What’s wrong with nationalism? That depends on what you mean by the word, and who is meaning it. If nationalism means “loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it,” as conservatives like Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry recently argued, the answer is: nothing. Edmund Burke, the patron saint of a certain kind of cerebral, mainly Anglo-American conservative, rightly taught that we ought to cultivate affection for our inner circles of associates as practice for the next-most outward circle: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” A love of country is healthy because it trains us for cosmopolitanism.
But to most American conservatives, and doubtless many liberals, too, this is only one of many possible flavors of nationalism. George Orwell called this healthy affection for one’s nation “patriotism,” roughly equivalent to political scientist Liah Greenfeld’s “liberal nationalism,” and what others have called “civic nationalism.”1 Liberal or civic nationalism, perhaps because it is centered historically in the Anglo-American tradition, nests tribal loyalty within certain other accoutrements redolent of modernity itself: a constitution binding men to the rule of law; toleration for minorities; freedom of conscience; the disestablishment of religion, and more.
The problem is that liberal or civic nationalism is relatively rare and seems prone to decaying into more illiberal forms. The illiberal form of nationalism is what Orwell warned about in his famous essay on the topic written at a time when decay was giving off a noxious odor. In contrast to patriotism, Orwell wrote, nationalism is “inseparable from the desire for power.” For Orwell, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.” The essential metric in the nationalists’ pursuit of power and prestige is how much he has compared to others. “A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige,” which does nothing to train the heart for greater affections.
This points to the danger inherent in illiberal nationalism. The pursuit of power and prestige for his nation becomes the nationalist’s paramount goal, Orwell writes, “placing it beyond good and evil” (a phrase that invokes Nietzsche). The nation itself becomes the standard of right and wrong; nationalists “recogni[ze] no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Nationalists are perfect hypocrites, embracing a stark double standard of morality:
Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage— torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side.
Writing in 1945, Orwell had in mind, of course, the fascist nationalisms of Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Interestingly, those cases of decayed, illiberal nationalism started with constitutional liberal forms, suggesting something inherently fragile in the experiment. Unfortunately, the same kind of decay can be seen in our own times in places like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, giving rise to the term “authoritarian democracy,” meaning a place, like Pakistan or Russia, with democratic institutions in form but not in substance.
It goes without saying, or should these days, that illiberal nationalist impulses can and do exist within still-liberal polities. One can see them on display throughout Europe, mostly charged by immigration’s third-rail energies and almost without exception anti-Muslim in inspiration. Troublingly, leaders in new authoritarian democracies and in illiberal European movements have all expressed admiration for President Donald J. Trump; this is no coincidence, and so we come to the United States.
President Donald Trump is, to all appearances, a nationalist. Essential to that position is Trump’s “zero-sum view of the world,” according to Charlie Laderman and Brendan Simms, who have written the most comprehensive account yet of Trump’s thinking over the years.2 Trump mused as early as 1980 that he saw “life to a certain extent as combat.” That aligns well with Trump’s professed affection for Ayn Rand, especially for her protagonist in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark.
In the same interview—his first on the national stage—Trump said that respect is the most important thing for leaders because it is the leverage by which a leader achieves everything else. Again and again over the years Trump has expressed concern that others are “laughing” at the United States or its leaders, typically coupled with his assessment of American leaders’ “stupidity.” In 1987, to take just one example, he told television host Larry King that other countries “laugh at us behind our backs, they laugh at us because of our stupidity and [that of our] leaders.” Trump’s concern for respect, his worries that the United States is being “laughed at,” and his view of life as combat are almost perfect expressions of Orwell’s “competitive prestige.”
