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Defying the Odds

Defying the Odds
New book about the 2016 election.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Trump's Nationalism

He usually dismissed high ideals by reducing them to crude material terms. Consider for instance, America’s foundational proposition that all men are created equal. “The world is not fair,” Trump said in a 2006 video. “You know they come with this statement `all men are created equal.’ Well, it sounds beautiful, and it was written by some very wonderful people and brilliant people, but it's not true because all people and all men [laughter] aren't created [equal] … you have to be born and blessed with something up here [pointing to his head]. On the assumption you are, you can become very rich.”Similarly, Trump did not think of “American exceptionalism” as a way of thinking about the nation’s role as a beacon for equality and liberty. As he said in 2015, it was all about the Benjamins.

I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much. On top of taking it back, I don’t want to say, “We’re exceptional, we’re more exceptional.” Because essentially we’re saying, “We’re more outstanding than you. By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.” I don’t like the term. I never liked it.

The only way to discern what President Trump's nationalism truly represents is to examine his words and actions—something the New Nationalists generally avoid. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the president's brand of nationalism is the lack of anything uniquely American about it. Unlike every president (and presidential candidate) in living memory, Donald Trump almost never employs the ideas and language of the Founders. Try to think of a time you have heard him extol liberty, freedom, democracy, rights, equality, justice—or even utter the words. His speechwriters from time to time insert a few token phrases into his prepared speeches. But in Trump's unprepared remarks at rallies, in debate performances, TV interviews, press conferences, tweets, they barely appear. Clearly, they do not preoccupy him. Our ideals and their fulfillment are not, in his view, what made America great.
So what is it that actually does make America great? The president's answer has always been crystal clear: winning. That was what his whole campaign was based on. His language is never about political ideals; it is about defeating opponents, being better than the other guy—win, beat, kill, huge, rich, big league. His sense of national greatness seems largely transferred from his views of what makes a business or an individual (namely himself) great: wealth, power, status, deal-making. Greatness is achieved, most fundamentally, by winning a long streak of zero-sum competitions. To lose such competitions makes you weak. What is America's true problem, according to the president? He answered time and again on the campaign trail: "We don't win anymore." And what, if anything, was his central promise as a candidate for the highest office? "We're going to win so much. You're going to get tired of winning."

It is striking that the president seems to spend almost as much time criticizing allies as adversaries. But this course of action makes sense if your paradigm for how the world works is a long series of discrete one-on-one deals, as it was for the president in his business career. Trump looks at each event in the international arena, seeks to immediately extract the maximum gain (generally monetary), and then moves on to the next. This is what constitutes "winning" for the president. This is what defines his "America First" nationalism. George Orwell described just this kind of thinking in his 1945 "Notes on Nationalism": "A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige . . . his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations."