Trump’s Unifying Nationalism

Syndicated Columnist

Donald Trump gave a notably unifying State of the Union address that didn’t back down an inch from his controversial nationalism.

This might sound like a contradiction. It’s not. It’s a step toward fulfilling the political promise of his style of nationalism that could appeal much more broadly than to Trump’s intensely devoted base.

Nationalism shouldn’t be synonymous with Trump’s crudity of expression. It doesn’t mean yelling at rallies, or tweeting inflammatory messages, or insulting political adversaries — all of which could more legitimately be pinned on Trump’s populism, or more fundamentally, his personality.

Rather, it is an American tradition that runs through Alexander Hamilton, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

A true American nationalism should be grounded in our common citizenship, champion popular sovereignty, and exult in our history, culture and ideals. It should the enemy of identity politics (“white nationalism” and “black nationalism” are contradictions in terms). It should be expressed in first-person plural, rather than in the first-person singular.

To say that Trump has often fallen short of these standards is an understatement. With Trump, the theory has always been racing, haphazardly, to catch up to his instincts, and risks getting overwhelming by his outrageousness.

What’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism? Often the words are simply used to denote what people like or don’t like. Everything good is attributed to patriotism; everything undesirable to nationalism.

The scholar Gregory Jusdanis offers a more precise definition, in which nationalism is the substantive political expression of the positive emotion we call patriotism. “Patriotism refers to the feelings of affection and attachment of a people toward the nation,” he writes. “Nationalism, however, is a discourse that tries to foster a collective sense of belonging among a population with the aim of declaring and maintaining political sovereignty.”

There are countless ways to slice it. The great neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol wrote in the 1980s, “Patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. Nationalism in our time is probably the most powerful of political emotions.”

There is no doubt about the power of national feeling. There are only a few things that human beings will give their lives to protect — their family, their faith and their country among them.

If you don’t think you are subject to the pull of nationalism, you are probably mistaken. The social psychologist Michael Billig wrote an influential book arguing that it is part of the air we breathe as citizens of modern nation-states. He coined the term “banal nationalism” to denote all the routine ways in which we are reminded of our nationhood — flags, anthems and so forth.

“Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition,” Billig writes. “The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”

To extend the metaphor, during his political rise, Trump noticed the flag when other political players neglected it.

Nationalism had always been part of the conservatism’s appeal, although contemporary Republicans lost touch with it under the influence of tendencies that became more important in recent decades: libertarianism, humanitarian universalism and the cosmopolitanism of a globe-trotting business elite.

For the left, nationalism has become simply a swear word—a crimped, small-minded perspective inevitably tinged with racism. It associates nationalism with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century, and considers any expression of it as borderline dangerous.

If nationalism were tantamount to fascism, though, England and America — the countries that forged modern nationalism, as we know it—would have succumbed to jack-booted thugs a few centuries ago.

Instead, the idea that the nation belonged to the people rather than the crown led to the curtailment of the monarchy in England and its end in America.

The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the announcement of the arrival of a nation-state, assuming a “separate and equal station” in the world. From the very beginning, America had a prickly pride, a belief in its own greatness and mission, a hatred of foreign interference and an abiding belief that it should be self-governing.

Even a universalist like Thomas Paine wrote of the union of the states: “On this our great national character depends. It is this which must give us importance abroad and security at home. It is through this only that we are, or can be, nationally known in the world; it is the flag of the United States which renders our ships and commerce safe on the seas, or in a foreign port.” American nationalism has had different and competing permutations down through the centuries, but there is no need to invent a nationalist tradition in this country; it need only be rediscovered and renovated.

This is the larger political and intellectual challenge for Trumpism. In the meantime, in the sheer political terms, his State of the Union usefully trafficked in a banal nationalism.

(Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.)