New U.S. citizens take the Oath of Allegiance in Washington, D.C., September 17, 2012. Photo credit: NEWSCOM

The rise of Donald Trump began a debate about the proper place of nationalism in American politics. A growing chorus on the political right, including even many who opposed his candidacy, has been praising the president’s “America First” agenda as a healthy restoration of nationalism and fleshing out an intellectual framework to fit his worldview. It is right to give his ideas serious and thoughtful examination, as it is to consider any ideas that seek to protect our country and unite its people. But there are good ways and bad ways to pursue these goals, ways that stay true to the ideals on which this country was founded and ways that do not.

The center-right in particular is engaged in a civil war of sorts over the issue. Much of its leadership​—​politicians, intellectuals, and commentators alike​—​were so vociferously opposed to what candidate Trump advocated that they formed the NeverTrump movement to stop him. Faced with his electoral victory, many have split off and sought accommodation with the president’s views. Conservative outlets like National Review and the Washington Free Beacon​—​never before within Trump’s orbit​—​have led the way, publishing pieces that aim to bridge the gap between the formerly Never-Trump center-right and the intellectual organs of Trumpian nationalism, exemplified both by the new journal American Affairs and by older conservative stalwarts like Pat Buchanan.

These New Nationalists, as I will refer to them, are not wrong in identifying worthwhile principles and policies within the president’s program, but they miss the forest for the trees. They largely ignore or minimize the many unsettling aspects of his rhetoric and executive actions in order to make Trump fit their conception of a measured and inclusive nationalism. They equally mischaracterize and malign the traditional American conceptions of a politically rooted patriotism as enablers for a globalist mindset that corrupts the country’s elite. That they fail to appreciate how the president’s agenda undermines the core values that have guided the nation since its founding is largely because they focus on the wrong slogan. “America First” sounds like the underlying principle of a new foreign policy, but it is actually meaningless without the straw man counterpart of “America Second” advocated by some imaginary foe. The real animating spirit and logic of the president’s nationalist agenda lies in his campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.” What he means by “greatness,” he has made clear, is very different from what it has meant to American presidents for more than two centuries. It ignores the moral mission that lies at the heart of the American experiment and leaves behind the guiding vision of our own exceptionalism that we should not readily abandon.


“Americans and Europeans alike sometimes forget how unique is the United States of America. No other nation has been built upon an idea, the idea of liberty.” Margaret Thatcher’s 1991 words perfectly reflect the essence of American exceptionalism: that uniquely among the countries of the world, the United States was founded not on bonds of blood or race or religion or tribe, but on the ideals of freedom, equality, and self-government. From that heritage flowed an array of unique characteristics and traditions that shaped how Americans see themselves and their country’s place in the world.

Our Founding Fathers did not declare independence out of some sense that “we are Americans and they are Englishmen.” Their very justification for rebellion was that they were being denied the rights due to Englishmen. And they created a new country based on political principles, establishing something the world had not truly seen since the days of ancient Rome​—​a citizens’ republic. They were so aware they were forging a new nation from many different peoples that the first design for the Great Seal of United States featured a shield divided into six parts to represent the nations where most of the colonists of that time had originated: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland. Below that shield lay our motto: E Pluribus Unum, “out of many one.” What melded the varied inhabitants of the 13 colonies into a nation was the common commitment to a moral proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is the heart of the American creed, and to billions of people around the globe, Thomas Jefferson’s words are synonymous with the very idea of America. To believe in this proposition is, in a very real sense, to believe in America. The idea forms the bedrock of our national culture and has made that culture uniquely accessible to immigrants wishing to gain not just American citizenship, but an American identity. In an 1858 speech, Abraham Lincoln argued that immigrants who believed in the principles proclaimed by our Founding Fathers, who felt that the “moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men .  .  . have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” In most times and places throughout human history, blood relations​—​and blood relations alone​—​were what defined one as belonging or not belonging to a nation. The idea that dedication to political ideals and an oath of citizenship could be just as​—​or even more​—​meaningful than blood was revolutionary. It remains rare in the world even today, and we can easily forget how ours is quite different from most traditional understandings of nationality.

No automatic alt text available.

There are other countries whose identities are defined by political ideals. The notions of “Britishness” or “Frenchness,” for example, have become infused with liberal values that immigrants can adopt. But those nations existed for centuries before such values became part of their identities. Even other settler nations like Canada and Australia, though welcoming to immigrants, never put universal political ideals so explicitly at the heart of their society​—​or even broke away to form fully separate identities from their mother country.

