Biden Needs to Play the Nationalism Card Right Now

The 2020 election is veering into dangerous territory—and liberalism won’t be enough to win.

Joe Biden takes his sunglasses off as he arrives for a campaign event with President Barack Obama at Strawbery Banke Field in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 7, 2012.
Joe Biden takes his sunglasses off as he arrives for a campaign event with President Barack Obama at Strawbery Banke Field in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 7, 2012. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

What does former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden have to do to get elected? Some observers say as little as possible: Just let President Donald Trump keep talking, tweeting, and blundering, and Biden can coast to the White House without doing much on his own. I disagree, in part because the Electoral College helps Trump, but also because Trump has an important asset that the Democrats ignore at their peril: the power of nationalism. It is the same power that U.S. leaders have relied upon and nurtured since the country was founded, although the coming of the unipolar moment led elites to think that nationalism was a fading force. Many believed that was all for the good, as it was widely considered a malign feature of both domestic and international politics.

This view is wrong. Nationalism remains a remarkably powerful ideology, and the United States cannot survive without it. Indeed, much of Trump’s appeal to voters is due to his advocacy of U.S. nationalism. If Biden wants to win in November, he should embrace nationalism while reaffirming liberal values. They are an election-winning combination. In essence, he needs to talk less about “partnership” and “leadership” on the global stage, and more about patriotism and national unity. In addition to building a rainbow coalition, Biden should wrap himself in the red, white, and blue. These are mutually reinforcing goals.

The objective case for replacing Trump is overwhelming. As president, he has bungled the most important task he faced—the COVID-19 pandemic—which is why the United States has only 4 percent of the world’s population but accounts for more than 20 percent of all fatalities, a total of more than 200,000 dead and counting. This failure wasn’t just the result of Trump’s incompetence, though there was plenty of that; it was also the result of a cynical act of deception. We now know that Trump knew the virus was a deadly danger early in 2020 but refused to tell the American people the truth or encourage them to take preventive measures. Instead, he helped turn the simple and painless act of wearing a cloth mask into a source of political controversy.

Trump has also mishandled the strong economy he inherited from former President Barack Obama. Instead of seizing the opportunity of historically low interest rates to launch the infrastructure program he’d promised during his campaign, he gave himself and his rich friends a big tax cut. The country’s richest 1 percent got richer and the middle and lower classes got the crumbs. When the pandemic hit, the necessary emergency measures blew up the federal deficit even more. Vigorous action by the Federal Reserve helped the stock market recover, but most Americans don’t own stock, and unemployment now stands at 8.4 percent.

Trump’s handling of foreign policy is no better. His reality-show summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un led nowhere, and his decision to leave the nuclear deal with Iran has put Tehran back on the road to acquiring a nuclear weapon and isolated the United States from the deal’s other signatories, who openly scoff at U.S. efforts to reimpose sanctions. Trump has had nearly four years to end the “forever wars” in the Middle East and has yet to deliver. Moreover, the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain merely acknowledges the de facto relations between those states, which had never been at war with each other, and does little to advance the broader goal of Middle East peace. Trump has taken a harder line toward China, but his erratic approach toward Beijing has made efforts to alter its economic practices far less effective than they could have been. Meanwhile, the United States’ standing around the world has fallen to historic lows. Trump’s three predecessors weren’t great at foreign policy either, but his record in office offers few reasons to reelect him.

Last and perhaps most importantly, Trump and his cronies pose an existential threat to the United States’ democratic order. It is hard to miss the warning signs of creeping authoritarianism: contempt for the rule of law, indifference to democratic norms, a refusal to state openly that he will be willing to leave office if he loses, incorrigible lying, active efforts to discredit the press, and various forms of corrupt insider dealing, all of them aided and abetted by invertebrate Republican senators whose addiction to power and disregard for principle has turned them into the president’s lackeys.

Given all that, it’s hardly surprising Trump is trailing in the polls. But his removal in November is far from guaranteed, not simply because he has a loyal base of support, but also because of the peculiarities of the Electoral College and the real possibility that Trump will declare the results invalid, refuse to transfer power, and call upon his supporters to defend him. For this reason, Biden needs to do everything he can to make his own victory incontestable.

To do that, he needs to play the nationalism card. 

To see why, you should start by reading John Mearsheimer’s speech upon receiving the American Political Science Association’s James Madison Award. His talk—entitled “Liberalism and Nationalism in Contemporary America”—argued that nationalism remains the most powerful political ideology on the planet and a critical source of identity for most human beings, including the vast majority of Americans. In sharp contrast to liberalism, which conceives of society as made up of individuals with innate natural rights, nationalism sees human beings as social animals with a powerful sense of attachment to those who share the same culture and venerate the same territory. Nations are the largest social group for whom such powerful attachments typically form, and the doctrine of nationalism—that is, the idea that most humans are part of a nation and that nations should govern themselves—has been the most powerful political ideology on the planet for the past 250 years. Nationalism is the main reason the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires eventually dissolved, and it explains why the United Nations has gone from roughly 50 members at its founding to nearly 200 members today. To ignore nationalism is to ignore a huge part of international reality and a key part of the U.S. political landscape as well.

There is little doubt that Trump knows what sells. Thus, it is understandable that since the start of his political career he has consistently portrayed himself as a die-hard U.S. nationalist. Consider his slogans: “America First.” “Make America Great Again.” “Build the Wall.” He is powerfully inclined to denounce foreigners—whether they are allies or not—and his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017 was a full-throated invocation of basic nationalist ideas. As he told the assembled heads of state: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” And even more revealingly: “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values. As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”

This is not the language of globalism or liberal internationalism, with its emphasis on universal rights or its invocation of a “global village.” It is the language of nationalism, and it forms a significant part of Trump’s sometimes baffling appeal. He may be a draft-dodging, philandering, incorrigibly dishonest, trust-fund plutocrat who feels only contempt for the “losers” he’s repeatedly bilked, but he speaks the us-versus-them language of nationalism fluently and to great effect.

