Whenever I debate nationalism with friends who champion it, the argument I usually hear up front is that the country needs more solidarity. Nationalism binds the country together. Nationalism is the only means by which patriotism and solidarity can express themselves in the political arena.
I have my agreements and disagreements with all of this. But there’s no need to dwell on them here. What I will say, however, is that these views are expressed in good faith and with good intentions, at least by the people I have in mind. And, as I always say, I do believe a little nationalism is necessary for any country to survive and thrive.
I am still open to the idea that this is mostly what Trump has in mind when he says he’s a nationalist, as he did again last night on Laura Ingraham’s show.
(Of course, he adds another element. It’s an echo of Yoram Hazony’s argument that I think should more properly be called “nation-ism” not “nationalism.” Hazony argues that the Westphalian nation-state should be the bedrock unit of international relations. Hazony’s argument is complex. Trump’s is simplistic: Either you are a nationalist or a globalist. This is a really silly or useless framing. But we can discuss that later.)
So let’s say you are the most thoughtful, decent, and sincere nationalist on the right or left. You don’t champion ethno-nationalism, never mind nativism or bigotry. You want all Americans of all faiths, creeds, races, etc. to have a mystical bond with this great nation that is defined by a sense of deep brotherly and sisterly commitment to your fellow Americans. You see the distinction between patriotism and nationalism as ultimately negligible. You are a classically liberal nationalist who thinks our traditions and customs should be both open to all kinds of Americans yet distinctively and meaningfully American. Hence your “tough” views on immigration are in reality expressions of love for this country, the rule of law, the basic notions of fairness, and the vital necessity of assimilation.
So: How psyched are you that Donald Trump is your spokesman on this issue? I’m not even referring to his skill at explaining and defending complex ideas in a thoughtful and non-offensive way. I just have in mind the fact that he’s the most polarizing president in our lifetime (fairly or unfairly). If Trump is for something, nearly half the country is against it, without needing to hear another word. The recent spate of terror attacks — one by a pro-Trump mail-bomber, the other by an anti-Trump Jew hater — are both being associated with Trump’s nationalism. Some are even arguing that Trump’s nationalism caused both attacks. We can argue about whether this is fair to Trump or to nationalism. But the relevant question here is: Is it inevitable? And the answer is: Of course.
As a political matter, this has always been my biggest problem with the new nationalism craze. Even under the best of circumstances, if one party makes “nationalism” its core tenet, it makes nationalism a partisan issue. If you believe nationalism and patriotism are the same thing (I don’t), that means patriotism becomes a contested political football. Now you can say that’s always been the case in American history, and to some extent I think that’s right. But we now live in an age of negative polarization. If the Democrats are for it, the Republicans must be against it, and vice versa. This was a problem under Bush and Obama. But it’s reached steroidal levels under Trump. In the public arena, every real and alleged sin of this president and this presidency is now being associated with “nationalism.”
I think that’s unfair, and intellectual defenders of nationalism are right to push back on it (See Hazony’s Twitter thread yesterday). But as a political matter, Trump is making “nationalism” the creed of his base and his biggest supporters. In other words, he’s now doing to nationalism what many of us worried he would do to conservatism: make it an ideological appendage of his own agenda and his own cult of personality. As someone who cares more about the integrity of conservatism than nationalism, I’m rather glad for it. But if I were a committed and decent-hearted nationalist, I’d be getting prepared to do a lot of clean-up work.