Nationalism is back. President Trump proudly proclaims it with his America First stance. He’s quite explicit about it, too. “You know what I am?” he told a crowd at a rally ahead of the midterms. “I’m a nationalist, OK?”
Meantime, proponents of nationalism are on the rise in countries from Hungary to Poland in Eastern Europe. Which worries people. French President Emmanuel Macron speaks for much of Western Europe, the Left in America and even a significant portion of the conservative movement here at home when he denounces Trump’s nationalism as dangerous and nativist. As David Bowie proclaimed in song, speaking for many today who are wary of nationalism, there are “visions of swastikas in my head.”
There are several fallacies in this reasoning. Nationalism in Europe is very different from the American version. What nationalism portends for Eastern Europe, we will leave to them and we can excuse Europeans lacking a firm grasp of American history. But for the American Left and Trump’s conservative critics here at home, ignorance is no excuse for sowing confusion.
Part of the challenge is the lazy tendency to conflate all nationalist expression with the very worst tendencies in history. Put simply: American nationalism isn’t the same as national socialism. Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini. Yet almost any discussion of nationalism begins and ends with Hitler’s National Socialism. In the same manner that one cannot discuss “appeasement” or even diplomacy without bowing to the Gods of Munich, one cannot utter a nationalist sentiment without drawing Hitlerian parallels. While this may be understandable—nobody wants to go through that hell again—it’s also vastly misleading. Not every move toward diplomacy or compromise in foreign affairs is the next “Munich.” Not every appeal to nationalism is a precursor to the lamps of freedom extinguishing across America and Europe.
After all, our history didn’t begin in the early 1930s. Europeans still may need to do some soul searching into what nationalism wrought in their recent past, but we can define nationalism based on our own uniquely American history.
America’s Hybrid Nationalism
As with everything Trump-related, his harshest critics often come from the Right. Thinkers such as Ben Shapiro and Jonah Goldberg are ever warning us about the dangers of Trump’s call for nationalism. Shapiro has never been subtle in stating his belief that during the campaign and particularly after Charlottesville, Trump made winks and nods to the alt-Right, thus embellishing his nationalism with a racial tone. Jonah Goldberg, meanwhile, has been drawing Mussolini parallels to Trump since early in the 2016 presidential campaign. The consensus among the so-called conservative critics is that Trump champions a “European” style of nationalism.
This interpretation of Trump reveals more emotion about Trump the person then it does sound reasoning and knowledge of historical fact.
American nationalism was formed and solidified in the early to mid-19th century under the leadership of the great second generation of American statesmen, in the persons of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, James Polk and others. Clay promoted an “American System” based on three pillars: internal improvements, high tariffs, and a national bank. Clay and Calhoun led a group in Congress that flew under the banner of “war hawks.” They were responsible for leading the nation into war with Great Britain in 1812, a war that saved what the Founders had bequeathed to us. These men called for a robust movement to settle the West in what would become a shared belief in our “manifest destiny.” Their efforts helped forge 13 disparate quarreling colonies into a true nation.
American nationalism unlike German or French nationalism, has never been rooted in ethnicity. From our nation’s beginnings, we have constituted a hybrid, part Anglo-Saxon culture and part idea. America’s identity is based on a shared language and customs, on the English rule of law certainly, but also in the idea of America birthed by the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.
By the 1830s, America was different from what it had been 200 years prior at Plymouth Rock, and it was changing by the day. Nationalism in America had already acquired a distinct flavor—nothing at all like the nationalism that would take hold in a newly formed Germany a few decades hence. For all that American nationalism is and has been, it has never been a nationalism of “blood and soil.”
Heirs to the Founding
To think that Donald Trump is calling forth a blood and soil racial supremacist nationalism in the manner of Mussolini or Hitler is preposterous. Worse, it is willfully ignorant. Many conservative “thinkers” snicker at the thought that Trump has any governing philosophy or would even understand the intellectual concepts of American nationalism. So we’re supposed to think instead that he’s clued into the thinking of Italian fascism circa 1928? It is much more likely that he has grasps the essential nationalism and patriotism of America’s early giants.
Conservative critics use Trump’s emphasis on nationalism to insinuate that he lacks intellectual principles or the ability to formulate a more complex political philosophy. Ben Shapiro has written that Trump has no philosophy, just “attitudes” or impulses. Was Henry Clay nothing but attitude? Trump believes in many of the principles that girded the “American System” and the philosophy of what author H.W. Brands titled the “Heirs of the Founders.” These include a central government that supports internal improvements (infrastructure), high tariffs to go along with a robust and nationalist policy of Manifest Destiny, and national sovereignty.
Shapiro would counter that tariffs are not conservative. But if that is the case, who is defining what’s conservative? A policy rooted in our shared national history or one dictated by Paul Ryan’s “conservatism”? As Walter A. McDougall writes in Throes of Democracy, the modern day labels of conservative and liberal don’t apply to the libertarian Democrats and statist Whigs of the 1800s.
We need to stop using the labels of today when we think back on American history and we certainly need to rethink the entire conservative/liberal paradigm as we look ahead. Contrary to what the “thinkers” at National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary may say, Trump is changing what it means to be a “conservative.” He is not looking to Europe and the nationalists of the 1930s but he drawing on the spirit and the history of America’s founding and early decades, looking to the great men who solidified a great nation.
We can call it whatever we want, but theirs is the intellectual heritage that Trump is harking back to when he speaks of American nationalism. Clay, Jackson, Polk and the rest had flaws, God knows. The Left holds as a matter of faith and doctrine that America was founded on racism, imperialism, slavery, and exploitation large and small. Is that what our contemporary “conservatives” now think, too?
The truth is, America’s first nationalists took the reins from the founding generation and secured America’s future as a growing power. America came of age during in the 19th century and the imprint that period left is still very much with us today. When Donald Trump talks about “America First,” he’s calling upon a long and noble tradition of fighting for the country’s best interests.
Trump yearns for an America that can fulfill its destiny. We can argue about what that destiny might be, but European-style jackbooted racial supremacy and tyranny, it most certainly is not.
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