Skip to content
Trump’s Twisted Nationalism
Go to my account

Trump’s Twisted Nationalism

To the former president, making America great again is about nothing more than making himself the most important person in the world.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC on March 4, 2023. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Excluding any law school deans who don’t understand the concept of free speech),

So today, two things happened almost simultaneously (actually, hundreds of trillions of things happened almost simultaneously today, but let’s not quibble). 

The former president, running for another term, attacked an undeclared rival for wanting to control spending and curtail government central planning of the economy.  

Around the same time, the House Freedom Caucus, among former President Donald Trump’s most stalwart supporters, said they won’t vote to increase the debt ceiling unless they extract massive spending cuts and claw back the Biden administration’s central planning of the economy.

Such is the coherence of right these days. 

Now, if you don’t like the term “central planning,” that’s fine. I struggled to come up with a better one. But “industrial policy” doesn’t sit well with me because even free market folks—like me—have an industrial policy to one extent or another. And I don’t just mean that my industrial policy is to let industries make their own decisions and live with the consequences. I don’t have a problem with anti-pollution laws (depending on the details), and you could say that’s part of my industrial policy. I don’t like to use the word “socialism” because it’s not really socialism. The state isn’t seizing industries. It’s merely telling them what to do and if they comply, they can still collect profits, often from taxpayer dollars. Technically, this stuff is more properly called “corporatism”—the economic doctrine of fascism. But I’ve learned from experience that using fascism to describe economic policies makes people feel unsafe, and that too many people think corporatism means “rule by corporations”—which it doesn’t. Also, a great number of people—raised on the dirty intellectual bathtub residue of Marxism—are convinced that fascism was a rapacious capitalist enterprise. 

So here’s what I mean by central planning, at least in this context. Requiring business to sell, and consumers to use, ethanol is central planning. Taxing people out of using foreign goods is central planning. Spending on industrial projects like chip manufacturing is central planning. Putting all sorts of strings on those expenditures to advance various social and ideological priorities by proxy is central planning. 

I’m totally open to the argument that not all central planning is equal. People who favor high tariffs are not required to believe they’re hypocrites for opposing various green energy boondoggles, any more than people who believe in low tariffs are required to admit their inconsistency when they favor the Biden administration forcing chip manufacturers to spend money on daycare centers. 

It’s a bit like censorship. Most of us favor censorship of some things in some contexts; we just don’t like calling the censorship we like “censorship.” But I’ve yet to meet a sane person—including many self-declared free speech absolutists—who isn’t fine with the FCC censoring hardcore, violent pornography from Saturday morning television. 

The key, as with most things in life, is drawing defensible and meaningful distinctions between superficially similar things. 

My point here is that Trump’s economic philosophy is fundamentally the same as Biden’s, or at least very similar. Biden’s protectionism is literally the same as Trump’s because Biden hasn’t rescinded most of Trump’s trade policies. Biden’s industrial planning is different but it overlaps a lot. They both like ethanol subsidies—which are just green energy policies 1.0. They both consider entitlement programs to be untouchable. 

I can draw a meaningful distinction between the House Freedom Caucus’ economic philosophy and both Biden’s and Trump’s. When Trump is in power, the caucus is in favor of central planning and industrial policy. When Biden is in power, it isn’t. When Trump is in power, racking up massive debt is okay. When Biden is in power, it’s outrageous

Ronald Reagan, RIP.

Rich Lowry has a good column in Politico on how the Trump strategy is to delegitimize Reaganism as an acceptable form of conservatism in the GOP. Before he became whatever he is now, Ron DeSantis was a fairly conventional Reaganite. 

I think Rich does a very good job explaining that Reagan was less of a rigid ideologue than both his superfans and superfoes sometimes claim. But I do think he undersells the point that for all of Reagan’s pragmatism as a politician, dealing with the world as he found it, Reagan always pointed in the direction of principle even when he needed to tack or trim in the face of political winds. 

That’s one of the key differences between Reaganism and Trumpism. You always knew what direction Reagan wanted to go, even when he couldn’t get to his desired destination in a straight line. That’s because the point of Reagan’s presidency wasn’t Reagan but what Reagan wanted to do with the presidency. Reagan and Trump both said they wanted to make America great again, but they didn’t mean the same thing. Trump’s idea of making America great again is about making himself the most important person in the world again. Lots of people don’t believe this about Trump, but they are simply wrong. At the testing point, Trump is about Trump. His TPAC speech was largely about himself, his vindication, his retribution

And a lot of his fans can’t see the difference between Trump and Reagan. In All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s fictionalized tale of Huey Long, Willie Stark says, “Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him. I’ll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.” This was Trump’s message as well: “I am your warrior, I am your justice.”

Rich is a much bigger fan of nationalism than I am, but at least his definition of nationalism is pretty close to my definition of patriotism. And while we can debate etymologies and definitions all day long, the simple fact is that we need separate words for what I call patriotism and what Trump means by nationalism. 