Trump’s actual policy record is only just beginning to emerge, but the pattern so far suggests that Trump as President intends to follow through on his nationalist rhetoric. If so, it is fair for conservatives and others who affirm liberal nationalism to ask: How much damage can his political movement do to American ideals and institutions? Michael Anton, now serving as a Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council, defined Trumpism is his famous “Flight 93” essay of this past year as “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.” When he wrote the piece, Anton was attempting a sort of political ventriloquism, giving a more articulate case for Trumpism than Trump himself has been capable of providing. Trump’s decision after the election to hire Anton and make him a mouthpiece for his Administration suggests that Anton’s version of Trumpism was fairly near the mark. Trade, immigration, and national security are at the core of Trump’s worldview.
Trade and Economic Nationalism
Trump’s protectionist trade policy is clearly, stridently, and proudly nationalist. The way Trump speaks about trade is key: To him, international trade is a zero-sum competition in which others’ gains are necessarily America’s losses. This is the most well-documented aspect of Trump’s worldview because it is the issue he cares most about and has commented on most often, dating back to his earliest interviews with national media. In his broader thinking about the world, Trump is concerned primarily with trade relations and comparatively little with security concerns. “Trump does not take other factors, such as ideology or raw military power much into account,” Laderman and Simms claim. Trump is a neo-mercantilist who spent the 1980s fretting about America’s trade deficit with Japan; the only significant evolution of his thought since then is the substitution of Mexico and China for Japan as the bêtes noires of American trade policy.
Trump regularly complained on the campaign trail about bad trade deals. He promised to get American jobs back, punish corporations for outsourcing jobs, and restore America’s spine in trade negotiations. In his major campaign speech on jobs and trade, he lamented that “America changed its policy from promoting development in America, to promoting development in other nations,” asserting through his framing that the two were contradictory. “We allowed foreign countries to subsidize their goods, devalue their currencies, violate their agreements, and cheat in every way imaginable. Trillions of our dollars and millions of our jobs flowed overseas as a result.” Trump promised to declare “economic independence” and end America’s dependence on foreign goods.
Trump’s view that trade is a battleground on which nations fight for relative gains is consistent with Orwell’s nationalist who is obsessed with “competitive prestige.” Once in the White House, Trump appointed as his Chief of Strategy Steve Bannon, who has called for a movement of “economic nationalism” that restricts free trade to promote domestic employment. In the opening days of his presidency, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, called for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and floated the idea of a border tax on all imports.
How much damage can economic nationalism do? This zero-sum view of trade policy is at odds with the views of most economists, who generally argue that international trade is a positive-sum game. Most agree that protectionism contributed to or exacerbated the Great Depression and warn that Trump’s policies could spark a trade war. A downward spiral of escalating tariffs and declining trade volume would drive up prices, decrease consumer choice, and make us all poorer. On the plus side, it might restore some manufacturing jobs to the United States, but not many; most manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation over the past two decades, not outsourcing. It might also reduce inequality some as a function of most everyone getting poorer; after all, the most equal societies historically have been the poorest. As the natural consequence of a competition for prestige, this is bad but survivable. We get the satisfaction of paying a sharp markup on most everything we buy in exchange for a couple “Made in the USA” stickers.
Immigration, National Security, and Assimilation
Trump’s immigration policy is the second pillar of his agenda. He plainly intends to put his campaign proposals into practice. In his first few days in office the President ordered the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and issued an Executive Order to restrict immigration and the inflow of refugees. Where his immigration policy falls on the patriotism-nationalism spectrum is a more complex question than where his trade policy falls, and the former policy has potentially more serious consequences than the latter. It is motivated by a mix of three things: concern for national security; an insistence on assimilation; and a populist appeal to the working class against “elites” that verges on demagoguery.
Trump claims that immigration reform is a matter of national security. He claimed this past year that “at least 380 foreign-born individuals were convicted in terror cases inside the United States. The number is likely higher, but the [Obama] Administration refuses to provide this information to Congress.” Trump exaggerated when he claimed that “countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of [the Obama] Administration,” but the essential motive is sound. There is nothing inherent in his view to bother a liberal nationalist on principle.
