“Nationalism”—like globalism and globalization—has become a loaded and ill-defined term. The ambiguity, some argue, is intentionally fostered by globalists. So, let us be clear: Globalization is concerned with business opportunities in a transnational and global market, as a prelude to creating worldwide homogeneity. Globalism, a Western idea, ultimately leads to the postmodern dream of a worldwide political system in which western European leaders will dictate laws governing international policy at the expense of the nation-state that eventually will become irrelevant and wilt away. Inherently, then “globalism” is opposed to “nationalism.” Xenophobes, admittedly, can at times employ nationalistic rhetoric to further bigoted agendas, but in its original context, a nationalist was simply a person who advocated political independence for his country and viewed foreign relations through the lenses of his own country’s narrower self-interests.
So, it matters how we define nationalism and the historical context in which Donald J. Trump is said to be a nationalist. Today globalists define nationalism as something akin to 19th- and mid-20th-century European imperialism that culminated in Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini; each in differing ways seeing racial purity as a state religion and seeking to dominate their neighbors through theories of racial and military superiority. Trump, of course, is accused of this sort of retrograde nationalism, yet, he is also allegedly smeared as an “isolationist” who has no desire to play a constructive and interventionist abroad. We cannot have it both ways in dubbing Trump’s nationalism as somehow both aggressive and imperialist and yet also blinkered and recessional. Still, there are precedents in U.S. history to support the notion of a populist politician being both nationalist and yet circumspect about unilateral foreign intervention. Historically, the American public has been rabidly patriotic but not to the extent of wishing to spread, at great expense, American exceptionalism abroad.
There were always tensions over the proper notion of nationalism, an idea that was not always defined as expanding American power abroad or seeking to conflate race with national identity. True, populist nationalist Andrew Jackson the racist slave-holding first President of the Democratic Party, for instance, did not believe in assimilation and passed the exclusionary Indian Removal Act (1830). Ninety treaties followed that resulted in the mass removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Yet, Americans did not support Jackson’s idea of enslavement of “Indians,” as some slaveholders had wished; and even Jackson’s populist adherents were largely supportive of assimilation programs.
President James Polk (1845-1849), also by modern standards a bigot and slaveholder, started a war in Texas to expand slavery, simultaneously providing a pretext for war against Mexico to annex the West. While the borders of the U.S. were thus being redefined, the American public was largely supportive of such policies. But, just twenty years later nearly 400,000 also voted with their lives to end slavery, and had not much wish to intervene abroad.
Economic “nationalism” as voiced by Trump also is nothing new. Republican policy in the late-1800s was always supportive of high protective tariffs with government interest in business regulation to promote collective prosperity. In 1890 the Billion-Dollar Congress passed the McKinley Tariff when the “Idol of Ohio” promised that the U.S. would lower their tariffs—but only if other countries did the same. Like Trump, he redefined free trade as “fair trade.” However, while the public largely supported tariffs and protectionism to shield American businesses and jobs, they also demanded regulation and government oversight of commerce. The railroads were the most important transportation “big business” of the day, and the average small businessman insisted on a “fair use” policy to ensure reasonable and transparent rail rates. Grover Cleveland gave it to them in 1887 with the Interstate Commerce Act. Again, there are plenty of historical precedents for Trump jawboning private enterprise to calibrate hiring in terms of American interest, and demanding trading partners adopt reciprocity in trading with the U.S.
Like many Americans who sought to push big businesses toward nationalist concerns, prior American nationalists, again like Trump, also rejected both imperialist and proto-globalist agendas. American public outrage was so great in the aftermath of William McKinley’s war of annexation in the Philippines (1899-1902) that public figures as diverse as Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers, Mark Twain, and Jane Addams all joined the Anti-Imperialist League, on grounds such interventions were neither fair to the occupied nor served the interests of average U.S. citizens. Likewise, following the end of the Great War, the public resoundingly rejected Wilson’s League of Nations and instead favored a more nationalist notion of U.S. exclusion from transnational government. Long before Trump there was an American tradition of defining nationalism, quite apart from race, as instead promoting U.S. economic interests and defending America militarily—but without becoming bogged down in drawn-out foreign wars or treaties and “entangling” alliances if they were judged not to be in U.S. interests.
Admittedly, after World War II in a Cold War environment, Americans begrudgingly conceded that the United States should stay involved in world affairs. But they still did so with reservation. So, when in the late-1970s Ronald Reagan established an “America First” policy, campaigning to retain the Panama Canal, the American public supported him. They cheered his unapologetic chauvinistic declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” that the Kremlin’s leaders were criminals, liars, and cheaters and that a strong U.S. foreign policy should be coupled with military strength. But the American public understood this muscularity less as unthinking nationalism than a U.S.-led and unified western European effort to hasten the inevitable implosion of the Soviet Bloc—and thus a way to end the Cold War and relieve burdens from the American military. Likewise, participation in the UN and NATO in no way implied that Americans would accept some globalized European-led world society in the aftermath of the Cold War, any more than they supported fighting for years in Vietnam and beyond.
Trump then is not so much an enigma. In the past American nationalists, without European-like fascistic appeals to racial purity, have squared the circle of intervening abroad without seeking foreign annexations, and in calibrating both economic and military policy in terms of what best enhanced the prosperity and security of American citizens.