Donald Trump’s Nationalist Moment
When President Donald Trump flew into Houston to help pull Senator Ted Cruz’s reelection bid across the finish line, he ended up generating a whole different set of headlines. “You know what I am?” he asked the crowd. “I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist!”
The New York Times quickly chastised Trump for his “embrace” of such terminology, opening an October 23 story with this bit of helpful advice: “As a general rule, presidents do not refer to themselves as a ‘nationalist’ given the freighted history of the word.” The tone turned less friendly later on, quizzing Trump on “why he used that word given its association with racist movements.”
“Typically, the term ‘nationalist’ is employed by the United States government to describe political figures and forces in other countries that sometimes represent a threat,” wrote the Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. “When used domestically, it is a word often tainted with the whiff of extremism, not least because a variant of it, white nationalist, describes racist leaders and groups. American politicians traditionally stick with the safer term ‘patriot.’”
Trump and many of his supporters use the words “patriot” and “nationalist” interchangeably. “I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist,” the president said in the Oval Office in response to questions about the term’s putative racist baggage. “But I’m somebody who loves our country. I am a nationalist.”
The president had the same message for international leaders as he did for the press. “America is governed by Americans,” Trump declared last year. “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.”
Speaking in Houston, Trump understood he was wandering into forbidden territory. He just didn’t care. “Really, we’re not supposed to use that word,” Trump acknowledged before exhorting his supporters, “Use that word! Use that word!”
Trump’s election to the presidency was widely considered part of a nationalist resurgence in the wider Western world. With the Brexit revolt against the European Union in the United Kingdom and the ascent of populist and nationalist parties—some of them far right and identitarian, others more moderate and compatible with classical liberalism—from Paris to Poland, voters are speaking up for borders and sovereignty against supranational organizations and outside forces.
Since winning the White House on a platform of controlling immigration, securing the southwest border, renegotiating trade deals to maximize American advantage and hopefully reverse Rust Belt deindustrialization, and reorienting foreign policy in an “America First” direction, Trump has not only done battle against globalists at home (and inside his own administration). He has encouraged the nationalist trend abroad.
“In Poland,” Trump told the United Nations General Assembly, of all places, “a great people are standing up for their independence, their security, and their sovereignty.” Poland was also the site of Trump’s July 2017 speech praising Western nationalism against a background of challenges from globalism and multiculturalism.
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said in that speech. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Trump has at various points almost encouraged global pan-nationalism. “Many countries are pursuing their own unique visions,” he said at the United Nations, “building their own hopeful future and chasing their own wonderful dreams of destiny, of legacy, and of a home.” Trump had a similar message for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam.
“Finally, let us never forget,” the president said, “the world has many places, many dreams, and many roads, but in all of the world there’s no place like home.” Trump has challenged world leaders to be nationalists for their own countries.
“Inside everyone in this great chamber today, and everyone listening all around the globe, there is the heart of a patriot that feels the same powerful love for your nation, the same intense loyalty to your homeland,” Trump said at the UN. “And so, for family, for country, for freedom, for history, and for the glory of God, protect your home, defend your home, and love your home today and for all time,” he said in Vietnam.
There has been considerable pushback against Trump’s nationalist strain, even on the Right. Immigration, trade, and foreign policy all to some extent divide conservatives, many of whom are more drawn to an individualist conception of American society than nationalism or populism.
Representative Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who has emerged as one of the leading antiwar conservatives on Capitol Hill, has taken to Trump’s favorite social media platform to observe that the tariff-hiking president’s nationalism is leading him astray from the free-market gospel. “When F.A. Hayek wrote this essay, he was describing European conservatism, not American conservatism rooted in classical liberalism,” Amash wrote while tweeting out Hayek’s “Why I Am Not A Conservative.” “Increasingly, though, American conservatism resembles the European conservatism he warned about.”
Amash quoted Hayek’s complaint that it is “this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of ‘our’ industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.” He also used Twitter to promote a Ludwig von Mises essay entitled, “Liberty Opposes Nationalism.”
Yet the new nationalism is also receiving a fair hearing in unlikely quarters. The Wall Street Journal published a long excerpt of scholar and political theorist Yoram Hazony’s important book The Virtue of Nationalism. The Journal’s editorial page was long edited by the legendary Robert Bartley, who was quoted as saying, “I think the nation-state is finished.” (Bartley later disputed this quotation.)
There is no disputing that National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg believes populism and nationalism, alongside tribalism and identity politics, is “destroying American democracy.” It’s right there in the subtitle of his 2018 book Suicide of the West. Goldberg is also no Trump fan.