There is, however, plenty in it to irritate progressives who are anti-nationalist at base. That is why Trump’s progressive critics do not give much credence to his concerns. They (rightly) point out that the number of immigrants and refugees who commit terrorism is very small, and (wrongly) argue that national security is a just a guise for anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican sentiment. They’re wrong to be so dismissive. Small groups and even individuals can carry out successful terrorist attacks and the citizens of every country have a right to demand a very high standard of public safety from their government. This is not a matter of patriotism or nationalism; it is common sense.
But it is also true that Trump’s immigration policy cannot be explained solely as a function of national security concerns, especially since Trump himself gives other reasons for it. Trump believes mass immigration without assimilation threatens to dilute American culture, tradition, and identity, especially if the pace of immigration outruns society’s capacity for assimilation. He believes, no less than Theodore Roosevelt did a century ago, that immigrants should assimilate to American culture.
Yet Trump has added a new corollary to the old argument: that the pace and type of immigration coupled with the progressive Left’s political correctness and multiculturalism have retarded assimilation. The point about multiculturalism in public policy (such as with bilingual education) acting as a retardant to assimilation is not easily dismissed, even though the data suggest that most immigrants are assimilating quite well. Trump clearly is concerned about the problem of multiculturalism making America’s traditional capacity to assimilate worthy immigrants weaker. On the campaign trail he promised to start a program of “ideological certification” to ensure “that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.” And that is not everybody: “We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. It is our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here.”
On its face, this is a valid and straightforwardly patriotic argument, no less than TR’s was in the face of an earlier wave of immigration. There is no “competitive prestige” at stake in the effort to sustain American culture and traditions, and every patriot who loves the flag and what it represents should applaud the effort to sustain American ideals. Progressives are wrong to dismiss this desire out of hand as (again) a cover for racism and xenophobia. Many liberals have a maddening and incomprehensible tendency to view any celebration of American ideals and identity as an exercise in chauvinism, seemingly because they tend to view American identity solely through the lens of American sins.
But liberals are correct to insist that context matters. Asking the government to carry out “ideological certification” and screen people to ensure their beliefs are sufficiently American is, frankly, creepy to anyone familiar with the history of civil rights abuses in America. Screening immigrants is fine, but will Americans be vigilant enough to ensure the government never turns that power on its own citizens? “Extreme vetting” isn’t quite the moral equivalent of interning tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II on grounds of racial suspicion, but it does fall along the same shameful spectrum.
The validity of the liberal fear that immigration restrictions are the thin edge of a racial, ethnic, ideological, or religious exclusivism depends on which version of American national identity the Trump Administration is talking about: ethnic or civic? Is American identity centered on ideals of constitutional liberty, or on white Protestant culture? If it is civic, it sits well within the definition of patriotism or liberal nationalism; if it is ethnic, there is a problem. Some ethnic nationalisms in small and relatively homogenous European states have managed to remain quite liberal—think Denmark, Finland, or the Netherlands. But ethnic nationalism set in larger or more heterogeneous societies like the United States can elide all too easily into chauvinistic nationalism, due to the need to manufacture a strong majority national culture—especially in times of high anxiety over real or perceived threats to the country.
Trump himself rarely says whether his American nationalism is civic or ethnic. He studiously avoids defining the American identity he so passionately defends. He virtually never talks about “liberty” or invokes the principles of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence; he is the first President in American history not to have even once used the word “liberty” or “freedom” in his Inaugural address. But similarly, he never makes the explicit appeal to white identity that liberals accuse him of—the sort of thing Congressmen Steven King of Iowa has lately become known for. Liberals claim to hear “dog whistles” to the white nationalist Right in virtually every Trumpean utterance and Tweet, but they’ve made the same claim about every Republican for fifty years.
