September 6, 2017

Deep Nationalism and the Ideology of Trumpism

Every academic I know (including me) was surprised by the Trump victory. Whether we looked at the survey data with false assumptions or missed a shift in the culture is unclear. I believe most of us also missed what this election means in terms of ideology. Is there something we can call Trumpism?

I’m going to argue that there is, and that this ideology is more potent than many have recognized.  It is also an identifiable branch of conservatism, although many never-Trump conservatives will disagree after their coughing and sputtering subsides. Trump clearly communicates a form of conservatism—just not the kind that most observers expected from a Republican nominee (much less a Republican president).

I would have said in 2016 that Trump’s brand of conservatism was not electable. The underestimated appeal and unexpected success of Trumpism make it (and its possible future) all the more important to understand.

Deep Nationalism

The heart of Trumpism is deep nationalism. By “deep” nationalism I mean that everything else—American interests, policies, language, culture, and traditions—is seen through a nationalistic lens.

Some values are co-equal or subordinate to others. A deep value colors how all the others are seen.¹  Trump sees economic policy through the lens of nationalism: protection of American jobs, opposition to free trade, beating other countries in deals. His foreign policy is also nationalist: America first, no avoidable ideological wars, make allies pay for protection. And of course Trump’s views on immigration are nationalist: stop uncontrolled immigration across the southern border and the flow of refugees from the Middle East. In Trump’s view, past policies on immigration have increased competition for low-wage jobs, are eroding English as the national language, are raising public costs for social services, and are reducing our security from crime and terrorism. Trump is an economic, immigration, and foreign policy nationalist (and likely a nationalist about everything else as well).  

As recently as his Afghanistan speech on August 21st, Trump connected Afghan War policy to nationalism, and then nationalism to Charlottesville (which is what ideologies do—they connect the disparate into a symbolic whole). And he offered nationalism as a replacement for identity politics: “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.” This was not just in response to Charlottesville, however. Trump has used this kind of rhetoric many times before.  

At the Boy Scouts National Jamboree in July:

TRUMP: You are the young people of character, integrity who will serve as leaders of our communities and uphold the sacred values of our nation.


TRUMP: But the words “duty,” “country,” and “God” are beautiful words. In other words, basically what you’re doing is you’re pledging to be a great American patriot.

And if you do these things, and if you refuse to give in to doubt or to fear, then you will help to make America great again, you will be proud of yourself, be proud of the uniform you wear, and be proud of the country you love.


In his CPAC speech in February:

“The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that put—and will put—its own citizens first.

“There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag.”

In his inaugural speech in January:

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

During the campaign it was much the same. Consider Trump’s foreign policy speech in April 2016:

“America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.

“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.

“Both our friends and our enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must start doing the same. We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. 

“I will view as president the world through the clear lens of American interests. I will be America’s greatest defender and most loyal champion.”

Of course, Trump said other things as well—on topics both expected and unfortunate—but no theme in his rhetoric runs as clearly and repetitively as nationalism. His bombast, bullying, and bluster have misled some into thinking there is no idea-set there, but that is a mistake. Trumpism is an ideology, the ideology of deep American nationalism. And there is growing evidence that this ideology played a significant role in the motivation of Trump’s supporters. A paper by Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn, for example, reveals a dominant strain of nationalism—along with mistrust of experts and anti-elitism—in a national sample of Trump supporters compared to both Clinton voters and supporters of other Republican candidates.

Nationalism as a Value, Identity, and Symbol

My goal here is to understand Trump’s deep nationalism on its own terms by employing interpretive charity, as Jeffrey Friedman described it in an earlier post. Friedman has addressed nationalism and authoritarianism as possible sources of Trump’s support (see my comments on his authoritarianism post), and he plans to examine other factors such as racism, anti-elitism, and a backlash against political correctness. While these other factors may have been important influences on the election, none but nationalism captures the set of ideas that Trump has expressed clearly. That is, none but nationalism explains Trumpism as an ism.

An ideology is a vision of a better society, grounded in a constellation of beliefs—values (normative predispositions), premises (empirical predispositions), identities, and symbols—that fit together in a cohesive way. Ideologues tend to be narrow thinkers and unreliable observers. They are hedgehogs, not foxes. While most Americans are not active ideologues, they do hold values and identities (gut-level ideologies) that guide their thinking.

In one sense, nationalism is a value, little different in form than individualism or egalitarianism. Values are predispositions shaping our perceptions of better or worse goals. They are what Philip Tetlock calls “backstops”—things we can’t justify but can justify nothing without. We may think that following certain values will have positive consequences, but that is not why we hold them. Like other core beliefs, values settled in our minds long before we could argue for or against them. (On this point, my view of nationalism differs from Friedman’s, which holds that Trump’s nationalism, at least, is consequentialist.)

In another sense, nationalism is an identity, similar to group loyalties grounded in ethnicity, gender, religion, or anything else that makes us feel connected to other people we don’t know. Nationalism is a form of tribalism that replaced previous forms, to some degree, with the rise of the nation-state as a core facet of the modern mind. More recently it has been replaced, to some degree, by newer forms of tribalism. It is as defensible (or indefensible) as any other kind of identity. (Here I definitely depart from Friedman, who rejects nationalism as illegitimate).

