Donald Trump finally came out as a nationalist last month. The president thrilled the crowd at a Ted Cruz rally by declaring, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!” Reactions were predictable. Liberals gnashed their teeth, Breitbart cheered, and white supremacists called it the greatest thing since Birth of a Nation.
America’s European allies have condemned Trump’s embrace of nationalism. French President Emanuel Macron declared on Nov. 11 that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” To Macron, nationalism, exemplified by Trump’s “America First” slogan, means “pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others.” The proper attitude of loyalty to one’s nation, Macron said, is patriotism, which he said is “the exact opposite of nationalism.”
The elusive distinction between patriotism and nationalism, however, does not really explain the dispute between Trump and Macron or what makes the Trump presidency such a radical break with American traditions.
Patriotism is generally understood to mean citizens’ love and loyalty to their country. How it differs from nationalism is not altogether clear, in part because nationalism has no agreed meaning. The term comes freighted with associations with dangerous and violent right-wing movements throughout history, including fascism, separatist movements like those of the Basques or Kurds, and racist movements like white nationalism. Some political scientists use nationalism to mean an extreme devotion to the nation, in which loyalty to the nation outweighs all other interests. Others use the term in a less negative way to mean simply the belief that a community sharing certain common attributes (shared values, culture, language, race, or religion) is entitled to self-rule. In this latter understanding, every citizen who is loyal to the nation is a nationalist.
Trump’s use of the label elides these distinctions. He explained that his embrace of the term nationalist is just another way of saying “America First.” As he explained to Laura Ingraham, “It means I love the country. It means I’m fighting for the country.” For Trump, the opposite of nationalism is not patriotism but “globalism.” By Trump’s account, all recent presidents have been globalists, not nationalists: “For many, many years … our leaders have been more worried about the world than they have about the United States and they leave us in the mess.”
For decades, U.S. presidents have shied away from calling themselves nationalists and have preferred to describe their enthusiasm for the state as patriotism. The most recent president to describe himself as a nationalist was Teddy Roosevelt, who called his progressive agenda a “New Nationalism,” but that was before the associations between nationalism and extremism had become fixed. By embracing the term today, Trump is clearly trying to goad his adversaries and cheer his supporters, like the loyalists at Breitbart, who routinely divide political figures into nationalist and globalist categories. (A quick search of Breitbart finds more than 400 articles that refer to the French president as “Globalist Macron.”) It takes little scratching under the surface to recognize that in the Breitbart world, globalist is a code word frequently employed to describe the supposed Jewish control of banking, the media, and the levers of political power.
In distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism, Macron echoed George Orwell, who in the immediate aftermath of World War II condemned the excesses of German and Italian nationalism while praising proper British patriotism. Like Macron, Orwell understood nationalism to mean a devotion to the state that is paramount to other interests. To Orwell, a patriot, in contrast, had more modest devotion to the nation, “which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”
Although it may be comforting to think of our own feelings of loyalty to the state as falling within the healthy range of patriotism and not veering into the excessive devotion of nationalism, the distinction between the two still proves elusive.
Macron and Orwell suggest that nationalists believe that national loyalty supersedes other interests. Yet patriots too believe that loyalty to the state can require sacrificing all interests, even one’s life, to defend the nation. Orwell also argues that nationalists support aggressively advancing national interests, while patriots will act only to defend the nation. But whether an act is aggressive or defensive is often in the eye of the beholder. To their supporters, the war in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq were patriotic acts to defend the nation’s interests, while opponents saw them as wars of nationalist aggression.
The distinction between patriotism and nationalism has a Goldilocks quality. It suggests that nationalists have too much devotion to their nation, while patriots have just the right amount. But how much devotion to one’s nation is too much? As sociologist Michael Billig has explained, labeling our loyalty to the state as patriotism serves to obscure nationalist dangers within established nations:
“Our” loyalties to “our” nation-state can be defended, even praised. A rhetorical distinction is necessary for accomplishing this defence. “Our” nationalism is not presented as nationalism, which is dangerously irrational, surplus and alien. A new identity, a different label, is found for it. “Our” nationalism appears as “patriotism.”
Macron is right to call out Trump for making a radical break with past American commitments, but what makes Trump radical cannot be explained by saying that he is a nationalist rather than merely a patriot. What makes the Trump presidency radical is his vision for the nation. For decades, the cornerstone of American nationalism, embraced by presidents of both parties, has been constitutional nationalism, the belief that what binds the nation together is a commitment to a core set of values found primarily in its founding documents. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in 1943:
The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.
Every president elected from Roosevelt until Trump declared their adherence to the conviction that despite differences in our backgrounds, Americans share a common creed founded in the Constitution. In his inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared, “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds.” Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, agreed: “What binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea.”
Constitutional nationalism has likewise informed American foreign policy, which was built on creating international alliances and an international legal regime that, at least nominally, is committed to protecting many of the same principles of liberty, equality, and self-rule found in the Constitution.
Although the content of the nation’s fundamental principles has often been disputed, presidential declarations that the nation shares a common creed convey the aspiration that the nation should strive to fulfill its ideals, that one day the nation may, in Martin Luther King’s words, “rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed.” As Obama put it, “Each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”
Trump doesn’t talk like this. His inaugural address did not mention the Constitution, the nation’s founding principles, or any sort of shared commitment to liberty or equality. Instead, he painted a terrifying picture of a nation under siege, in which gangs, drugs, and crime have destroyed America’s cities, while rusted factories lie “scattered like tombstones across the landscape.”
At the core of Trump’s national vision is a more-or-less explicitly racial, gendered, and religious narrative of grievance, in which liberals, women, and racial minorities have attacked and undermined what was once great about the nation.
His foreign policy is built around the same narrative of American victimization. Past presidents have allowed our NATO allies and trade partners to rip us off, he declared. American humiliation abroad has been a constant Trump theme, and more than 100 times Trump has complained that “the world is laughing at us.”
For Trump, the solution at home and abroad is much the same. In his inaugural address, he promised, “This American carnage stops right here and right now.” Ending the nation’s humiliation and restoring our national greatness means building a wall to keep out the Mexican rapists and thugs, stopping Muslims from entering the country, and ending legal immigration from “shithole countries.” It means tearing up treaties written to humiliate us. It means rejecting so-called allies who mooch from us and don’t respect us.
The radical nationalist vision at the heart of the Trump presidency is simply unrecognizable for a nation committed to a common creed founded on the Constitution. The Trump presidency represents a sharp break from American traditions because of the content of that vision, not the label nationalism.