In much of the rest of the world, citizenship and nationality are not even synonymous. Numerous countries require that all citizens be officially designated among several government-recognized nationalities, which sometimes even afford different legal status. This sub-state differentiation in nationality has existed everywhere from Russia and Croatia to China, Malaysia, Israel, and Lebanon. States like Canada and Belgium are essentially bi-national, and many of the young countries in the Middle East and Africa cram a plethora of nationalities together with little coherent sense of statehood.

And just as nationality is often not bestowed with citizenship, so too it often does not cease to be recognized even without citizenship. The Chinese government regularly claims foreign citizens as Chinese nationals subject to Chinese law simply because of their ethnic parentage. Indeed, they claim all of Taiwan by the same logic. Russia makes the same argument for Crimea and for ethnic Russians throughout all the other former Soviet states. Dozens of countries around the world have repatriation laws that grant preferential and expedited citizenship to immigrants who have ethnic ancestry there.

Many governments see their role as protecting millennia-old national identities from foreign encroachment. Saudi Arabia bars non-Muslims from obtaining citizenship; Japan grants immigrants citizenship at a rate of 0.008 percent per year (almost 30 times less than the United States); and China, a country of 1.3 billion people, has exactly 1,448 foreign-born naturalized citizens (as of 2010). Even where legal status is not the barrier, true assimilation and acceptance as a member of a nation can for all practical purposes be impossible. Imagine a Kenyan or an Italian moving to South Korea and trying to be accepted as Korean​—​or even having children born there who try to do so. Nationality and national identity, in other words, often have far more to do with one’s parentage than with one’s oath of citizenship.

The American conception of belonging is starkly different. There is no such thing as an American national who is not an American citizen. If you forfeit your citizenship, you cease to be American in a sense that is more meaningful than for any other nation on earth. Likewise, if we as a nation were to stop believing in our founding principles, we would cease to be America in a way that no other country would.


The distinction between nationalism and patriotism is often overlooked. Unlike the United States, most countries were nations long before they became states. And nationalism has traditionally been an ideology that advocates the aggrandizement of particular national groups​—​not whole countries inclusive of minority ethnicities and nationalities. The word nationalism was first used in this sense in 1772 by the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, and it came to be embraced as an animating ideology by Germans in their response to the ideals and invasions of the French Revolutionary era. They rejected the liberal ideas of political citizenship and universal rights and instead embraced a unifying vision of a German volk rooted in ethnicity, language, blood, and mythology. German nationalism predated the creation of the German state by a century.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is a concept whose etymology and history is closely linked with ancient Greek and Roman ideas of membership in a political community. It is a term for devotion and commitment not to the ethnic group into which one is born, but to a political state of which one is a citizen. It does not exclude minorities within that state, nor does it extend to members of a common national group outside that state. An ethnic German living in Poland as a Polish citizen in 1939, for instance, could have fought against the Nazi invasion as a Polish patriot, but not as a Polish nationalist. Likewise, the defense of a political republic can be patriotic even if it undermines nationalist goals. The Wehrmacht officers who broke their oath and tried to kill Hitler in 1944, for example, are regarded as German patriots, not nationalists.

In America, because our sense of national identity is so intimately tied to our political ideals and our notions of citizenship, patriotism and nationalism are less easily distinguished. One must go to extremes to see the difference clearly. Suppose, for example, that an American leader completely rejected the essence of the American creed, declaring the ideas of human rights and equality under the law to be absurd and espousing a totalitarian vision that aimed to establish a dictatorship, exterminate certain ethnic groups or classes, and enslave the rest of the world for the greater glory of the American nation. His would be a warped version of American nationalism, but by no definition would it be American patriotism.

What is remarkable is how successful Americans have been at keeping an exclusive and chauvinist nationalism at bay while, seemingly paradoxically, maintaining a vigorous and collective love of country and rising to become the most powerful nation the planet has ever seen. There is nothing inherent in the idea of nationalism that would lead us to expect this result. Indeed, the history of the rest of the world provides mountains of evidence to the contrary.

The answer to this riddle lies in the nature of American exceptionalism and its morally anchored definition of greatness. Its birth from political ideals endowed the United States not only with a unique national identity, but also a unique moral mission​—​to fulfill the promise of those ideals. Just after leaving the presidency in 1809, Jefferson eloquently described the awesome responsibility that fell to Americans, who are

Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.

For 240 years, Americans and their most celebrated leaders have defined the nation’s greatness not by conquest or glory or riches, but by its success in making real the ideals of liberty at home, and in being an example and, at times, a defender of liberty for the rest of the world. This is what made America Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth.” This is what made it Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill.” This is what made America great.


The New Nationalists have, as part of their intellectual architecture, mounted an assault on this conception of American exceptionalism and politically rooted patriotism. Taken to its logical conclusion, they argue, it constitutes a cosmopolitan mindset that leads to globalism abroad and divisive identity politics within. It is too abstract, too universalist, and too disconnected from people’s daily experience to be the root of the emotions we all identify as our love for this country. Americans, they argue, have a visceral connection to the actual places, traditions, and symbols of the country, not to some set of esoteric political theories written down on parchment in the summer of 1776.

These are valid points. But they also reveal a misunderstanding of American exceptionalism. True, America is not just an idea. But it is the realization, the earthly manifestation, of an idea. No other country has declared its independence so explicitly and specifically to fulfill political ideals. And it was the nation the founding generation established that gave reality to those ideals. The Declaration of Independence proclaims a belief in universal rights that extend to all men everywhere, but it also proclaims another belief: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Governments, unlike the rights they are meant to protect, are not universal. Republics are formed by man-made pacts that establish political communities whose members pledge to mutually protect each other’s rights by taking up the responsibilities of citizenship. This points to a core distinction between human rights and civil rights. Human rights, as the Declaration posits, predate all governments and exist whether a state recognizes them or not, for they are inherent in mankind’s being by way of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Civil rights, on the other hand, are granted—​along with corresponding responsibilities​—​to the citizens of a political community in order that they may partake in the maintenance of their own government. The very word “civil” derives from the Latin civis, meaning citizen. The Declaration of Independ-ence did not establish a government to protect the rights it proclaimed (the 13 individual states retained full sovereignty at the time). That national government was established by the Constitution of the United States (and briefly by the Articles of Confederation before it). If the Declaration defined the mission, the raison d’être of the new nation, the Constitution provided the marching orders​—​a mutual pact that Americans made to fulfill that mission.

American patriotism is not just a belief in disembodied American ideals. It is a love for, pride in, and commitment to the place that has made those ideals real. Freedom is not free, as the saying goes. Maintaining the republic has been the work of people shedding blood, sweat, and tears for 240 years. That herculean effort was not driven by politics alone; it rested on a culture that kept the citizenry active and engaged in the project of their own self-government at every level of community.


The New Nationalists emphasize the importance of our common history, traditions, mores, and symbols in binding the American people together in ways that politics alone cannot. But they fail to recognize how much that national culture is, at its core, a civic culture, and how fundamentally it has been shaped by the political ideals that lie at its heart.

The Founding Fathers had a phrase to describe the most important traits they saw in their fellow citizens: republican virtue​—​things like hard work, self-reliance, honesty, religiosity (broadly understood), tolerance, neighborliness, an egalitarian and cooperative spirit. These virtues were molded by distinct historical factors like frontier living, the Protestant work ethic, and the English parliamentary tradition, among many others. But they were never just some arbitrary set of ethnic, linguistic, or religious inheritances. They had moral value not because they were American, but because they were essential to the health of a republic of self-governing citizens. Democracies need them to survive; dictatorships do not. The Founders’ recognition of their precarious nature was neatly summed up in Benjamin Franklin’s possibly apocryphal warning after the Constitutional Convention: “a republic, if you can keep it.” These virtues require renewed effort and commitment by every generation. And by the same token they could be​—​and were​—​adopted and held by generation after generation of new immigrants who came to America and became part of the fabric of our civic culture.

Much of this culture already existed at the nation’s beginning. It wasn’t forged by the Founders from a tabula rasa. But that is simply a truism. No culture ever pops into existence without a historical and organic origin. What matters is not simply that there is a distinctly American culture today or that there was one in 1776 (and the two have many differences). What matters are the elements that have lasted from one epoch to the next, that we have consciously elevated and celebrated and made central to our identity as Americans. It is no accident that nearly everything in our culture that we deem to be “great” affirms and celebrates these democratic republican values in some way. They are the wellspring of our identity in ways so commonplace we barely even notice, which is why the most insightful commentators on this subject have so often been foreigners, Alexis de Tocqueville being only the most notable of many.

From Huck Finn to Sam Spade, our greatest books and films feature everyman heroes who question illegitimate authority and fight for a fair shake. Our music, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, celebrates both individual expression and the common man. Our sports heroes are as much honored for breaking social barriers as for breaking records. And our mythology and folktales extol the idea of the self-made man, be he a Horatio Alger youth, a Western cowboy, or a president who grew up in a log cabin.

Our understanding of our own history is shaped by these ideals as well. This is the reason that the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II hold such central places in American history: They clearly embody the fight for the principles we hold dear. America proved its power and material superiority far more resoundingly in the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars, for example. But we recognize that these were driven more by aggressive nationalism than by a patriotic defense of liberty, and so we merely accept their place in our history rather than celebrate them.

We recognize our “Greatest Generation” not because of their wealth or prestige, but rather because they preserved our democracy through two of the greatest challenges​—​economic and military—​it ever faced. The Nazis built public works and infrastructure just as impressive​—​sometimes much more so—​than any built under the New Deal. But we would not look at the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam with such pride today had the country resorted to fascism to build them.

Our monuments are seldom adorned with scenes of glorious victory in battle. Words, more than anything else, define our greatest shrines: “all men are created equal,” “a new birth of freedom,” “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “I have a dream.” We build memorials to moral giants like Martin Luther King Jr. even before we build them to great generals and presidents like Dwight Eisenhower. James Polk, who through conquest enlarged the country more than any other president, is seldom remembered in America.

Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as our greatest president. We do not celebrate him as the conqueror of the rebellious South, but instead as the Great Liberator. He made greater strides than any other in fulfilling the promise of our nation​—​and in ways the Founders themselves failed to do. The words etched in stone on his memorial declare, “he saved the Union.” He did so because he saw a moral mission inherent in the country’s very existence. He led the country through its most brutal and destructive war in order to ensure a vital outcome: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Greatness, in our national tradition, comes not from glory and victory and power over others, but from rightness. The American creed is a moral North Star by which we implicitly orient ourselves. We have not always lived up to our ideals, but our greatest internal struggles have been fought to rectify our shortcomings. Thus our culture has both been built atop liberal democratic ideas and served to continually reinforce them. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, but the symbiosis is more complete and fundamental in this nation than in any other.

As in any nation, our culture manifests in specific ways—​songs, flags, place names, icons, symbols of all kinds—​that are familiar and close to us alone. These are things to which we have a raw emotional connection. But that need not detract from an awareness of the deeper meaning behind them. In the United States, these are symbols not just of our nationhood, but our identity as a nation dedicated to universal truths. It is that very awareness that gives Americans a special pride when we wave our flag, sing our national anthem, salute our servicemen, and cheer our Air Force flyovers. Europeans are often chagrined at these sights, for their national histories followed very different paths: Their flags more often represented exclusive ethnic identities and their armies more often sailed overseas to subjugate new lands. To their eyes our demonstrations of national pride connote chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, or militarism. But we find ourselves in the historically lucky position that​—​more than any other nation​—​our national projects, our symbols, and our military might have been used in the service of liberty more than glory. Our culture​—​in all its facets​—​binds us together not just as members of a nation, but as citizens of a democratic republic.


The New Nationalists essentially ignore the connection between our political ideals and our love of country. They have drawn a caricature of the other side of the debate: To believe America’s core identity is built on universal ideals, they argue, is to adopt a globalist mindset that inevitably leads to open borders, open trade, and the loss of national sovereignty.

This argument is simply wrong. None of the ideals of American exceptionalism contradict the supposition that the U.S. government should put the well-being of American citizens first. The purpose of the government established by the Constitution is to protect the rights of the citizens that make up the political community known as the United States, not to protect the rights of all people everywhere on earth. To believe, as the Declaration of Independence posits, that all persons everywhere possess equal fundamental rights endowed by nature does not mean that our particular government must be the one to protect those rights or to grant further civil rights to allow all to partake in our political system. By much the same principle, the mayor of Chicago can and should prioritize the well-being of Chicagoans over the well-being of New Yorkers without giving up the belief that New Yorkers possess the same natural rights as Chicagoans and ought to have full civil rights—and responsibilities—to participate in their own self-government.

Our ideals actually guard against ceding sovereignty to supranational undemocratic governance structures. A polity requires citizenship. Our republican principles dictate that governing authority derives from the people themselves. Active citizenship and participation in government is the only source of legitimacy. The U.N., the WTO, the ICC, NATO—none of these grants any of the rights or responsibilities of citizenship to individuals. The constituent members are nation-states, not people. There is no world polity, and the United States is part of no supranational organization that even begins to involve citizens directly in self-government. As a nation, we choose when to engage with these supranational bodies out of our national self-interest. Reasonable people disagree on where the optimal balance lies, but that debate is about national strategy, not political principle.

There are true globalists out there, but claiming that the New Nationalist agenda is the only counter to their arguments ignores numerous contrary positions all across the political spectrum. On most substantive matters, labeling the other side as “globalist” simply impugns the motives of the other side and closes down debate. Most of those accused of the sin of globalism would assert they are looking out for America’s interests the best way one can in the modern interconnected world—by working with other nations. If you believe climate change is a real threat, there is no way to address it without international engagement. If you think free trade benefits Americans, you have to sign trade deals with other countries. One must win the argument on the issues rather than simply asserting that the other side is acting as part of some nefarious plot for a world state.

Some of the New Nationalists ascribe a whole host of failures to the evils of globalism, from Obamacare, an overactive EPA, and federal welfare laws to the disastrous government handling of 9/11, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the financial meltdown, and the Arab Spring. But these issues have nothing to do with global governance. Shut down America’s borders permanently and cut off ties with all international organizations and the same problems remain. The only common factor here is a conservative antipathy toward bloated federal bureaucracies.

What is really at issue is not so much the “globalist” part of the equation but the “elite” part. The New Nationalism is attempting to co-opt the populist outrage at a wealthy technocratic elite that has seemingly escaped all accountability through successive national disasters and cocooned itself in a material comfort the rest of America can scarcely imagine. This anger is directed as much toward Bernie Sanders’s “1 percent” as at Donald Trump’s “liberal coastal elites.” The American crisis of confidence is real and profound. If, as some of the New Nationalists contend, a managerial elite has corrupted both capitalism and democracy in America, it will take fundamental, even revolutionary, reforms to restore the social contract in our society. The question requires a far-reaching national conversation. The only sure thing is that simply banishing a “globalist” mindset in favor of a nationalist one won’t solve anything.

The New Nationalists’ embrace of “America First” relies almost entirely on a globalist enemy that doesn’t exist in America. In Britain, the same arguments would have been apt in favoring Brexit (in a situation where significant portions of national law-making and enforcement authority really had been ceded to a supranational body run largely by unelected bureaucrats). But the United States is already far more independent than any post-Brexit United Kingdom will be. In terms of actual policy, the New Nationalists avowed aims are already met in the United States. They are endeavoring to bridge the gap to the president’s new ideology, but they are doing so with a version of nationalism that is extremely limited in nature. “America First,” as they define it, would be supported by nearly any traditional Republican, and likely some Democrats as well. Whether to put America’s interests first is not the point of contention in the Trump era. The real question is what that actually means—what America’s true interests really are.


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.”

Restoring American greatness, by this reasoning, means that we need to start winning against someone again. Generally speaking, that someone is foreigners, primarily illegal immigrants at home and various trade partners abroad, all of whom are apparently abusing us and bleeding us dry. And the Mexican rapists and Chinese currency manipulators are being aided and abetted by a turncoat globalist elite that has sold out real Americans. This is not a new trope. It’s been the refrain of nativists the world over for centuries, including the last standard-bearers of “America First,” who, before Pearl Harbor, argued that World War II was none of our business. For them it wasn’t the Nazis who posed the greatest threat to America, but rather the Jews and the British who were trying to subvert America’s true interests to their own.

A similarity to past nativism does not make all the president’s arguments invalid. But his outsized emphasis on blaming foreigners for America’s biggest problems—when evidence shows that up to 85 percent of manufacturing job losses are due to automation rather than trade, and when only around 6 percent of crime in the country is attributable to illegal immigrants (who, statistics indicate, commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens)—is worrying. So is how little he has offered in the way of a positive program to address the very real problems and legitimate anxieties of the American people. His rhetorical focus remains on protectionism against foreign imports, immigrant labor, and corporate outsourcing—strategies that have done more harm than good for Americans’ material well-being over the past century. He exhibits little forward thinking on how to get wages rising. He doesn’t speak much of boosting the productivity of American workers through education, training, or promoting innovation. He has not entertained any serious discussion of how to mitigate the disruptive effect of technological change on the working class, or how to reform entitlements and get America’s debt burden under control. He has not called for any kind of national conversation to address the fraying of our civic culture or family structures, nor sought to engage our citizenry in the rebuilding of communities he says have become scenes of “American carnage.” His solutions rest disproportionately on “[bringing] back our wealth” from foreigners who have robbed Americans of their rightful riches.

The president’s search for opponents to defeat has also resulted in regular displays of contempt for our dearest values. He has impugned the legitimacy of the democratic process and our elections, claiming voter fraud on levels that—if true—would make a mockery of the entire electoral system. He has questioned the authority of the judiciary, once on the basis of ethnicity. He continually lambastes the free press as “such lying, disgusting people,” and even declares them “the enemy of the people” (a term famously employed by both Lenin and Mao). He has exhibited a nostalgic fondness for violence at political events, pining for the old days when protesters were “carried out on a stretcher” and complimenting a supporter who punched a protester in the head as someone who “obviously loves his country.” And he regularly fans the fears about Muslim immigrants beyond all reasonable proportion, as when he tweeted that “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country” as a result of the judicial stay on his travel ban, and that if given even “one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week.”