At least this much is true about Trump and ethnic nationalism: The white nationalist Right is far more enthusiastic about Trump than they’ve been about any mainstream politician in a century; and some of Trump’s supporters and advisers occasionally use rhetoric that can be interpreted as an endorsement of ethnic nationalism. Michael Anton, for example, seemed to mix both forms of nationalism in his description of Trump’s immigration policy: He decried “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” who are turning the U.S. population “less traditionally American.” And he insisted part of the solution is “no more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures.”
Another clue is Trump’s foreign policy and his dismissal of American exceptionalism (see below), which seem to imply that he does not favor the civic version of American identity, the one rooted in ideals of constitutional liberty indistinguishable from the universalism inherent in the Enlightenment. Trump’s concern for cultural assimilation is an ambiguous mix of healthy patriotism with at least a seasoning, if not more, of something much worse.
Immigration and Populism
The final element in Trump’s immigration rhetoric is a demagogic, populist appeal to the working class against the so-called elites, a theme also present in Trump’s rhetoric on trade. Trump claimed in the aforementioned immigration speech of this past year, “The fundamental problem with the immigration system in our country is that it serves the needs of wealthy donors, political activists and powerful politicians. Let me tell you who it doesn’t serve: it doesn’t serve you, the American people.” Trump promised to listen to the concerns of “working people” and complained that, “most illegal immigrants are lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers.”
This is the most clearly nationalist aspect of Trump’s immigration policy and also the most dangerous: It is a nationalism of class. Orwell argued that “nationalism” can attach to any unit—a culture, language, religion, socio-economic group, or other form of association. Its distinguishing feature is that it turns the welfare of the unit into the highest standard of right and wrong, the standard that trumps all others. Trump’s working-class appeal is class nationalism—or, in simpler language, populist demagoguery. Trump has threatened, at times, to whip up a populist, nationalist frenzy among poor and working-class Americans and to direct their ire against foreigners out to steal their jobs and rich American collaborators who want to import cheap labor. This is a nationalism that seeks the power and prestige of “real” Americans over and against foreigners and the complicit rich here at home.
What’s wrong with populism? Populism begins with the belief that regular people are more qualified to make decisions and lead the country than the wealthy or educated elite. That sounds fine to conservatives and unreconstructed Jeffersonians—it echoes William F. Buckley’s famous desire to be governed by a random selection from the phone book rather than the Harvard faculty. But follow the logic: Populism tends to feed on resentment toward and distrust of the rich and the educated. Populism exacerbates class divisions and breeds anti-intellectualism. In its most radical form, it invites mob rule and is functionally opposed to equality under law. Populism is not the empowerment of all the people, but only a segment of them—the “regular” people, which usually means whoever can claim the mantle of the nation’s traditions, culture, and history.
Thus, populism and nationalism often invite a tinge of ethnic and sectarian exclusivism. Who are the “people” empowered by populism? What is the “nation” celebrated by nationalism? The people and the nation need boundaries to identify who is one of them and who is not. They tend to get defined in opposition to some other group. That is why Trump’s nationalism has often been interpreted as a form of identity politics for whites (or sometimes for Christians) despite the absence of any explicit statement from Trump to justify that interpretation.
In 19th– and 20th-century Europe, the mythical cabal of rich financiers conspiring against the regular working class was, of course, Jewish. Populist demagogues who warned against the disloyal rich and their suspicious globalist ties were sounding the high, shrill dog-whistle of anti-Semitism. As with white nationalism, there is no evidence that Trump himself has given voice to these views or that he is an anti-Semite. But there is plenty of anti-Semitism in the broader movement, especially in the so-called alt-Right—which is why people like Richard B. Spencer support Trump and crave acceptance from him. So far, in public at least, Trump, his White House, and his movement have not accommodated Spencer and his would-be white shock troops. But it is a dynamic to watch as time passes.
