Anyone who has ever read an undergraduate essay likely knows that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. There is, however, a corollary to Santayana’s trite warning: those who look at the present only through the past are condemned to misunderstand it.
This historical distortion is readily apparent in the overwrought reaction to the nationalist message that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. Among the bien pensants, the term “nationalism” has become a synonym for xenophobia and jingoism. Unless used to describe a valiant anti-colonial movement, it inevitably evokes the horrors of last century’s blood-and-soil European nationalism, in particular fascism and Nazism.
Bill Ayers, Cornell West and other members of the group Resist Fascism recently took out a full page ad in The New York Times in which they invoked Nazi Germany, Hitler and xenophobic nationalism to denounce Trump. “No! In the Name of Humanity We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!” they proclaimed.
Less than a week after the election, Barack Obama had already warned that “we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.” “The 20th century was a bloodbath,” he added.
Trump’s nationalism, however, is fundamentally different from earlier volkish nationalisms. For one, it does not define the nation in racial or religious terms. Not once in the campaign did Trump imply, much less say, that America is a white country or a Christian nation. In fact, as he said in his inaugural address whose underlying theme was solidarity: “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
Some of those who voted for him, it is true, think of America in narrower ethnic or religious terms, but no presidential candidate can be held accountable for the private opinions of every last one of his millions of supporters.
Trump’s strong stance on immigration is not driven by a desire to preserve America’s racial purity. It grows out of legitimate concerns about terrorism (in the case of Muslim immigrants), the rule of law (in the case of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere), and more generally, social cohesion and the well-being of American workers of all races and religions.
One need not share his concerns or agree with his policies to see that his is not a nationalism of the blood. Trump, it is worth remembering, hails from the greatest cosmopolitan city the world has ever known. He is an American—but he is also a New Yorker.
Unlike the ethnic nationalism which scarred the last century, Trump’s nationalism is not directed internally against citizens deemed to belong to “foreign” minority groups. Rather its primary targets are the foreign countries that take advantage of America on the world stage.
When Trump looks at the world, he does not delude himself into imagining a global community working in harmony to address common challenges. He sees the world as Thucydides and Hobbes saw it: nations competing with one another for economic gain, but also for honor. “We proudly defend America at every single turn,” he explained during the campaign. “America will get the respect it deserves.”
At home, Trump’s targets are the elites from both parties who undercut American workers to advance their globalist agenda. He does not look at the country through the usual Left-Right prism, but through a populist lens that pits a corrupt elite against ordinary Americans—“the forgotten men and women of our country” in his Rooseveltian retelling. In so doing, Trump also rejects the divisiveness of identity politics and affirms the unity of the American people.
“For too long, Washington has tried to put us in boxes,” he explained after the election. “They separate us by race, by age, by income, by place of birth, and by geography. They spend too much time focusing on what divides us. Now is the time to embrace the one thing that truly unites us. You know what that is? America.”
In an age of globalization, transnationalism, and ever more porous borders, Trumpian nationalism is a healthy and necessary re-assertion of the primacy of the nation-state in world affairs and of the interests of all American citizens in domestic politics. Trumpism represents not the rebirth of an older European ethnic nationalism, but instead constitutes a re-affirmation of American civic nationalism to deal with the realities of the 21st century.
This piece originally appeared in RealClearPolitics