The Trouble with Donald Trump’s Nationalism

President-elect Donald Trump is explicitly an “America first” nationalist. Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s key advisers, calls himself an “economic nationalist.” But what does nationalism mean? Is it compatible with American liberty or inimical to it?

A source of confusion is that “nationalism” can mean very different things. Trump mashes together two essentially conflicting versions of nationalism, making his views and policies hard to sort out.

One sort of nationalism—let’s call it liberty-oriented nationalism or individualist nationalism—sees a national government as a means to protect the rights of the people living within its boundaries. In this view, the nation exists for the sake of the individuals in it, not the other way around. A nation is good insofar as it protects individual rights and bad insofar as it violates rights.

This sort of benign nationalism holds that political organization on too grand a scale—as with hypothetical global government—invites tyranny. When many sovereign nations exist, some nations might go bad at a given time (Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in the Twentieth Century, North Korea and Venezuela today), but other nations can check the aggressive ones and remain relatively free and prosperous. On the other hand, political organization on too small a scale cannot effectively protect people from outside aggressors.

America’s Founders for the most part saw no contradiction between the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of a national government; indeed, they saw the latter as a way to implement the former.

A clashing form of nationalism sees the nation, not as a means to protect the rights of individuals, but as an end-in-itself to which people and their liberties must be sacrificed. We can call this collectivist nationalism, because it views individuals as part of and subordinate to a collective entity.

Very often nationalists of the collectivist variety see themselves as superior to outsiders and seek to expand their national borders by conquest. Such nationalism tends to focus on ethnic differences between regions, and it tends to become socialistic in its (internal) politics. This was true of Italy’s National Fascist Party and of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, as key examples.

Given that nationalism can carry such different and contradictory meanings, the term is basically meaningless unless it is carefully qualified.

Trump’s sort of nationalism is what Ayn Rand would call a package deal; it combines fundamentally dissimilar ideas about the nation and the proper role of its government. One result is that the better, more liberty-oriented aspects of Trump’s nationalism can serve to obscure the collectivist, anti-liberty aspects.

Consider the various ways in which Trump or some of his supporters are nationalists:

  • Trump advocates an America-first foreign policy that focuses on defense of Americans and that eschews “nation building” abroad and altruistic military interventions.
  • He emphasizes America’s sovereignty and often criticizes treaties that subject Americans to international governmental actions.
  • He wants to rein in regulations and cut tax rates to make American businesses more competitive.
  • He wants tight controls of America’s borders, complete with a wall along the Mexican border.
  • He wants tight restrictions on immigration because he sees immigrants as “taking” American jobs.
  • He thinks the national government should take action against American companies that move operations to other countries. Recently Trump threatened companies that do so with “retribution” in the form of a 35 percent tariff on goods coming back into the United States.
  • He wants the federal government to spend a trillion dollars (or thereabouts) to improve government controlled infrastructure—highways, bridges, airports, and the like—and he sees this as a way both to showcase America’s greatness and to “stimulate” the economy.
  • Although Trump has denounced the so-called “alt-right,” some of Trump’s “alt-right” supporters see Trump’s success as a way to promote white nationalism.

We can find some traces of individualism within Trump’s nationalism, but in important respects Trump’s nationalism is collectivist.

The most prominent way that Trump is collectivist is in seeing jobs as somehow owned by the nation and its citizens jointly. Trump does not talk about a job as created by a particular productive business to be filled by mutual agreement between someone offering and someone seeking a job. Rather, Trump talks about “American jobs” as though jobs were somehow national property to be doled out by politicians and bureaucrats.

So, in Trump’s collectivist view, a business owner has no moral right to hire an employee from Mexico or Asia (or wherever). Rather, that job is properly controlled by the national government and can be offered only in accordance with political dictates. In this view, business owners have no moral right to run their businesses by their own judgment; rather, they have a moral duty to run their businesses in line with “national interests” (however defined). A business owner may hire someone from outside the country only if the national government grants permission. In Trump’s America, businesses operate fundamentally not by right, but by permission.

The same holds with Trump’s threats against businesses that move some of their operations to other countries. Trump’s view again is that producers have no moral right to run their businesses as they see fit; rather, they have a moral duty to run their businesses as the national government commands, else they will be punished. Likewise, in Trump’s view, customers have no moral right to seek less-expensive products from companies that economize by manufacturing elsewhere.

In economic terms, Trump’s collectivism manifests zero-sum thinking in which one person gains only when another person loses. If an American loses a job to a Mexican, by this thinking, America is worse off—never mind that gains of trade increase overall wealth and open up new avenues for production. Hence, Trump’s collectivism tends to regurgitate old-school mercantilist ideas debunked by free-market economists long ago. Like all forms of collectivist statism, Trump’s brand of it will cause economic damage.

Trump’s collectivism also informs his views and policies regarding border control and the finance of infrastructure. Clearly Trump wants a wall on the Mexican border, not primarily to protect Americans from foreign aggressors, but to “protect” some Americans from other Americans who wish to hire people from south of the border. And Trump favors infrastructure spending, not (only) because he thinks only government can finance such things (a presumption I dispute), but because he wants American infrastructure to show up the government projects of other countries and because he thinks of prosperity largely as emanating from the national state.

In sum, Trump’s nationalism runs counter to liberty and to a politics of individual rights insofar as it reflects Trump’s deeper collectivist ideas. Let’s hope that advocates of individual rights and free markets successfully push back against collectivist nationalism—whether it is advocated by Progressive leftists (such as Bernie Sanders) or by “populist” conservative Republicans.

Image: Don Irvine