Romantic nationalism—the original term for describing the kind of nationalism Trump subscribes to—is, well, romantic. It rejects formal systems and rules in favor of emotional, poetic, spiritual, and atmospheric conceptions of “the nation” as a collective entity that has a kind of will and agency beyond mere electoral democracy. The nation has its own voice, its own authenticity.  One of the problems with this sort of nationalism is it has no limiting principle, no legitimate checks on its will. Another problem is that it invariably becomes a kind of cult of personality, because it requires an individual to symbolize, articulate, and incarnate the inchoate mysticism of the mystical nation. 

Patriotism, as I understand it, does not rely on such notions. It grounds itself in the ideas, traditions, and rules that make any given nation great and it is open to the possibility that the aroused national spirit can be wrong. It contemplates and accounts for the fact that any leader who claims to be bigger, better, or above those ideas will actually be unpatriotic. Donald Trump has said he thinks the Constitution should be suspended just so he can be president again. That’s not only incredibly dumb, it’s profoundly unpatriotic. 

Tucker Carlson was right.

A good analogy for what I’m getting at is the unfolding scandal of Fox News. Nationalism and populism are about pandering to the grievances and desires—in that order—of “the people.” The quotation marks are necessary because whenever populists talk about “the people” they never mean all of the people. They mean people like them. Their fellow citizens are something else. 

This is how many at Fox saw their own audience. Journalism—by which I mean little more than truth-telling about the important issues and events of the day—is a lot like patriotism. It accounts for—even takes pride in—the duty to say things that will not be popular. Report the facts without fear or favor. Tell the people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. Lots of journalists fall short of the ideal, but they still are supposed to believe in the ideal. Entertainment is a lot like nationalism. Rile people up. Give them a good ride or a good laugh. Make them feel good when the hero wins. For God’s sake, don’t kill a lucrative franchise. 

That was the seductive logic of the Trump presidency. “Narrative” was more important than facts. Protect the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, liberal journalists were in the narrative business, too. “Resistance,” “the walls are closing in,” “the Supreme Court’s sergeant-at-arms is on the way!”

But Fox—and a lot of right-wing institutions—took it farther, to the point where a difference in degree became a difference in kind. 

And the amazing thing is that a lot of people at Fox knew it. 

“What [Trump’s] good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that,” Tucker Carlson texted a friend. “He’s a demonic force, a destroyer.”

And yet, Tucker was perfectly happy to play the role of the keymaster,  Vinz Clortho, to Trump’s Zuul. There’s a lot of vulgar Marxist analysis that says that he—and his colleagues—were all driven by greed. It’s obvious that greed played a role, particularly for the Murdochs. But Tucker was honest about what really drove him. 

It’s really amazing how Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity viewed their audience as a constituency, a kind of subnation of followers. And as a result they loathed the news side, what Ingraham tellingly refers to as “the news channel” as if it was some other entity outside of “the people.”

“My anger at the news channel is pronounced,” she texted Carlson. 

“It should be,” Carlson responded. “We devote our lives to building an audience and they let [Fox News Sunday host] Chris Wallace and [correspondent and anchor] Leland f—— Vittert wreck it.”

How were they wrecking it? By telling the audience the truth. It’s like one of those scenes in a Western where the mob storms the jailhouse and demands to hang the accused man inside. The sheriff stands in their way, insisting—patriotically—that mob justice has no place in a nation of laws. 

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Hannity texted Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy.

“This year is gonna suck my friend,” Hannity said. “’News’ destroyed us’.”

“Every day,” Doocy replied. 

“You don’t piss off the base,” Hannity said, as if the audience of a news channel should be treated like angry 19th century farmers demanding free silver. 

“They don’t care,” Doocy scornfully replied. “They are JOURNALISTS.”

Again, the remarkable thing about Tucker, who is smarter than most of his colleagues, is that he knew. He knew that Trump and Trumpism corrupt. But because he fancies himself the leader of his own little nation, a Belarus to Trump’s Russia, he couldn’t admit it publicly. 

This is, in microcosm, what Trump has done to so much of the right over the last seven years. Constitutionalism is great when constitutionalism works for Trump or the nationalists. Fiscal restraint is great when it hurts them, but it’s a bunch of ignorable silliness and RINO squishiness when it constrains us. Journalism and free speech are vital when they advance our agenda, but treason when inconvenient. Patriotism is great when it sounds like nationalism, but patriotism is for cucks and losers when it stands up to the mob.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’m in Sea Island, Georgia, for AEI’s World Forum. My wife joined me today. Last night, she texted me that Zoë came running into the bedroom “like the house was on fire.” She had been in the guest room “watching TV” (what we call it when she’s looking out an open window), when all of sudden she heard a fly down the hall in our bedroom. She charged in like she was Seal Team Six and the fly was Bin Laden. Suffice it to say, that fly won’t be orchestrating any terrorist strikes in the future. Other than that the girls are doing great, even if they’ve filed their grievances about our absence. Pippa even got her buddy Clover (aka “Dark Pippa”) to smile. Although Chester did take a swipe at Pippa. 

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.