Donald Trump is running the most explicitly nationalist presidential campaign since Theodore Roosevelt, an American president from the early 20th century known for his role in the Progressive movement.
I feel like the biographical information is important because Roosevelt may have been many things – he was a bit too exuberant with his executive authority, for example, and often saw the U.S. Constitution as an impediment to social progress. But Roosevelt wasn’t Adolf Hitler, another well-known nationalist who was also a genocidal madman and one of history’s worst monsters.
Too many people see “nationalist” and jump straight to Hitler and Nazi Germany. That’s a mistake.
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It’s a mistake that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is only too happy to perpetuate.
In a private conversation with donors in February, Clinton spoke of “a strain of … the kind of populist, nationalist, xenophobic, discriminatory kind of approach that we hear too much of from the Republican candidates.” In that same conversation, she referred to Bernie Sanders’ supporters somewhat snidely as “children of the Great Recession … living in their parents’ basement.”
Populist. Nationalist. Xenophobic. At least one of those things is not like the other.
Nationalism is one of those “deplorable” terms – like “America First,” come to think of it – that has been beaten and shorthanded to death by historians and pundits who have a particular story to tell or a narrative to sell.
The America First Committee before World War II consisted of a broad coalition of people – including future President Gerald Ford, liberal Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright – who opposed the U.S. entry into the war in Europe for a variety of reasons. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was the committee’s national spokesman. He was emphatically not a fascist or a Nazi sympathizer. He did deliver one speech in which he spoke derisively of Jewish Americans. The speech was pilloried in newspapers across the country. Partly as a result, the anti-war effort was tagged as anti-Semitic.
World War II and its aftermath did similar damage to the idea nationalism. National socialism, after all, was a nationalist movement. Italian fascism was a nationalist movement. The Baath parties of Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were national socialist in orientation.
Does that mean Trump’s nationalism is national socialism, too? Trump has been characterized as a wannabe Hitler or a would-be Caesar, but his nationalism and the nationalist sentiment of many of his supporters is quintessentially American.
Nationalism and Americanism, in fact, have gone hand in hand from the beginning.
Alexander Hamilton was a nationalist. The federal system he helped design and put into effect united disparate states and regions under a national banner.
Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln were nationalists. Webster, in his great debate in 1830 with Robert Hayne of South Carolina over “internal improvements” (what we would call infrastructure), argued that the federal government isn’t the servant of the states, but the people.
In remarks that presaged Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Webster said, “It is, Sir, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people” – not the states and not a nameless, faceless class of bureaucrats unelected and unaccountable to no one.
Webster made the case for nationalism, but Lincoln settled the question of whether America would be a loose association of sovereign states or one nation, indivisible.
By the time Teddy Roosevelt came on the national scene at the turn of the 20th century, the United States was on the cusp of becoming a world power. Roosevelt worried – along with many Progressives of his time – that mass immigration and millions of unassimilated newcomers would undermine national unity and change the fundamental character of the republic. He railed against racial and ethnic separatism and instead made the case for the “melting pot.”
“It is not only necessary to Americanize the immigrants of foreign birth who settle among us,” Roosevelt wrote in 1894, “but it is even more necessary for those among us who are by birth and descent already Americans not to throw away our birthright.”
The relentless and unapologetic nationalism of Hamilton, Webster, Lincoln and TR has been supplanted over time by multiculturalism and globalism. And so, when we talk about immigration today, we hear little if anything about the “melting pot” or assimilation. Instead, our self-appointed betters respond to criticism of open borders and skepticism of liberal immigration policies with the passive-aggressive catchphrase, “That’s not who we are.”
But as my colleague Chris Buskirk pointed out recently in an essay at American Greatness, the response “assumes there is a definable and exclusive ‘we’ – a distinct American people, citizens of the United States living in a certain place under a particular set of laws and united by a common set of ideas.”
The resurgent nationalism we see with the Trump campaign isn’t knee-jerk bigotry or mere xenophobia, as some would have it, so much as an antidote to globalism, which has caused all manner of havoc.
“Globalization has a unifying dimension, which we rightly applaud,” writes R.R. Reno at the conservative religious journal First Things. “At the same time, though, globalization is associated with economic and cultural changes that are dissolving inherited forms of solidarity – the nation foremost, but local communities, as well, and even the family.”
“This dissolution,” Reno continues, “encourages an atomistic individualism, which in turn makes all of us more vulnerable to domination and control.”
Reno perceptively notes that Islamic extremism thrives where “traditional Muslim societies are disintegrated by the pressures of globalization.”
Reno argues for a Christian nationalism, “one that encourages the unity of mankind while recognizing that human beings thrive best as members of a particular people and as proud recipients of a distinctive cultural inheritance.” The trouble, of course, is that the United States is a post-Christian nation. We were never a Christian nation officially, but had until recently been one culturally. No more.
Trump’s nationalism is a post-Christian nationalism, but one that harks back to the Americanism of the Founders, of Lincoln, and of TR.
Why only two cheers then?
Because nationalism, like any other -ism, can and often has been taken to illogical extremes that are antithetical to natural rights and human freedoms. But the national agenda that Trump espouses is hardly outside the American mainstream. It may be imperfect, messy and contradictory perhaps, but also it’s liberating and fiercely protective of what makes America America.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness, a new journal of conservative opinion. Contacted him at firstname.lastname@example.org.