A related danger is that populist nationalism tends to exalt individual leaders over the complicated machinery of government, and even over the rule of law. This happens because “the people” have no corporate agency, no ability to act as “the people” as such. They even lack an identity as a “people” and a “nation” unless and until a leader persuades them to think of themselves that way, and that he acts and speaks on their behalf. Nationalism and populism both are thus creations of elites. Populism does not empower the people; it empowers the elites most successful at manipulating and instrumentalizing the people, such as the billionaire reality TV star and Twitter maestro currently occupying the White House. Elitists like Trump are beholden only to their popularity. They rarely see themselves constrained by any other principle.
Populist nationalism, in pure form, is ultimately inconsistent with limited government. Limited government is the idea that rules describe what government can and cannot do, rules written down in a constitution and in statutes. Such rules are protected by checks and balances among branches of government and by the actions of judges and elected officials guarding their own prerogatives against the overweening ambition of others. Illiberal nationalism, by contrast, embodies the idea that the government is the servant of the nation, that government should do what is required—whatever is required—for the nation. The nation is embodied in a leader who ought to be empowered to take any action for its welfare. Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the media, and the intelligence community have the effect of weakening the institutions that are supposed to constrain him. He took an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution, but it is still not clear if he even knows what that means.
The difficulty, then, is that Trump’s immigration policies—the wall and the travel ban—have been justified by all three sets of arguments: national security, patriotic assimilation, and populist demagoguery. Some of the actual policies have defensible portions, as do some of his arguments in their favor. There are good national security reasons, and good patriotic arguments, for strengthening border control and vetting immigrants. But Trump and his followers have mixed these arguments with a dangerous blend of nationalism, populism, class resentment, and xenophobia that, over time, could be a greater threat to American ideals than any number of immigrants or refugees.
America’s Role in the World
The worst is still to come. The area in which Trump’s nationalism is most evident and most costly is foreign policy. The nationalism of Trump’s foreign policy is distinct from the nationalism of his trade and immigration policies. In foreign policy, the connection between ideology and policy is far tighter. Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle can take different positions on trade and immigration without falling prey to the dangers of nationalism. And the two policy areas are amenable to compromise and moderation: Somewhere between zero international trade and zero immigrants, on the one hand, and the completely unrestricted flow of goods and people, on the other, is a middle ground of some immigrants and some trade. Trump’s nationalist foreign policy vision, by contrast, is indivisible: It forces a choice on an important issue that cannot be split down the middle.
Trump regularly rails against “globalism” and champions his doctrine of “America First” as the alternative. In the first major foreign policy address of his campaign, he said, “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” He tweeted in June that Americans face a “choice between Americanism and [Clinton’s] corrupt globalism.” It is unclear what Trump means by “globalism,” as the definition seems to shift depending on his rhetorical purpose: He seems sometimes to be criticizing free trade and international financial institutions; sometimes cooperative security alliances, like NATO; and sometimes norms of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and pluralism.
A clue to what he means can be found in the most distinctive part of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements: his explicit disavowal of American exceptionalism—or, at least, the universalistic version of it. Trump claimed in the same foreign policy address that American foreign policy began to go wrong “with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western Democracy.” He called for “getting out of the nation-building business.” This is similar to Anton’s belief, quoted above, that there are some peoples and cultures “with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” In their view, American ideals are not universal and cannot be shared with other nations and cultures.
The relationship between American exceptionalism and nationalism is counterintuitive: It might seem that the most nationalistic foreign policy would be to champion America’s distinctive contribution to the world, and that Trump should, by rights, be a strong advocate for it. He isn’t, because American exceptionalism argues that American ideals are universal, and American nationalism historically has therefore been a rare kind of internationalist nationalism.3 All this runs exactly counter to Trump’s purposes. American ideals, exceptionalists claim, are adaptable around the world, and America’s great contribution to humanity is to be a champion of human liberty that others can emulate. The universal version of American exceptionalism, rooted in its Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian heritage, generates the “globalism” that Trump hates, and it is why he must disavow America’s unique status in the world.
