I am going to start sounding like a broken record here, but I am going to keep delivering my message until people more important than me hear it. So here I go again.
Nationalism has been a crucial force in American political history, and it has been THE major factor in the rise of Trump, much more so than "trade" or "jobs," which he is merely using to talk about the nation.
There, I said it.
I feel prompted to make this statement after listening to the 538 Elections Podcast yesterday, which as always was full of smart, analytical commentary. Towards the end they discussed the recent Gallup survey of Trump supporters that showed that these people are not the economically downtrodden white working class they have been portrayed as in the media. They do not live in areas with lots of immigration, either. The hosts discussed these findings, and some did discuss the obvious appeals to cultural and racial resentment in all this. They talked about anxiety over the old America going away. But they also weren't sure of what the glue was tying all this together, and to why people who aren't hurting economically are responding to Trump's talk on trade issues, which they don't seem to have much knowledge of.
The answer is, of course, nationalism. Nationalism nationalism nationalism. Say it with me folks, don't be shy. Trump's entire message this whole campaign has been, essentially, that America is headed in the wrong direction, is "losing," and needs to be turned around. Hence his ubiquitous slogan. Nationalism is such a dangerous political force because it can bring in and subsume a variety of things at once. Trump's trade talk, for example, isn't being bought by people because they know anything about trade (they don't), but because of the promise of building the nation's industrial power back. His hate directed and immigrants and Muslims is grounded in a racist version of nationalism that sees the white nation threatened by "others" coming in from outside. His foreign policy, which amounts to telling international institutions like NATO to fuck off and to engage in wars of plunder ("take their oil"), is as nationalist as it gets.
The people in places who are most likely to consider their ancestry "American" (as opposed to English, German, African, etc.) are the ones most likely to vote for Trump. Why? Because they are the people most invested in a particular version of American national identity. The people in those places think of themselves as the "real Americans." Back in 2010 they got motivated to "take our country back!" during the birth of the Tea Party, Trumpism is just that on steroids. They think this is "their" country, and after eight years of a black college professor from Chicago with a Kenyan father in the White House they are foaming at the mouth. Trump was smart enough to understand that it was this white nationalist resentment that drove the base of the Republican Party, not tax policy or government regulation.
The Democrats as well as the Trumpists have been engaged in nation talk, but we don't call it that. The Democratic convention was notable for the number of generals who spoke, and became most dramatic when the Khans took the stage. Khizr Khan very passionately argued for an alternative version of American nationalism, one where America was defined by its diversity and a commitment to equal rights. There has been little policy discussion in this election, it has essentially boiled down to what version of the nation voters identify with more strongly.
This all begs the question of why so few people are talking about nationalism in this election. Part of it has to do with the strange American denial that nationalism exists in this country. We talk about "patriotism," not nationalism, in another manifestation of a bogus assumed American exceptionalism. This even extends to professional historians of the US, who haven't really done much to address it. Our political commentators tend to want to look at very surface level factors in politics ("blue collar anger") and thus consistently downplay how racism and nationalism are such titanic forces in the American body politic.
C'mon people, stop ignoring what's staring you right in the face. We've been lucky this time that the man stirring up the forces of nationalism has sabotaged himself. We might not be so lucky next time.