Politics & Policy

Nationalist and Conservative and Disappointed

President Trump waves to supporters at a rally in Estero, Fla., October 31, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump calls himself nationalist but doesn’t seem to know what the word means

Donald Trump has lately seized upon the label “nationalist,” a word that was often applied to his politics but that he hesitated to own until recently. My colleague Jonah Goldberg prefers that Trump would distance himself from the c-word: conservative. And Goldberg asks those of us who are comfortable using the n-word – nationalist — how we feel about Trump’s owning the label.

To be honest, most of the time, it sucks.

Every political movement becomes tarnished in government. Every one of them will disappoint. But Trump’s nationalism has managed to disappoint even before it has been seriously tried.

Even in the very week that he called himself a nationalist, Trump has ducked out on moments where any president, certainly any nationalist president, should set a tone of national unity. Instead of responding to the slaughter in Pittsburgh straightforwardly, articulating the nation’s mourning for its own citizens, he responded to attempts to blame him for the attack by blaming CNN.

On immigration, a nationalist Republican should draw on his party’s traditional call for free labor and free men to challenge a status quo that tolerates the wealthy’s profiting from a more easily exploited class of workers — this time, illegal immigrants, who do not have the same rights as citizens to bargain or switch professions, and who have less mobility owing to their legal status. This does mean tightening the border, and it means a traditional small-r republican exaltation of full citizenship as our common bond.

Has Trump done this? Not really. Trump has instead validated critics, who think all nationalism and immigration restriction is a cover for white supremacy. He’s done this through his slowness to disavow racists and racism. He’s done it with boob-bait tactics such as the travel ban. He’s done it by defending the “very fine people” he claimed were at a racist march in Charlottesville. A free-labor Republican would seek to protect the traditional and obvious meaning of the 14th Amendment, which grants birthright citizenship. It is birthright citizenship that prevents the U.S. from further developing an alienated class of exploitable labor. Trump flippantly looks into rewriting it.

I could go on, in the usual way. Nationalist figures tend to transcend their parties and achieve dizzying popularity at their height. Think Charles de Gaulle in France, Winston Churchill in Britain, or Eamon De Valera in Ireland. They tend to do best when picking fights beyond their borders. Trump blew any chance of working with Democrats early on. He is not very popular. And he picks his major grudges not only with his countrymen, but even with his own attorney general.

He has not significantly changed America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, where it seems to serve Saudi interests more than our own. We continue to pour men and money into several Islamic countries; can Trump describe the mission objectives in any of them? Trump has not seriously challenged the mercantile power of China, which he correctly sensed as a threat.

He’s not the only disappointment in this nationalist moment either. Theresa May’s first speech as prime minister hit almost all the right nationalist themes for the moment. Britain would take back control from the EU and its government would work for all its citizens. She appealed directly to the bulk of families who are working hard but “just managing.” She promised to work for them. She named a domestic enemy, the networks of wealth and power that are able to capture government and make special rules for their own benefit. “When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you,” she said. “When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. “ This was a winning argument, and she subsequently enjoyed a long political honeymoon.

Unfortunately, that’s all forgotten. She tried to translate the persona she created above into a traditional “strong and stable Tories” campaign. It was a disaster. Add to those botched Brexit negotiations her botched responses to terrorism and an attempt at budget cutting that seemed cruel to the hardworking and vulnerable.

It was always going to be an uphill battle. The grip of post–Cold War orthodoxies on the West was very tight. Critics of these orthodoxies were thoroughly stigmatized, and thus the ranks of populists and nationalists were stuffed with gadflies, sad-sack opportunists, incompetents, and personal failures. Ambitious and capable people had better options with the Establishment. Successful nationalist policy will come only when you really can find some of the “best people” to develop and advocate for it.

Most of Trump’s political triumphs have come in areas where he can draw on strong pre-existing institutions that prize talent, such as the Federalist Society. But appointing judges from those ranks is a traditionally conservative, not nationalist, achievement. His other accomplishments on trade have been small. It’s larger than initial “mirror tax” on Canadian lumber, but nothing that looks like it is going to shift the flows of capital and the building of supply chains in a dramatically more advantageous way for America. On net, his trade fights may cost American jobs.

Trump is more faithful to the promises that he made conservatives than I expected. For that conservatives should be grateful. But nationalists succeed by taking on big projects and unifying the country behind them. Trump is doing small things and the country is more divided than ever. The electoral results next week will likely show that.

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