Perhaps most importantly, nationalism is a powerful symbol. Michael Walzer described symbols as things that “tell us more than we can easily repeat.” They facilitate a core goal of politicians: “Politics is an art of unification; from many, it makes one. . . . If symbolization does not by itself create unity (that is the function of political practice as well as of symbolic activity), it does create units—units of discourse which are fundamental to all thinking and doing, units of feeling around which emotions of loyalty and assurance can cluster.” In The Phantom Public (1924), Walter Lippmann offers a definition of politics that again focuses on the symbolic: “the use of symbols which assemble emotion after they have been detached from their ideas.” Ideas (values, ideologies, etc.) may be primary, but the important thing is that they carry emotions with them, which can be organized for citizens symbolically. The artful and successful politician is the one who can mobilize the symbols that will trigger the emotions that motivate voters.

Trumpism as a Branch of Conservatism

In polarized America, ideologues seem more likely to talk past each other than to attempt mutual understanding. In my experience, most conservatives cannot accurately describe the beliefs of liberals or vice versa. The heart of the difficulty is that the ideologies are not polar opposites, so an ideologue cannot just reverse his or her own beliefs to understand what the other tribe thinks. Instead, the two competing ideologies ask different core questions, which those of the opposing view do not see as vital concerns.²

Conservatives see society as fundamentally fragile, facing a host of internal and external enemies that challenge our desire for ordered liberty (the combination of freedom with responsibility). This situation demands the appropriate balance (a Golden Mean) between liberty and authority.

The answers to the core question of conservatism—how do we glue together a free and fragile society?—lead to the different branches of the ideology. Economic conservatives believe that private property and the work ethic answer the glue problem. National-defense conservatives believe the answer is patriotism and a strong military. Social conservatives believe it is religion and a shared moral system. Cultural conservatives believe it is a shared tradition, which includes a common language.  

Liberals, on the other hand, perceive society as fundamentally perfectible, with improvement defined as the achievement of greater equality and social justice. The core liberal goal is to reduce oppression, but disagreement remains about which groups are most oppressed, including the poor, Blacks, Hispanics, women, and non-heterosexuals. Traditional liberals believe that the main source of oppression is poverty, while the newer camp of multiculturalists believes the main source of oppression is the suppression of identity.

Trump is surely not a conservative along the lines of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or the editors of National Review and The Weekly Standard (many of whom were never-Trumpers). Nonetheless, Trump can be described as a conservative. He is primarily a cultural conservative whose answer to the glue problem is tradition and shared language. As an economic, immigration, and foreign-policy nationalist, Trump is a cultural conservative who identifies multiple threats to national power, traditions, and stability.

This is not to say that only conservatives feel the pull of nationalism. As Friedman points out, Bernie Sanders frames his defense of economic equality in nationalist terms. Government programs to promote equality can only be successful on a national basis, redistributing from wealthy to poor within (say) the United States. If we redistributed to the poorest people on the planet, this would not reduce inequality among Americans. One of the reasons people support the welfare state (and do so more the more culturally homogeneous the nation) is that they are willing to give their money to people who are like them, but less so to people unlike them. As soon as we internationalize attempts at equality, support for them goes down. Increasing equality relies, to an important degree, on accepting nationalism.

Friedman would argue that Sanders should be just as happy if wealthy Americans subsidized poor Africans or Asians as if they subsidized poor Americans. But the concerns of egalitarian nationalists are focused on the people they can see with their own eyes, not on abstractions they cannot see. People have a strong tendency to identify with people closer to them rather than those farther away. We may as well insist that people have no preference for their family members or neighbors over people on the other side of the world. That is a hard sell psychologically. On the rational side of the argument, if I believe that my co-nationals share my values (like egalitarianism, or social justice, or constitutionalism), which Russians or Chinese do not share, it is perfectly rational to prefer policies that help my co-nationals.

The nationalism displayed by Sanders supporters may help explain why a surprising number did not come back to Hillary, but instead voted for Trump.

Are All Nationalisms Created Equal?

Many fear nationalism, whether it is the American or Chinese or Russian variety. Some equate nationalism with fascism.³ This overlooks the important distinction made by historian Liah Greenfeld between civic and ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism includes commitments to individual rights, the rule of law, and other core principles that the nation aspires to at home and promotes abroad. Ethnic nationalism is based purely on blunt feelings of group superiority. As Friedman’s post on nationalism notes, nationalism is not equivalent to xenophobia. His evidence against Trump supporters’ xenophobia may also be evidence that their nationalism is civic, not ethnic.

If the Trump presidency continues—or if Trumpism continues after its namesake is no longer the president—the important question will be what sort of nationalism it turns out to promote in the long term. The fear is that ethnic nationalism without principle will dominate the better angels of civic nationalism. Thus far, Trumpism has been a nationalism of walls and borders. It has not veered toward the nationalism of military adventurism or conquest. The balance of civic or ethnic nationalism among Trump supporters is unclear. We can only hope that the nationalist heart of Trumpism remains civic, defensive, and principled, avoiding nationalism’s darker aspects. Trump and Trumpism have surprised many of us before, and regardless of our expectations, they may well again.

Morgan Marietta is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology: Conservatism and Liberalism in Contemporary Politics, The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Influence, and A Citizen’s Guide to the Constitution and the Supreme Court: Constitutional Conflict in American Politics. With David Barker, he is currently writing One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy (Oxford University Press), on the causes and consequences of polarized fact perceptions.

¹ This may also be an absolute or sacred value, as described by Philip Tetlock (see Marietta et al. 2017 on Trump and sacred rhetoric).

² See A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology for a full discussion of the competing foundations of contemporary conservatism and liberalism.

³ A diverse collection of Americans including Bill Ayers, Marc Lamont Hill, Debra Messing, Alice Walker, and Cornel West sponsored this full-page ad in The New York Times on 4 January 2017, arguing among other things that “fascism foments and relies upon xenophobic nationalism.”