Trump, by disclaiming the universalizability of American ideals, is emphasizing the particularity of our ideals to our shores, to the American people, and to our history. His version of American nationalism is a copy of Old World nationalism, a nationalism of blood and soil, of one particular land, language, and people. American ideals are for Americans; they are not for export. The universal or internationalist version of American exceptionalism says, “America is different because of our ideals, but you, too, can believe them and follow our example.” It is a positive-sum vision in which democratic nations come together in cooperative security to uphold liberal order around the world. Trump’s nationalism, by contrast, says, “America is different because of our culture and our history, which you can’t share because you have your own.” This is a zero-sum competition, a vision of America’s role in the world that has far less use for alliances and for liberalism. It is a vision that, in place of steady and measured American leadership, prefers American dominance at the times and places of American choosing, matched with American retrenchment at other times and places.
This is a debate of philosophical ideals, not policy specifics; pragmatic compromise is impossible and anyway it is not the point. The institutions spawned by classical liberalism either can spread (or be spread) to other cultures or they cannot be. If their spread is possible, it is good and relevant to U.S. national security; if it is impossible (or simply irrelevant), it is foolish and can be counterproductive to try.
Empirically, Trump appears to be wrong: The post-Cold War era is the high tide of liberalism in all of recorded human history. Liberal ideals have spread and been successfully adapted at least to some extent in the non-Western world everywhere from Japan to India. The spread of liberalism is not easy and is certainly more feasible in some cultural and socio-economic contexts than in others. Still, depending on how one counts, something like a third of all “non-Western” countries have some version of a liberal, accountable, democratic government. Disillusionment with the project of democratization stemming from the failure in Iraq and difficulties in Afghanistan has wildly exaggerated the challenges to liberty abroad.
The logical consequence of Trump’s foreign policy nationalism, if carried to its conclusion, is the end of American idealism; the end of American normative leadership in the world; and possibly the death of the liberal international order with it. As Laderman and Simms conclude, “By contrast with every single Democratic and Republican president since the Second World War, including George W. Bush, Trump rejects the international liberal order.” One therefore has to wonder how American leaders will in future describe the sacrifices of American soldiers sent into harm’s way: If their sacrifices can no longer be embedded in a transcendent narrative, as has been the American manner since 1776, how will they be justified at all? What will that mean for civil-military relations writ large in the United States?
By stressing the uniqueness of America’s culture and history, rather than its universal ideals, nationalism turns America into just another nation among nations rather than a city on a hill, which seems to be exactly Trump’s goal. In February 2017, a journalist challenged Trump on his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s a killer,” the journalist claimed. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied. The American nationalist of the Trumpean sort is distinguished from the exceptionalist by his lower expectations of America. This is what George W. Bush used to call the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” except now it is directed at us and our nation by the President of the United States.
American nationalism of this sort requires the nation to lower its moral aspirations. And Trump appears intent on living down to them. Since declaring his candidacy for President in mid-2015, he explicitly advocated at least four items on Orwell’s list of outrages, including torture, mass deportations (of illegal immigrants), imprisonment without trial (at Guantanamo), and the bombing of civilians (terrorists’ wives and children). Trump was widely applauded for doing so by his political base and rewarded with higher poll numbers, the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and, eventually, the presidency. When asked, 81 percent of white Evangelicals reported voting for him, and several Evangelical leaders contrived explanations for why Trump’s policies were not merely morally permissible, but the best and possibly only way of keeping America safe.
In other words, there appears to be a strong and vocal portion of the American electorate that believes that “there is almost no kind of outrage” that is not permissible if done by Americans for the sake of America. “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them,” Orwell cautioned. This—essentially the end of the American experiment on the world stage—is the cost and consequence of American illiberal nationalism.
