American nationalism: It’s not what Trumpists think it is

Trump Nationalists

“Nationalism.”  No word in the political lexicon is more evocative.  To many on the left the term inspires grainy, black-and-white visions of soldiers parading before a despot.  In their most charitable assessments, leftists see nationalism as the comforting affliction of those without the inclination or capacity to give much thought to politics and governance.  While they regard  the outward manifestations of low-grade nationalism with something between amusement and contempt, they see them as essentially harmless.  A penchant for flag-waving and anthem singing isn’t, after all, much of a threat to the central design of the left: expanding the powers of the state.

Matters of international affairs are another matter.  The nationalist’s exclusive focus on the well-being of the homeland is incompatible with leftist ideology, which emphasizes economic leveling and the elimination of perceived historical inequities wrought by capitalism – not just among “classes,” but among countries as well.  For this reason, nationalist Euro-skeptic parties in Europe are considered members of the right, despite their generally socialistic platforms.

In America, though, while nationalism has resembled its European counterparts in so far as its accouterments are concerned – flags, banners, anthems and the like – it has also included a philosophical underpinning largely lacking in Europe.  In America, those symbols have been inextricably linked to a set of assumptions as to how men ought to govern themselves.  These are tidily summarized in the preamble to the country’s founding document:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Many of us can recite these words from memory.  We recognize that they are part of a historically important document, and even that they constitute the philosophical basis of our government,

Those of us who champion limited government further recognize the historical uniqueness of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  While Magna Carta codified limitations on the powers of the English Crown over at least some of its subjects, it didn’t form the basis for creating the government of a new nation.  English civil society was well developed even by 1215, and while Magna Carta remained influential in the development of English common law for centuries (and arguably remains so even today), it didn’t define the structure of the English state, which was already well established.

Only the U.S. was given birth by documents explicitly designed to limit the role of its political authorities.  So our flag has represented not just 13 historical colonies and 50 states in a common geography, but the notion that the residents of that common geography are citizens, not subjects, and that the parts of their lives subject to government control are narrow and explicitly defined.

Whatever emotions they may inspire, La Marseillaise and the flag of Botswana have no comparable implications.  So while it is certainly true that the statement, “America is an idea” is a cliche – America, like all nations, is also a defined geography with its own history – America is indeed partially an idea:  Men should be free. 

But not to Donald Trump and far too many of his simple, misguided followers.  The version of nationalism they espouse differs from that of the Botswanan only by the colors of the flag they wave and the locations of the borders they want to secure.  Ironically, in fact, the Trump version of nationalism syncs quite well with Barack Obama’s caricature of American Exceptionalism:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

No Trump acolyte would admit to harboring such a sentiment, of course.  But in practice, the Trumpist version of nationalism amounts to a system of thought with which it is entirely consistent.  It isn’t just that Trump rarely mentions the Constitution, or even the concept of liberty (he used the words “freedom” and “constitution” only once each in his interminable Cleveland acceptance speech, and he didn’t use the word “liberty” even once) –  it’s that he consistently expresses ideas that validate conclusions one might easily derive from their absence.   Namely, that he finds the Constitution irrelevant at best and a bothersome impediment to his designs at worst, and the notion of “liberty” to be a silly obsession of people who read too much.

  • He advocates “opening up” libel laws so news organizations can be more easily sued by people they criticize.
  • He supports the execrable Kelo decision, which allowed eminent domain to be used to confiscate private property for private endeavors.
  • He supports universal health care.  For those who can’t afford it?  “The government’s gonna pay for it.”  Or even more revelatory of his megalomaniacal bent:  “I am going to take care of everybody.”

Lucky us.

The list goes on and on, and the reader is likely familiar with most of Trump’s Nanny-State positions:  wealth taxes, minimum wage increases, assault weapons bans, etc.  Some he backs off when they become inconvenient.  Others he explains away… or tries to.  It’s quite the tapestry of incoherence.

No matter.  As archaeologists can piece together a passable reconstruction of pottery from its fragments, we can do much the same with Trump.  Seventy years of business dealings, talk show appearances, and a life in the public eye have left plenty of those fragments.  And there is nothing – literally nothing – in the record to indicate the slightest level of allegiance to the uniquely American nationalism embodied by commitment to limited, decentralized government. He doesn’t read books.  He hasn’t demonstrated any particular knowledge or understanding of history, economics or… well, really much of anything beyond selling his name and acting as the ringmaster of a three ring circus.

His supporters call his pottage of half-thoughts “populist nationalism.”  But while there’s a long and unfortunate history of nationalism and populism comfortably coexisting, there is no basis upon which to believe that mixture is compatible with America’s tradition of limited government.  Advancing “populism,” whether of the Huey Long, Benito Mussolini, Bernie Sanders or Donald J. Trump variety, is a simple two-step process:

  • Convince large numbers of people that their personal misfortunes are the fault of some malevolent external force: bankers, Jews, the bourgeoisie, “the rich,” etc.  Any sufficiently small group perceived as alien and powerful can work – especially groups seen as disproportionately wealthy;
  • Ask for the power needed to slay said force;

It’s a pretty easy sale.  It’s comforting to believe others are to blame for our failings.  The Trumpist’s bete noire is the “globalist.”  It is the dreaded globalist from whom Trump promises to rescue us.  Anyone who has encountered one of his Breitbart-inspired minions knows this all too well.  The Trumpist screams “Globalist!” like a primitive shouting incantations at evil spirits.  As it turns out, in the fever swamps of Trumpland, a “globalist” is pretty much anyone who has a passport.

An “elitist,” in case you’re wondering, is a person who won’t scream “Globalist!” at anyone who has a passport.

How will Trump protect us from these globalists and elitists?  Well, there’s his famous wall.  And while it’s a decent enough idea, it certainly wasn’t his.  His only contribution was to add a typically idiotic tag line:  “And I’ll make Mexico pay for it.” Which sounds pretty good so long as you don’t think about it.

How else will he save us from the globalist scourge?  Enormous tariffs!  Forty-five percent on goods from China, thirty-five percent on goods from Mexico.  Apparently, Trump’s plan to slay the globalists requires impoverishing the American consumer and subjecting American manufacturers to increased costs and inevitable retaliation.  Small prices to pay, apparently, to slay the globalist dragon.

One can try to explain to his devotees that this very sort of policy helped lead to the Civil War and Great Depression.  One can suggest they look into Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage.  One, if feeling especially adventurous, might even make the case that the expansion of federal authority it would take to implement this sort of mercantilist nonsense is a threat not just to our prosperity, but to our liberty. One can also try to explain quantum mechanics to an alpaca.

It isn’t that the Trumpists are stupid.  Well, it isn’t just that the Trumpists are stupid.  More importantly, it’s that they’re unprincipled.  Their fealty to Trump is based not on ideology, but on their perception of Trump as the big brother who’ll beat up on the kids who’ve been bullying them:  industrialists sending “their jobs” overseas, Mexicans taking their jobs here, and the Chinese.  Always the Chinese.  That his thoughts on other matters are an admixture of half-baked reflections on things he saw on “the shows,” conspiracy theories, and the sort of fortune cookie philosophy one finds in self-help books doesn’t matter.  He’s going to get vengeance.

In a sad irony, these poor creatures in their “Make America Great Again” hats prove by their very support of Trump that they haven’t the foggiest idea what made America great.  It wasn’t protectionism.  It wasn’t government micromanagement of the economy.  And it certainly wasn’t con-men manipulating the resentments of the ill-informed and promising to use the powers of the state to avenge them.

It was liberty.