The return of the nation-state

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. 

Mr. Lowry has got this mostly right. Trump is merely one actor in this play as national sovereignty and national identity is being reasserted in Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, etc. across the globe. Some automatically associate nationalism with interstate conflict (i.e, war), but that is not necessarily the path it takes, especially in the liberal western democracies.

Also, people migration is not the most serious challenge facing the modern nation-state, but it’s the easiest to scape-goat. It’s deflected by cultural assimilation.

Samuel Huntington is worth reading.

The return of the nation-state

The first week of the Trump administration has been a vindication of the American nation-state.

Anyone who thought it was a “borderless world,” a category that includes some significant portion of the country’s corporate and intellectual elite, has been disabused of the notion within about the first five days of the Trump years.

Trump’s inaugural address was widely panned, but early polling indicates it was popular, which isn’t surprising since the broadly nationalistic sentiments in the speech were bound to strike people as common sense.

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Whom else would it serve?

“We are one nation . . . We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” What’s the alternative — two nations, with two hearts and homes?

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Why would anything else come first?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump said.

Trump’s speech was less poetic, but in one sense more grounded than George W. Bush’s call for universal freedom in 2005 or Barack Obama’s vision of international cooperation leading to a new era of peace in 2009. Trump spoke of “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

If Bush was a vindicator of universal freedom, and Obama, in his more soaring moments, a citizen of the world, Trump is a dogged citizen of the United States concerned overwhelmingly with vindicating its interests.

His executive order authorizing the building of the wall is an emphatic affirmation of one of the constituent parts of a nation, namely borders. Trump also began the process of going after sanctuary cities as entrepôts of illegal immigration acting in defiance of the nation’s laws.

In general, immigration is an important focus for Trump’s nationalism because it involves the question of whether the American people have the sovereign authority to decide who gets to live here; whether the interests of American or foreign workers should be paramount; whether we assimilate the immigrants we already have into a common culture before welcoming more.

The Trump phenomenon is pushback against what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “deconstructionist” agenda, whose advocates seek to undermine America’s national identity through mass immigration and hostility to assimilation and opposition to the teaching of US history from a traditional, patriotic perspective, among other things.

Huntington argues that until the late 20th century, these elites promoted national unity, as one would expect. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

Trump is a welcome rebuke to this attitude, though caveats are necessary:

A proper US nationalism should express not just an affinity for this country’s people, as Trump did in his address, but for its creed, its institutions and its history. These are absent from Trump’s rhetoric and presumably his worldview, impoverishing both.

Trump’s nationalism has the potential to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, so long as he demonstrates that it isn’t just cover for his loyalty to his preferred subnational group.

If Bush was overly expansive in his international vision, Trump could be overly pinched. Bush’s anti-AIDS program in Africa was unvarnished humanitarianism — and will redound to his credit, and the credit of this nation, for a very long time.

Finally, Trump’s trade agenda is also an expression of his nationalism. Trade deals should be able to pass the national-interest test — we shouldn’t embrace them for the sake of helping other nations, or out of strict libertarian principle. But protectionism is, historically, a special-interest bonanza that delivers benefits to specific industries only at a disproportionate cost to the rest of the economy.

All that said, the nation-state is back, despite all the forecasts of its demise.

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. The nation is one of them, something that Trump, if he gets nothing else, instinctively understands.