As Mearsheimer made clear, since the end of the Cold War, many U.S. elites have become uncomfortable invoking this sort of particularistic rhetoric, which is at odds with the universalism that comes with liberalism. Instead of doing everything in their power to improve lives for other Americans here at home, those elites wanted the United States to lead the world so that other nations could enjoy the same benefits that Americans supposedly had. Instead of maintaining walls and preserving borders, they sought to tear down the former and make the latter less relevant, so that goods, capital, and people could move freely around the world and all of humanity could one day live together in harmonious prosperity.

This outlook was common to Republicans during George W. Bush’s presidency and Democrats during Bill Clinton’s; it was Condoleezza Rice’s worldview as much as it was Hillary Clinton’s or John Kerry’s during their respective tenures as secretary of state. Great-power politics, so the argument went, was a thing of the past, realpolitik belonged on the scrapheap of history, and the new objective was to downplay if not eliminate borders, not defend them. Let individuals pursue their own interests and let markets distribute the gains, and we could stop worrying about the balance of power and concentrate on getting rich instead. Where you were born didn’t matter: Just learn English and master a marketable skill and you could live in any number of “global cities,” eat fusion cuisine, and fill your Spotify playlist with opera, jazz, rap, K-pop, reggae, soukous, or any other music you happened to enjoy.

I find this vision of a multicultural melting pot appealing, but it’s not the world that most people live in today or want to live in tomorrow. As events in Russia, Hungary, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Poland, and yes, even the United States, have shown, most people think of themselves as members of a particular nation, not as citizens of the world. They privilege their own culture and the ways of life it reproduces, and they worry that too many immigrants, distant bureaucrats, or an enemy occupier might take that way of life away. And so they gravitate to leaders who tell them they are the real embodiment of the nation and who promise to defend them from whatever “other” has them most concerned. Not surprisingly, unscrupulous leaders are quick to cement their citizens’ loyalty by inventing “others” who barely exist and to exaggerate the dangers that they pose.

So, when Biden talks about the United States’ role in the world, he would do well to speak in ways that put his country’s interests first and global interests second. Instead of emphasizing what’s good for the wider world, he should stress why his policies are good for Americans. The two goals will sometimes overlap, but it’s the latter he needs to emphasize in his campaign. Instead of warning of the dangers of “populism and nationalism” (as his campaign website currently does), he needs to embrace U.S. nationalism and wrap himself in the flag. Instead of describing a “Plan for Central America” (a tab on his website), he should label it a “Plan for Protecting America.” Whenever he talks about foreign policy, in short, he needs to make it clear that his first priority is doing what is best for the American people, not only because that is ultimately his principal responsibility, but also because that is necessary to win votes.

The irony is that Biden himself is actually more patriotic—indeed, nationalistic—than Trump. Consider, for example, that Trump has repeatedly disparaged the men and women have made great sacrifices on behalf of the nation. He declined to attend a ceremony honoring World War I dead in 2018 (in his defense, it was raining that day), and reportedly referred to the dead interred in the cemetery as “losers” and “suckers” who didn’t deserve presidential attention. He repeatedly mocked the late Sen. John McCain for having been taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, and expressed undisguised contempt for the retired generals that he chose to appoint to high positions. He has been equally disdainful of the intelligence agencies, the FBI, and other institutions of government. These organizations and the individuals who work in them should not be exempt from criticism, of course, but Trump’s disregard for those who have made genuine sacrifices for the country reveal a patriotism that is paper-thin. In Trump’s world, narcissism beats nationalism almost every day.

Finally, Trump has given Biden a potent weapon that he can use to challenge Trump’s portrayal of himself as an ardent nationalist. At its core, nationalism fosters a powerful sense of unity among a large body of people, the vast majority of whom have never met each other. People are made to feel like they are all part of a nation with a common purpose, even though most of their fellow citizens are strangers. In a world that can sometimes be very dangerous, sustaining that “imagined community”—to use Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase—is critical to national success and survival. It is the sentiment captured by the traditional American motto: e pluribus unum.

Despite portraying himself as a nationalist, Trump has spent his four years in the White House dividing the nation, not bringing it together. The country is more polarized now than when he took office, and there is no reason to think that situation is going to change if he gets reelected. Trump specializes in casting blame and sowing division, which is the last thing the United States needs at this point. Americans need national unity. They need smart nationalism. Thus, Biden is ideally situated to aid his own cause by reminding them that they are far better off when they are united, and that forging a new sense of common purpose and identity will be his top priority.

Biden needs to focus laser-like on this message and constantly emphasize it in the weeks ahead. With every speech and TV ad, he needs to make it clear that the United States’ greatness depends on preserving a strong sense of national unity. A more perfect union does not require Americans to agree about every issue confronting them, but it does require them to stop seeing each other as the enemy and to turn their backs on a president whose political futures depend on dividing them further.

None of this is to say that Biden should abandon his equally deep commitment to traditional liberal values: democracy, the rule of law, free speech, and the like. Indeed, he should do no such thing. But he also needs to make it clear that he is an American patriot and that his primary commitment is to the American people. Otherwise, he is surrendering a powerful weapon to Trump, who will use it for his advantage in 2020, just as he did in 2016.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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