Why the Left and Right Can Embrace Nationalism
Donald Trump’s election represented a victory for American nationalism, a sentiment many on the left and right have taken to represent everything that is vile in our politics. In the Washington Post, Max Boot identifies it with ethnic and racial prejudice. From the right, Jonah Goldberg contrasts the nationalism employed by authoritarians to the honest patriotism of John McCain.
And yet Americans are nationalists, and there’s nothing ignoble about American nationalism. You can’t be a racist if you’re an American nationalist. The racist will find too many things about America he doesn’t like. You can be an American if you don’t like Aretha Franklin, Scott Joplin and Langston Hughes. It’s just that you’ll be a bit more American if you do like them. Go through Trump’s speeches and that’s the kind of nationalism he was talking about.
If you’re an American nationalist, you’re also going to identify with the country’s core liberal values. In other countries, a national identity might be based on its culture or race. Not us. The icons of American nationhood, the things that make us American, are the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Deny them, and you’re less of an American.
The American nationalist has to embrace all of his fellow citizens. He can’t say, as Hillary Clinton did, that thankfully the deplorables aren’t America. Because they are Americans, and nationalists must have a sense of fraternity with all kinds of Americans.
That’s where nationalism differs from patriotism. The patriot willingly sacrifices for his country, and that’s why we admire people like John McCain. But nationalism implies something in addition, a sense of community and fellow feeling with other Americans.
Nationalism makes for a more trusting society. The more that people share a national identity, the more they’ll find it easier to reach agreements with other people and rely on their promises of performance. They’ll not expect them to welch on their commitments and they’ll count on them to make good on the kinds of promises that courts imperfectly enforce, such as doing a workman-like paint job, or the promises that courts could never enforce. I will take your side. I will not betray you. That’s why philosopher Jon Elster calls trust the cement of society, and why trusting societies are wealthier ones.
A few right-wingers have recently discovered nationalism, and they’re in love with it. It lets them hate the things right-wingers love to hate: The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights; universal jurisdiction for war crimes; refugees. But if they thought more closely about nationalism they’d discover they can’t be nationalists. It comes with too much baggage that they dislike.
Nationalism pulls one leftward on economics, since its sense of fellow feeling asks one to support social welfare programs for fellow citizens. Not illegal aliens, mind you. The nationalist will distinguish between these aliens and citizens, but what he’d deny the former he will pay extra to give to the latter. Otherwise the pose of nationalism is a pious fraud.
The nationalist will not want fellow citizens to die on the street for lack of proper medical care. That’s why “right-wing nationalism” is a contradiction in terms, and why smarter right-wingers are free-trading globalists of the Charles Koch variety.
What about the left? Sadly, its anti-nationalism repudiates an honorable tradition of fraternity in the Democratic Party and dismisses the strongest of reasons to help those in need. It demands universal health care as a right, but this assumes a correlative duty, and such duties are not owed to foreigners. The better argument for universal health care is that it’s something a nationalist owes to his fellow citizens. Properly understood, nationalism is a progressive creed, and the left has made an enormous blunder in refusing to rely on nationalist sentiments and the solidarity they foster.
That created the opening for Trump’s victorious campaign, which was fought in two fronts. Against the left he presented himself as a cultural nationalist, and against the right he campaigned as an economic nationalist. The second campaign was less noticed, but amounted to a revolution in American politics.
On stage in the 2012 presidential debates, the Republican candidates were asked whether they’d agree to raise taxes on people making over $250,000 in return for eliminating every wretched interest group perk in the U.S. Tax Code. And every one of them said no. That was the death knell of the old Republican Party. It won’t come back.
In 2016 Trump ran to the left of the other Republicans. Let them talk about entitlement reform -- he didn’t want to touch it. He told us he wanted something more than a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He wanted to repeal it and replace it with something better. And in so doing he found himself in the sweet spot in American politics, the place where presidential elections are won: middle of the road on economics but nationalistic and conservative on social issues.
That’s a wining platform in every other First World country. When Trump destroyed the Republican Party of Paul Ryan, he replaced it with a non-ideological party that more closely resembles the conservatives of Britain and France, and that’s why it’s so misleading to call him a populist. Suspicious of free traders, the opponent of Whiggish oligarchs, the supporter of national institutions -- that was Benjamin Disraeli. Some populist!
And that’s also why, if you call Trump right-wing, you’ve completely missed the point. He in essence called his new party the Republican Workers Party, and unless the Democrats somehow find a way to return to their roots, it’s the future of American presidential politics.