Nationalism has many bad connotations, but at its root it is commonplace. Its ideology is simple: every nation deserves its own state, which, in turn, enables that nation to fulfill its destiny while building on its history. Before it became punny, Craig Calhoun called nationalism the trump card of identities and ideologies.
Trump articulated that vision on February 28 while celebrating every nation’s right to “chart their own path.” As every nation, our nation is special, but perhaps a bit more special than others. By celebrating greatness, pride, and optimism as key ingredients of the enduring American spirit, the USA can lead the world, Trump suggested. That may be what Trump’s advisor had in mind when he declared earlier in the week at the CPAC meeting that the USA is “a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”
Every nation may be special but the structures into which every nation pours its soul are relatively consistent. Those structures are, however, also always contradictory. The articulation of any nation has clear alternatives built within it whose mobilizations can ensure legitimacy or move its crisis. Both were present in Trump’s speech.
When mobilizing nationalism, nearly every nation recognizes soldiers whose ultimate sacrifices seal the sanctity of the national bond. But moving a nation into unjust wars, or into bungled missions, can delegitimate a nation’s leadership. Ryan Owens’ martyrdom deserves mourning, but for just that reason, his father’s challenge to Trump is all the more powerful.
Nationalism needs enemies to flourish, but how one names them is itself a choice. Bad Dudes might be good, for nobody I know belongs to that religion. Drug dealers and criminals are also relatively good enemies, but when it comes to gang members, it can get complicated. It’s not always easy to distinguish groups of Bad Dudes and people of color who congregate outside their homes. Indeed, when this discourse combines with mixed messages on deportation whose practice has already ruined families and communities, one can see why trust in Trump’s vision of the nation suffers.
Trump also has embraced a position controversial among those with expertise and experience in international affairs: to name the enemy without “Radical Islamic Terrorism”. For the same reasons many Christians resent others’ association of them with White Supremacists who terrorize communities of color, substantial parts of the Muslim world, and our own Muslim citizens and residents and their allies, find the problem to be in terror, not in religion. But if you believe that the world approaches a clash between Christianity and Islam, as Trump advisor Bannon is reputed to believe, the name is perfect. It mobilizes religious division and distrust magnificently. Racial division in American nationalism is harder to articulate, even if it is also more familiar.
President Trump began his speech by recognizing African American history month, and speaks of civil rights in the language of educational choice. It’s clear that American nationalism cannot speak too crudely in racist terms to be legitimate, but it is clear that whiteness remains the race of reference. President Trump has cleaned up his language – when scripted he does not “other” people of color by marking them with “the” – the African Americans, for example. He would never speak of “the Whites” of course. Clearly it helps to follow the monitor when presenting a culturally complex message. Trump’s articulation of the nation is also, however, an economically complex message.
Where President Trump departs most from previous administrations is in his economic nationalism (although he does, apparently, resemble George Wallace). It’s not too different from how I grew up in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, actually. Once the home of now bankrupt Bethlehem Steel, all classes working in the industry could not drive a foreign car. “Buy American” defined livelihoods. Of course neoliberalism’s globalization changed all that, diminishing the steel industry and other manufacturing sectors. President Trump mobilizes that resentment of decline with his own nationalism, focusing on unfair trading practices (while conveniently ignoring technological changes). Economic nationalism is not intrinsically wrong, but it is a lot more complex to manage than even health care reform, which the President now recognizes as rather complex.
Even here, however, economic nationalism is not focused on lifting all boats in the national sea. While we all might benefit from rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure (state-led development!!!), those jobs building for the private sector are not so public. More clearly than anything else, the President’s promise to require American-made steel in building the pipelines that Native Americans, environmental activists and others opposed, and thought they stopped, is, to the say the least, contentious. In this case, instead of building a green economy dedicated to public health, Trump’s economic nationalism pits the hunger of (potentially) union labor looking for jobs against other American citizens who have risked much to defend their way of life, and the future for us all.
Beneath every nationalism, then, is a choice about which nation is being celebrated. The trick of nationalism is to distract us from divisions of power and privilege and to declare that we all bleed red. That may be true, but it’s not at all clear that we all see truth (which, with liberty and justice, Trump claims to be the centerpiece of the American nation) in the same way.
*At the invitation of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I published a shorter version of this essay on March 1, 2017. It clearly builds on my previous work on the sociology of the nation.