Illiberal Nationalism As a Cult
Political movements that take on transcendent pretensions assume the form of a religion, as Mark Lilla has argued. They supplant traditional religious institutions with the state, religious catechesis with public education, worship with propaganda, and moral exhortation with public policy.4 In this way of interpreting political movements, populist nationalism is, to put it bluntly, a religious cult in which the nation plays the role of a god and its leader is the god’s infallible prophet and priest. The nation is the ultimate authority, the ultimate value, the absolute standard of right and wrong. Its glory and welfare justifies any action taken on its behalf.5
Trump’s inaugural address was a striking example of this kind of quasi-religious nationalism and his unprecedented personalistic conception of the presidency. He asserted that his inauguration, and thus his presidency, was unique because, unlike past presidencies, his would actually empower the people. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one part to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” The implied premise of Trump’s framing is the illegitimacy of past American Presidents. Trump distinguished himself by claiming that his predecessors did not heed the will of the people, but he will: “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” The people were not the rulers, and thus America was not a legitimate democracy, under Trump’s predecessors. Now, with Trump, the people rule again: The success of the people is centered on the success of the Trump presidency.
Trump can claim that “the people” are rulers again because, under him, “the nation” is whole and lives through him. Trump reviewed the suffering of working class Americans and asserted, “We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams. And their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”6 The imagined unity of the nation enables Trump to tell his followers that they, through him, are now ruling the nation. He is the embodiment of the nation, and the success of the nation is centered on his personal struggle. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” he said, “I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down.”
The sense of nationhood, however, is not automatic. It must be cultivated. It is every citizen’s responsibility to exercise his or her emotional connection with the nation. Trump called for “a total allegiance to the United States of America,” and asked Americans to “open your heart to patriotism.” Centering our affections and loyalties on the nation is the key to unity and strength: “Through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other,” because “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
The nation can evoke such loyalty and allegiance because it is worthy of a devotion that can only be described as religious. And Americans are increasingly willing to accept a new religion as their society over time becomes less traditionally devout, creating a vacuum that other emotional contestants may fill. Trump, following a long line of predecessors, equated Americans with God’s people. In arguing for American unity, he said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” But Trump went further, describing America in religious terms. “No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America,” he said. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” during which “a new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.” The nation is endowed with religious power, capable of stirring, healing, unifying, and lifting up. “We will bring back our dreams,” Trump promised.
Critics might dismiss Trump’s words as mere rhetoric. And, if the first months of his presidency are an indication, Trump’s Administration may simply lack the competence and organizational talent to bring these ideas to full fruition. But it is equally true that Trump is trying and will continue to try to use the full powers of the presidency to turn the American government into the servant of his nationalist vision. He has already succeeded in moving the Overton window of American political culture. Rhetoric is never “mere” rhetoric; it is symbolic action, a performance of a complex system of signs, an exercise of power that creates disciples, frames issues, and defines opponents.
Unfortunately, the ideas Trump has brought to the fore are likely to outlast Trump himself. Nationalism is a vibrant—currently, the dominant—strain in American political culture, and it comes in increasingly illiberal forms. All forms of liberal nationalism, even the most hoary, even ours, are vulnerable to regression, particularly under difficult circumstances. It takes constant vigilance to preserve what we most care about. Trump is not the first nationalist or the first populist demagogue in American history (although he is the first to win the presidency since Andrew Jackson). His type will recur and his ideas will endure. And the next nationalist champion, perhaps one with more polish, less baggage, and a more likeable demeanor, may find that the Trump presidency prepared the ground for a revolutionary redefinition of the American soul.
1On liberal and illiberal nationalism in general, see Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture (Wiley, 2005).
2Charlie Laderman & Brendan Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview (Endeavor Press, 2017).
3See Henry Nau, “America’s International Nationalism,” The American Interest (January/February 2017).
4Lilla, The Stillborn God (Alfred Knopf, 2007).
5This is not to say that American liberal nationalism traditionally has no consonance with religious culture. It clearly does. See Walter McDougal’s challenging account of the evolution of the American civil religion in The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2016).
6In this cadence some American and many European ears heard echoes of an earlier trilogy: Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Furhrer. See Claire Berlinski, “Not With My Book, You Don’t,” The American Interest (May/June 2017).