexicans.

An additional sleight of hand is Bannon’s argument of “economic nationalism.” It proclaims that the U.S. would continue be the dominant economic world power, if only others were playing “fair.” He sees something duplicitous about German cars and Chinese smartphones, implying that they must be stopped at the U.S. border. According to Bannon, only by looking inward could the U.S. return to its glory days when the country built the world’s longest railroads and biggest steelworks.

Clearly, the Pannonian and Bannonian argument are equally flawed.

First, no “national culture” can be defined in a consistent, yet complete manner. One cannot provide a coherent explanation of German culture, for example, that equally respects the vastly different regional cultures of Bavaria and Berlin. Therefore, the claim of a consistent national culture that must be “protected” is false. As nationalists slowly wisen up to this, they tend to define national culture in a negative way, listing everything that doesn’t “belong here:” Islam, brown faces, gays, even vegans and pacifists…

Second, most goods and services aren’t built in a single country but in global value networks. Consider the smartphone you’re reading this article on: it was most likely designed in California by a Brit, assembled in China, with a screen from Korea and semiconductors from Malaysia. Its software was invented in California but is written mostly by Indians and Eastern Europeans. Erect barriers to trade and movement, and the entire thing becomes prohibitively expensive—if it still gets built at all!

Is there an easier way to refute the nationalist argument, using simpler language?

That, for me, would be the holy grail of modern politics.

Until then, we are stuck with a rather crude retort to retake the offensive when someone self-identifies as a nationalist.

“So, are you stupid then… or evil?”


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