In this context, it is hardly surprising that so many Americans have come to see the president’s agenda not as some all-inclusive citizens’ patriotism, but as exactly the kind of narrow ethnic “blood-and-soil” nationalism that the New Nationalists claim not to endorse. When a president so thoroughly omits all the ideals of the American creed from his program, yet continues to stir so much passion, anger, and resentment against “the other,” the vacuum of ideas will be filled by something very ugly, whether actively encouraged or not. That is why so many white nationalists and other hate groups gravitated to the Trump campaign. They see themselves as the only group with the proper historical, cultural, religious, and ethnic bona fides to be “real” Americans. When the rallying cry is “Make America Great Again,” the “again” can cause a great deal of unease for the large segments of the American population that only relatively recently won their full rights of citizenship. Such is the danger of a unifying ethos based on a purely national identity without a veneration for the political ideals on which our citizenship is built.


The “again” in Trump’s mantra matters a great deal on the world stage as well. Finding glory in a nation’s past—real or mythical—has been a perennial hallmark of nationalisms the world over. The president complains that “we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we’re a poor country now.” We’ve fallen so far, in fact, “we’re like a third-world country.” By any and all possible measures this claim is absurd. America is hugely richer now than it has been at any time in its history—whether it’s the 1950s, the 1980s, or any other period the president may have in mind. The fact that this wealth has been distributed extremely unequally within the United States—and has largely bypassed the middle and working class—is an issue of utmost importance, but one that can only be addressed through bold and innovative domestic policy reforms. What was different in the past, of course, was that other countries were so much poorer. To be true, the president’s claim must be entirely relative. They’ve gotten richer, so we must be poorer. We don’t need to think critically and come up with innovative solutions to our own problems; all we have to do is “bring back our wealth.” This economic revanchism has little to do with real world economics and everything to do with the relative pecking order.

This zero-sum outlook leads to an adversarial and combative approach to nearly every major trading partner. Whether he’s lambasting China, Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, or Germany for unfair trade practices, the refrain is always the same: Because of them, “the jobs and wealth have been stripped from our country.” Beyond the economic unreality of that accusation is the shock of how little regard he shows for even our closest allies, risking trade wars, fraying ties that have taken generations to build, and potentially even destabilizing a still relatively fragile democracy like Mexico.

Even more worrying is the president’s application of this mindset to matters of national security. He has criticized NATO as obsolete; castigated Germany, Japan, and South Korea for owing the United States “vast sums” for the protection we provide (ignoring how the spending agreements are actually structured); and threatened that the United States may attenuate its common defense commitments (including the withdrawal of its nuclear umbrella) if his pecuniary demands are not met. The president seems to view our most important military alliances as pay-for-play arrangements whereby we provide what amount to mercenary services. His fixation on the dollar component shows a fundamental lack of understanding of our alliance network’s primary purpose: deterrence, which rests entirely on the threat that an attack on one will be considered an attack on all. The credibility of that threat has prevented the outbreak of any large-scale wars since 1945. Undermining that credibility—and thus increasing the likelihood of a major conflict—for a few extra dollars hardly seems like a “great deal.”

Everything about the president’s foreign policy indicates that his worldview is entirely transactional and calculated on a one-off, zero-sum basis. Until his abrupt about-face after the chemical weapons attack in Syria, he had abjured any talk, much less action, on the enforcement of international law, the defense of human rights, or the promotion of democratic values abroad. This is not unprecedented in American history: American idealism and the long-term vision of a worldwide triumph of democracy have always come into conflict with foreign-policy realism and America’s immediate strategic interests. But this president outlines no grand strategy at all.

His objection to normalizing relations with Cuba was a perfect example of his thinking. This had nothing to do either with that country’s lack of freedom under Communist dictatorship or with its perennial undermining of U.S. strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere; it was solely about the fact that the deal we struck hadn’t forbidden Cuba to file lawsuits for reparations claims against the United States. Likewise, his views on Russia have (until his Syria reversal) focused entirely on a potential (many would argue imaginary) one-time cooperative effort against ISIS, ignoring Russia’s long-running support for our strategic enemies in Syria and Iran (and even, as some recent reports indicate, the Taliban), its efforts to destabilize our alliances in democratic Europe, and its flagrant and continuing violations of international law in Ukraine.

