Elephants in the Room
Trump’s Nationalism Is Arbitrary, Dangerous, Incoherent, and Silly
Nationalism has a new voice. That makes it all the more imperative to take its claims seriously and meet them head on.
Whatever else U.S. President Donald Trump has done, he has spent his first year in office continuing and strengthening his commitment to nationalist rhetoric. For example, back in September 2017, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Boilerplate portions aside, the speech was notable for its contributions to the growing corpus of Trump’s governing philosophy. Alongside his speech in Warsaw in July 2017, his U.N. speech was a powerful exposition of contemporary nationalism — and an excellent illustration of its danger, vacuity, and moral arbitrariness.
Trump sang the praises of “strong, sovereign, and independent nations,” and he claimed strong nations were a vital pillar of international order. Throughout the speech, he preferred the language of “nations” rather than “states.” He made sweeping claims about the goodness of nations, saying, “Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny. And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.”
What’s notable here is that Trump focused his praise on nations, not states. (I think it is fair to parse Trump’s words carefully because this was a scripted speech, not off-the-cuff remarks. As such, his speechwriters would have chosen the language and themes of this speech deliberately.)
Nations are notoriously hard to define but typically center around shared culture, language, history, or ethnicity (a major theme of the Warsaw speech). Trump is arguing, in language that would be familiar to every nationalist since Napoleon, that people are defined by their membership in a national community, that national communities are the primary political actors on the world stage, and that each nation should correspond to a state that represents and governs it.
Trump summarized his argument: “The nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.” This is probably the most succinct statement of nationalist doctrine. Interestingly, Trump’s formulation was not specifically American. “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.” Trump is arguing in favor of nationalism on principle, not just because it is a convenient line of argument for his own “America first” preferences.
I appreciate clear statements of nationalism because, as with the Warsaw speech, they reveal their own incoherence and arbitrariness.
Nations are almost impossible to define, and the effort to draw boundaries inevitably sparks more division than unity at home and abroad. Who is a Frenchman? Do the speakers of regional dialects, like Picard, Gascon, Franco-Provençal, and Occitan, count? Absolutist monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries decided that regional and local diversity was a threat to national unity and implemented brutal forms of oppressive nation building in response. Nationalists who yearn for cultural uniformity face difficult questions today about immigrants who share none of the characteristics — language, history, culture, or religion — that traditionally defined national identity. Nationalism has always been the enemy of true diversity.
That is why there are essentially no nation-states in the world today, and why Trump’s ode to nation-states is oddly timed. If Trump is right that nation-states are “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition” and vital for “individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God,” then none of us are living full human lives because none of us live in nation-states. Almost every state in the world today larger than a micro-sovereignty is a multiethnic, pluralistic, diverse polity. The United States of America has never come close to being a nation-state.
Perhaps Trump is not referring to nation-states in the strictly academic sense. Maybe what Trump really means is that states, any states, are vital for human flourishing, as opposed to his bête noire, the globalists and their international community. But if that is what Trump means, his claim is even more ridiculous. There are some 193 states in the world, and they vary wildly in their size and character. Is Tuvalu, a democratic micro-sovereignty, equally capable of enabling human flourishing as China, an autocratic continental power that still espouses Marxist-Leninist ideology? Trump doesn’t care, so long as it is a state. Any state — democratic, theocratic, Marxist — will do, apparently.
Not being a nationalist, I’m untroubled by the absence of nation-states and I don’t feel my life impoverished by it, and I do think some states are better than others at fostering human flourishing. Trump’s claim that we are only fulfilled when we live a cohesive national communities is morally arbitrary and frankly silly. To be sure, I wholeheartedly agree with Aristotle that we are by nature social and political animals, and with Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville that a rich associational life is an important part of human flourishing.
But nothing requires that we experience community primarily in a political setting, or that our relational life coincide with an ambiguous and divisive “national” identity, or that our most fundamental communal loyalty be to a large-scale, geographically extensive, impersonal polity. We experience relationships in multiple, crosscutting communities, including our religious, educational, professional, and recreational ones.
The nationalist delusion is that we can unify our attachments under the umbrella of a single, overarching, holistic identity. That is not only impractical, but it is also dangerous and, for religious believers, wrongheaded and insulting. The things Trump says about the nation I believe to be true about the church. Nationalism mimics religion in its claim on our ultimate loyalty and its pretension to provide “the fullness of the life intended by God.”
I fear we are not paying enough attention to the message of nationalism because it is too easy to focus on its unattractive messenger. In truth, nationalism has always been present in American political culture, but it rarely holds the reins of power. Within the Republican Party, it’s been a junior partner in the various coalitions that make up the party. Nationalism has a new voice and new confidence in the age of Trump — not just from the president himself, but from a wide variety of media personalities and other policymakers. That makes it all the more imperative to take its claims seriously and meet them head-on.