Nevertheless, speaking at a fall meeting of the Philadelphia Society, Goldberg described a major shortcoming of the “fusionist” synthesis of traditionalism and libertarianism on which modern American conservatism is largely built. “Left out of the fusionist project or the fusionist formula was the importance of national identity,” he said. “That’s not to say that conservatives didn’t talk about it, that’s not to say it wasn’t part of the national debate. But this trade-off between liberty and order, freedom and virtue, this idea that it was either the individual or the state gave I would argue at least politically considerable short shrift to the importance of maintaining and forging a sense of national identity.”
The fraying of a shared common national identity is a threat to both the conservative project of restoring constitutionally limited government and the progressive crusade for a more robust national welfare state. Both goals rely on a level of solidarity, community, and mutual trust that is in short supply in contemporary America, as we have fragmented into red states and blue states along with a host of other identity-politics subgroups. “Such political cohesion is rare in arbitrarily assembled human populations,” writes Hazony.
A nationalist politics that seeks to shore up that identity would not be illiberal in any meaningful sense of the word. It need not be racist or collectivist in economics. A political coalition that includes all Americans who are uncomfortable with the current pace of change and perceive themselves to be losing out from globalization has the potential to reach a larger constituency than Democratic liberalism does today or than the mainstream conservative movement has since Ronald Reagan handed over the keys to the Oval Office to George H.W. Bush.
We caught a glimpse of this in Trump’s improbable victory—a man as polarizing and flawed as this president was able to win, however narrowly, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, prying these industrial states away from the Democrats for the first time since the 1980s. It is also evident in some of the common threads between Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns in the 1980s, TAC founding editor Patrick J. Buchanan, then former California Governor Jerry Brown and Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s in the 1990s, Ralph Nader’s in the 2000s, and both Trump and Bernie Sanders’s in 2016. That no one has yet united these voters doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
For now, the new nationalism’s goals are modest: remind those in government that their primary fiduciary duty is to their current lawful residents, not the population of the whole planet, even in powerful and affluent countries like the United States; remain independent of the supranational entities that would transform mutually beneficial trade among self-governing peoples into rule by Davos-approved bureaucrats; police one’s own borders rather than the world.
A new fusionism that balances national identity with tradition and liberty could become key to the next politically successful conservatism. “To believe, as most Americans do, that the U.S. Constitution is superior to international law, that immigrants—though welcome—should become part of a united national community rather than join an ethnic enclave in a balkanized America, and that our national identity is more important than any ethnic or transnational loyalty is not to take the low road of nationalist selfishness but the moral high ground of democratic self-government in a particular society,” write John Fonte and John O’Sullivan.
Moreover, a genuinely American nationalism in 2019 cannot be white nationalism. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other,” Trump proclaimed in his inaugural address. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” The only people who argue otherwise are post-national progressives and the racist white nationalists themselves.
Why then do so many recoil from nationalism? “Nationalism has its vices and its extreme expressions,” concedes Hazony. “Every nationalist movement contains haters and bigots (though not necessarily more of them than are found in universalist political and religious movements).” In Europe, especially, political actors responding to problems as varied as EU bureaucrats, the challenge of integrating poor Muslim migrants, and French carbon taxes too often retain links to extremists, in lands where fascism and Nazism are part of living memory—as are particularly bloody wars in which nationalist sentiment played a role.
Even here in the United States we have witnessed the emergence of the alt-right and others who traffic in racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. We have seen congressmen like Iowa’s Steve King, who was aware of the problems nationalists seek to address long before Trump was in politics, dabble in affiliations and views that are more problematic. Trump has displayed a tin ear, to put it mildly, on controversies involving race, as well as an indifference to political norms that makes it easier for opponents to compare him to uglier forms of nationalism.
It is difficult to ground a viable American nationalism in the leadership of a president who has the support of a narrow cross-section of its people. Whether George W. Bush was accurate to describe himself as a “uniter, not a divider,” Trump cannot plausibly make the claim.
Then there is the question of whether Trump has truly lived up to the promise of his political program, now raised by even sympathetic commentators like Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. Trump demonstrated in the 2016 campaign that the nationalist sentiment that helped rally support for the Iraq war could be channeled into other less neoconservative purposes. But when John Bolton and Mike Pompeo outlast Jeff Sessions, one must wonder whether the president is making nationalism or neoconservatism great again.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton, what’s wrong with American—and perhaps Western—nationalism can be fixed by what’s right with it. “If there is a part of the electorate that simply dreams of living in a more stable, less fluid world, economically and culturally—people who are not primarily driven by xenophobic anti-elitism—then a moderate conservative movement might serve as a bulwark against the alt-right furies by stressing tradition, solidarity, and care for the earth,” writes Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. He is speaking of France but his words apply with equal force to the United States.
If only leaders could be found to manage rather than demagogue these issues, as a generation of conservative Republicans did in leading millions of George Wallace voters out of the then undrained fever swamps. If not Trump, who?
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.