Members Only | October 30, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump Is the Wrong Kind of Nationalist

Liberals made democracy liberal. They can do the same to nationalism.

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Honest conservatives, sometimes called anti-Trump Republicans, have their work cut out for them. Not only must they face the reality of having lost nearly all influence on the party they once called home. They must mount a rear-guard action against liberals who allege that conservative ideology has always been despotism in disguise.

With every day that goes by, it’s harder not to see the specter of monarchy lurking, often overtly, among Republicans who would otherwise rail against “big government” Democrats. It’s as if they long secretly for the emergence of an American king.

Newt Gingrich said investments in Brett Kavanaugh will yield dividends if the Supreme Court blocks attempts to release Donald Trump’s tax returns. Brian Kemp, the GOP candidate for Georgia governor, said Jimmy Carter’s nonpartisan call for transparency in managing the state’s voter rolls amounted to “dirty tricks.”

Press Secretary Sarah Sander did not rule out Monday the possibility of suspending habeas corpus in an effort to block the so-called “migrant caravan” that’s still a thousand miles and two months away. She did not rule out suspension of posse comitatus restrictions, which bar the military from operating inside the US border. Most tellingly, Trump said he will sign an executive order ending the constitutional guarantee that persons born or naturalized here are American citizens.

Trump can’t repeal the 14th Amendment by executive fiat. Neither can he suspend other constitutional rights. But that doesn’t matter to Republicans who may not know a president can’t do that. That doesn’t matter to Republicans who may actually want a president to have that kind of power. That doesn’t matter to Republicans who don’t mind having a despot ruling America, as long as the despot is a Republican.

Understand the thinking: This nation was given by God to Europeans to settle and civilize. It is now being attacked and overrun by immigrants seeking not to be American but to suck the life force out of the nation. Furthermore, anyone defending alien marauders, meaning we liberals, betray the spirit of Americanism. As Klan leader Hiram Evans said in 1926: “Liberalism is today charged in the mind of most Americans with nothing less than national, racial and spiritual treason.”

I’m a nationalist,” the president said at a recent political rally. “I’m proud of this country and I call that ‘nationalism’; I call it being a nationalist and I don’t see any other connotation than that,” Trump told Fox’s Laura Ingraham last night.

David Brooks demurred. “You can’t be a nationalist if you despise half the nation—any more than you can be a good father if you despise half your children,” he wrote. “You can’t be a nationalist if you think that groups in a nation are in a zero-sum conflict with one another—class against class, race against race, tribe against tribe.

You can’t be nationalist if you despise diversity. American is diversity; if you don’t love diversity, you are not an American nationalist.

Brooks is wrong. You can be a nationalist by despising half the nation. Henry Clay was a nationalist. Daniel Webster was a nationalist. Both compromised with Southern slavers, drawing ire and condemnation from liberal New England abolitionists.

But Brooks is right, too. You can’t despise half the country and be a liberal nationalist. Oddly, for an honest conservative without a party, who is part of a rear-guard action against allegations of closet monarchism, Brooks has arrived at an unexpected place.

“Liberal democracy” is something we all think we understand, because liberalism, as it is historically defined, is now synonymous with democracy. But it wasn’t always that way. For the founders, democracy was another word for disorder, chaos and violence. It meant being concerned about one’s interests more than the nation’s interests. It stood in opposition of the common good. Democracy, to the founders, was illiberal.

It wasn’t until Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III, was elected president of France by direct vote that liberals conceded that there was no stopping democracy and universal suffrage. (Bonaparte ruled as a populist authoritarian friendly to the French working class; sound familiar?) The goal, liberals came to believe, wasn’t stopping democracy. The goal, they argued, was making sure that it was liberal.

Since 2016, we’ve heard a lot about threats to democracy posed by right-wing nationalism in the US, in Europe and other places around the world. But democracy will survive. It just might not be a democracy that we want. It won’t be liberal.

Instead of saying the president isn’t a nationalist, we should be saying Trump isn’t the kind of nationalist we want. The liberal kind is equally patriotic and equally focused on taking care of Americans right now. But it’s also inclusive in its vision, egalitarian in its practice and willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of res publica.

More importantly, liberal nationalism is moral. Not in a religious way, but in ways that make plenty of room for religion. It should be concerned about rights but also responsibilities. It should be concerned about freedoms but also duties. It should be concerned about individuals but also communities in which individuals live. In short, liberals may have to face a reality and a challenge—that there may be no stopping nationalism (though it’s early yet), and that they need to make sure it’s liberal.  

Liberal nationalism should be about making citizens, not consumers who seek pleasure at the expense of others, especially those who don’t look like them. You can call this liberal nationalism. Some call it civil republicanism. Others call it communitarianism. If we’re honest, though, it’s really just plain-old liberalism.

It’s good to see David Brooks come around.


Paragraphs on the history of liberalism, though not liberal nationalism, come from Helena Rosenblatt’s wonderful new book called The Lost History of Liberalism.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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