Nationalism Will Come Back from Trumpian Lows

President Donald Trump attends a rally in Manchester, N.H., August 15, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Democracies have a way of bringing problems back to the political process until a suitable settlement is found.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE J onah Goldberg writes with some astonishment — and maybe a wry grin — about how nationalists and their sympathizers blew their chance. A favorable wind was about to lift up the sails of national conservatism in the United States, but the crew and captain seem to have dropped the anchor directly through the hull.

My old colleague and friend is half right. The opportunity for nationalist-minded reforms has been consistently squandered, and not just in the recent crisis. It’s not the first time that Trump blew a great deal of capital.

Goldberg is correct that Americans recognized the coronavirus was a serious threat, and this moment provided nationalists with a very natural opportunity to make their case. Americans have stepped up to sacrifice (often heroically) their income and leisure to protect each other and their health-care institutions. We discovered the depth of China’s corruption of international institutions like the World Health Organization and its willingness to use its power over medical supply chains to punish critics. We saw nation-states across the world ignore commercial contracts, and even the dictates of the international bodies to which they belong, to interdict medical supplies.

But Trump’s leadership during this crisis has been aimed at reelection, rather than constituting a real project of governance or ideology. At the very moment public anger with China was about to run hot, he was sending air-kisses to Chairman Xi about the cessation of trade war, a move Trump calculated would send markets sky-high during his 2020 campaign. Trump’s poor performance in the crisis has left him as one of the only world leaders who hasn’t seen a significant improvement in his approval rating.

Besides Trump, a number of intellectuals and political writers aligned to him have let their populist side run wild: questioning the authority of scientific advisers on lockdowns and portraying masks as a symbol of submission to an expert class they distrust.

The whole Trump presidency is full of wasted chances. Trump said he wanted to be a nationalist and to make the Republican Party a worker’s party. But his signature achievements have been to drop the corporate tax rate and to appoint judges to the federal courts. He was organized enough only to do what the entire apparatus of elected Republicans was already prepared to do. Even where he had authority, he wasted it. He would announce a withdrawal from Syria, and the White House staff would countermand him or walk it back weeks later.

Will nationalism go away? Probably not. Democracies have a way of bringing problems back to the political process until a suitable settlement is found. And there are reasons to believe certain problems now call out for answers that nationalists will be primed to provide.

Pat Buchanan was the morning star of modern conservative nationalism. He identified three major issues on which he challenged the developing post–Cold War political orthodoxy. He championed trade protection, immigration restriction, and an America First foreign policy that was suspicious of international organizations and security guarantees. He did this at a time when the American economy was booming for a broad section of the country, when mass immigration was only just picking up, and when America’s interventions looked decisive, benign, and relatively costless.

One could argue that since about 2006, events have made him seem perspicacious. Hopes for a regional transformation in the Middle East were dashed in Iraq. A global financial crisis shook confidence in any number of elites in the late 2000s. The EU’s sovereignty-crushing performance with Greece served as a warning about transnationalism.

One could date the mainstreaming of nationalist sentiment among a dissenting band of experts to the release of David Autor’s 2014 study showing the concentrated social and economic costs that globalization had on American men and their families. Since then, political leaders and experts have finally woken up to the opioid crisis and the problem of men dropping out of the workforce never to return. Neither experts nor the public can “unsee” the way COVID-19 revealed China’s corruption of international institutions, as well as the vulnerabilities and costs of just-in-time supply chains that run across national borders and are subjected to different political ideologies.

Crucially, those Buchananite issues are electoral issues. John McCain pretended to be a border hawk to win reelection. Barack Obama pretended to hate NAFTA to cater to “bitter clingers.” Politicians sold themselves as peaceniks before governing as hawks. It was inevitable that a rising generation of scribblers, experts, and politicians would come along and offer the genuine article.

The American political system has not reached a durable settlement for immigration. In an age of collapsing native birthrates and a falling global price for emigration, it must do so. America must confront the dashed hope that free trade with a Communist China would lead to liberalization; the reality is it creates opportunities for the CCP to exercise more political power within Western institutions. A democratic people will seek ways to thwart the hardening of America’s socio-economic divisions into permanent and mostly impermeable social classes. A rising class of foreign-policy advisers is still trying to discern a wise course after nearly 20 years of uncertain results in the Middle East. I expect that even if Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, there will be a great deal of crowing by anti-nationalists, but the nationalists will have plenty of chances again.

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