The most enduring and consequential political “ism” since the Enlightenment is unquestionably nationalism.
Various strains of nationalism built the ideological architecture of modern European nation-states, the pathologies of 20th century totalitarian regimes and the justifications for post-war anti-colonial and independence movements. Nationalism is today the ideological buttress of potent movements around the world that are opposed to globalization, immigration, technological revolution and “post-nationalist” arrangements such as the European Union.
Nationalism, however, does not have a strong pedigree in America. That has been a civic asset but now it has gotten us into trouble. America’s immunity to classic nationalism marred our ability to recognize and combat Donald Trump’s stunning campaign. It surely did mine. Like many, I saw Trumpism as a kind of populism that has a history in America, with chapters both dark and light, left and right.
I think that’s wrong. Trumpism is nationalism.
It is not, as many fear, White Nationalism or a gussied up hate movement. Yes, Trump and his shock troops coddle their White Nationalist parasites to a despicable and risky degree. But that is not the core of Trump’s putsch.
Trumpism is a nationalist phenomenon familiar to Europeans but new and confusing to Americans.
The first explicit philosophies of nationalism emerged in the early 1800s in a Europe roiled by the break-up of old empires, by newfangled nation-states and by post-Enlightenment, liberal reform movements that undercut the ancient authority of monarchy, church and nobility.
The common theme to these social theories was that people have an essential need to belong and to belong to their proper and organic group, defined by bloodlines, race, land, history and language. Without this belonging, societies and individuals were weak and miserable. It is more important than law and constitutions. The Germans were at the vanguard of “scientific” philosophies of nationalism and coined the phrases we associate with nationalism: “blut und boden,” blood and soil; “volk,” the people.
“These gloomy doctrines,” wrote the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, “… duly inspired nationalism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and pathological form, Fascist and totalitarian doctrines in the twentieth century.”
Americans, of course, had no ancient binds to blood and soil. We came from all over, mostly as refugees from these old worlds. Americans believed they were bound to a republic, a Constitution, a story of ideas. Allegiance was called patriotism, not nationalism.
America, of course, shared some pathologies of nationalism. Native Americans and blacks, for example, were not to be part of the American nation. Melting into the American pot was both an opportunity and a demand. But the full-blown nationalist movements of Europe were alien here.
Populism and nationalism are cousins, sometimes hard to tell apart.
Nationalism is essentially about identity and belonging. Populism is more about ideas and ideals that transcend group, about power, class and solutions.
Ronald Reagan’s message was often seen as nationalistic, wrongly.
Reagan saw America as a “shining city on a hill;” Trump sees America as a disaster, perverted by bad deals and bad people. Reagan wanted America to spread democracy; Trump wants America to look out for #1, to isolate and reject globalist ideals. Reagan had blinders about America’s minorities and vulnerable, but he tried to be nice; Trump curries allegiance by insulting and degrading people who don’t belong to the American Nation he wants to make great. Reagan had a guiding philosophic program of free markets and small government; Trump has no guiding philosophy.
Trump is pure strongman, unshackled by conventional morality. Populists are the opposite. They are moralists and righteous.
But Trump has been generally portrayed as a populist demagogue championing forgotten white Americans, attacking the elites and making impossible populist promises. He wasn’t that at all. He was an uber-American man on horseback prepared lead the American volk against enemies with will, muscle, propaganda and deals, not policies, programs and populist solidarity.
A great many voters decided Trump could restore their vision of the American Nation, the place where they rightfully belonged and mattered. His policies or non-policies, his flips and flops, gaffes and lies, his ignorance about government were essentially irrelevant, not taken seriously. So he won’t take heat for ditching the Wall or hiring lieutenants from Exxon and Goldman Sachs.
Trump is ruthless in belittling those he thinks don’t belong, who weaken the American Nation or who challenge its new leader. He fearlessly ridicules the manners and niceties of these losers and the whole weakling Establishment. He embodies the swagger of the real American Nation — the trash talk of sports, vitriol of talk radio, self-promotion of reality television and celebrity showbiz, the glamour of great wealth and confidence of ego unchecked. This is not populism.
Trump is marketing an American Nation brand for the 21st century, a place where the right kinds of Americans feel they might belong. It is not a new trick in history, just in our history.
Donald Trump must be some kind of nationalist savant, all instinct and gut, a fluke of history. It is worth noting that many leaders of nationalist movements started in similar ways — seen as clowns or crackpots, not serious, always underestimated, completely improbable — right up to the moment they seized power.