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.”


Leadership on the world stage requires taking on responsibilities. It requires enforcing the rules, playing by them, and expending a fair amount of resources to do so. It has great rewards. Part of it is material: Leadership allows you to define and set the rules of the game more than any other player, and to do so in a way that advances your interests and shapes the world to reflect your values. The other great reward is moral: If you believe your ideals are superior, even universal, then shaping the world to them is an act of profound good. All this, of course, describes exactly what America did in establishing and maintaining what is referred to as the postwar liberal order.

Conversely, a leader may suddenly start using his powers to extract riches and concessions from everyone else on the field solely for immediate benefit. In the short term, yes, he will “win” most fights he picks—often quite easily, by targeting the weakest teammates. But order will break down, and as people grow to distrust him, he will grow weaker vis-à-vis his true rivals. Soon he will no longer be the captain at all, just another player on the field scrounging to grab whatever can be had.

Which path sounds more like a match for the president’s agenda? Trump’s views are perfectly illustrated in his oft-repeated exhortation that “we should have kept the oil” in Iraq, an act that would have been justified, he contends, by the old expression “to the victor belong the spoils.” That certainly is “winning” along the criteria he has laid out time and again. The fact that it undermines both the international laws of sovereignty and the principles of democratic self-determination we have fought for centuries to uphold does not enter into his calculation. We get material benefit from a one-off transaction. End of story. He doesn’t seem to recognize a difference between making investments and sacrifices for long-term strategic goals, and being a sucker. True leadership, in other words, is for losers.

When winning is all that matters, questions of morality are superfluous. The president celebrates strength—the ability to win—as the highest virtue. The rest is weakness; the rest is losing. This is not “might makes right.” Right just isn’t a factor. Might is the whole point. From this worldview flowed the seemingly bizarre adulation of authoritarian leaders around the world. Vladimir Putin was only the most notable of the “strong leaders.” Others Trump has complimented or noted for strength include Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, and the Chinese Communists who put down the Tiananmen Square protests.

Even looking to America’s own, far less authoritarian history, the president speaks most admiringly of some of our most controversial leaders: presidents like Andrew Jackson, who defied the authority of the Supreme Court and consigned thousands of Native Americans to death, and generals like Douglas MacArthur, who had to be relieved of command for disobeying presidential orders and attempting to expand the Korean War into an all-out (potentially nuclear) conflict with China. They put the Constitution aside to do what they felt was necessary to “win” for the American people, as they defined it. It is the tendency of nations to give such wide discretion in times of emergency. The office of “dictator” was established in ancient Rome for exactly that purpose. But preventing a repeat of Rome’s fate was exactly why the Founders wrote the Constitution as they did. A nationalist outlook that so readily discards the safeguards that both protect the rights of the citizenry and guide the legitimate exercise of political authority can make anyone nervous who thinks he might not be included in the definition of “real American,” and should worry everyone who believes America’s deeper interests lie beyond immediate “wins” against every other country on earth.


The president’s worldview presents us with a profound question: Does America’s greatness derive from “winning” or from its moral and strategic leadership? To choose the former is to reject much of our most hallowed history and traditions. Was America not great when we gave back all the lands we liberated in World War II? Was it not great when we spent billions on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and save it from destitution and the specter of Soviet communism? Could we have been a truly great nation before we became the richest and most powerful (discounting any time before the late-19th century)? Was America not great when, even though a poor and hopelessly outmatched colonial backwater, it declared the equality of all men in 1776? Was it not made greater by its moral strides to end slavery in 1865 and to guarantee full civil rights in the 1960s than by any accumulation of wealth during that time? Conversely, do we believe America would have been made greater if we had kept the Philippines under our control, or annexed the German coal regions we conquered in 1945, or the Kuwaiti oil fields we took in 1991?

Showing his dismissal of the idea of the moral leadership underlying “American exceptionalism,” Trump said in 2015, “I don’t like the term.” Exceptionality, for him, is measured by the same things as greatness: wealth and power. Germany, he argued, was actually more exceptional because it was getting the better of us in trade deals. “I’d like to make us exceptional,” he went on to say, by “[taking] back everything we’ve given the world.” While we reclaimed our riches from other nations, though, he thought we should avoid the word “exceptional” so as not to “rub it in.”

The point, however, is not some special label we give ourselves or anything to do with our GDP or trade balance; it is whether we believe our country has any moral mission to live up to. Without it, everything becomes relative, and every country’s greatness becomes defined solely by its power, rather than the ends to which it puts that power. Many were shocked when the president excused Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial actions by noting “we have a lot of killers. .  .  . You think our country is so innocent?” But the most disturbing aspect was not that he argued a moral equivalency between the two governments; it was that it didn’t seem to bother him very much. If the American political system worked the way Russia’s did, it would be the Founders’ worst nightmare of tyranny come true. But to the president’s mind, it wouldn’t stand in the way of American greatness.

“They say all men are created equal,” said Trump in 2009. But “it’s not true. Some people are born very smart, some people are born not so smart.” The president has made such statements on many occasions, and in one sense—the material and tangible—he is obviously correct. But of course he misses the true meaning of the Declaration: that all persons are endowed with the same moral worth and the same natural rights and thus entitled to equal citizenship and treatment under the law. Trump’s understanding of America’s greatness is similarly stunted. There is no moral North Star, no greater national mission beyond the immediate and the material. This would be worrying in any nation, but is all the more heartbreaking in ours because we have such a contrasting tradition. The president’s brand of nationalism may not be un-American, but there’s nothing uniquely American about it either.


A favorite refrain of the New Nationalists is that the intellectual class—and conservative intellectuals in particular—is hopelessly out of touch. The 2016 election certainly showed that the pundits are stuck fighting the same old battles, ignorant of the changes in the country’s political landscape and blind to the waves of populist revolt. But the New Nationalists scarcely break out of the echo chamber themselves in their attempts to square the circle of Trumpian nationalism and force-fit it into a conservative paradigm of what a “good nationalism” looks like. Their efforts are largely wishful thinking and, worse, grant intellectual cover to an ideology that can do serious damage to America’s democracy and ideals.

They not only fail to understand the president’s actions, but also to understand why he was victorious in the first place. As is the usual case with intellectuals, the focus is almost entirely on theory rather than execution. The central principle of the president’s campaign was to get America “winning” again, and to do so for its own sake rather than for any long-term vision or idealistic goal. The New Nationalists are ignoring the first part—which, after all, is purely a matter of execution and results—and focusing entirely on the second—wherein the theoretical justification lies.

The American people likely had something very different in mind when they went to the polls last November. They elected a CEO. You hire a new CEO so that he’ll get your company better results than the last guy; you don’t hire him to give you a new theory of capitalism. If there was ever a presidential candidate to eschew theoretical coherence, it was Donald Trump. He was not running on Trumpism; he was running on being Donald Trump. “I alone can fix it” was the central pillar of his candidacy. To intellectualize his triumph may well be a far greater mistake than to have never seen it coming in the first place.

Americans were angry at the results of two decades of policies that have brought them failing wars and stagnating wages. And no other candidate (save perhaps Bernie Sanders) properly acknowledged just how profoundly America’s leaders and its elites had failed the rest of the country and failed to pay a price for it. But there are two fundamental problems with President Trump’s nationalist program. The first is that it simply will not achieve its promised results. The bulk of the agenda is a false promise, a shortcut of quick wins against easy scapegoats that won’t address our true economic challenges and will undermine our long-term security. The second is that it abandons America’s most cherished ideals in favor of an ideology of winning for its own sake. Such an ideology will necessarily collapse when the promised “greatness” and attendant riches do not materialize. But along the way it can do lasting damage to what has truly made America a great and exceptional nation in the world.

Building a new nationalist ideology around Trump’s rhetoric not only grants intellectual cover to its most objectionable elements, it also makes it harder for conservatives to encourage a different side of President Trump that he put front and center in his campaign: the results-oriented businessman. That pragmatic, nonideological spirit should be embraced. The president has already signaled his openness to grand bargains across party lines on issues like health care and even immigration reform. Most stunning of all, his reversal on Syria shows just how unsettled his views are on America’s foreign policy. Trump is right that Americans deserve a government that will deliver and make their lives materially better and safer. But that result cannot be achieved by blaming imagined foes or shirking our leadership of the free world. It will take leadership that is smart, realistic, and strategic in its choices abroad, as well as bold, forward-thinking, and inclusive in its policies at home.

The actual issues the New Nationalists highlight as being of greatest importance to them—state sovereignty, control of our borders, putting America’s strategic interests first—are all perfectly consistent with and supported by our founding political ideals. To hold those ideals to be universal does not require us to adopt a globalist program or abandon the concept of nationhood. To the contrary, recognizing the central importance of those ideals to our identity allows Americans a national pride unique in the world. We should embrace our exceptionalist tradition and celebrate it as the source of our greatness, not reject it and insist on our utter ordinariness among the nations of the world.

Daniel Krauthammer is a consultant in San Francisco.