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The Difficulties of Carrying the Nationalist Mantle
“We’ve come to an odd pass in American politics,” Chris Stirewalt writes in a recent piece. “The people who have the deepest suspicions about the way government works are increasingly enthusiastic about the use of government power.”
It was a good lead-in describing what Stirewalt refers to as “the contradictions of paranoid nationalism.” Getting a bit more specific, he points out that “many of the same folks who say that government authorities shouldn’t be trusted to make sure vaccines are safe or that elections are fairly conducted also say that we should have the government set industrial policy, regulate speech on the internet, or even engineer the size and shape of American families.”
He's on the money, of course, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve had trouble taking seriously this supposed American nationalist movement that was popularized (at least rhetorically) during the Trump administration. It’s filled with gaping ideological holes, lacks intellectual and philosophical consistency, and those who attempt to tout its merits continually struggle to present it as anything other than knee-jerk, grievance-fueled partisan pandering.
There’s a reason for that. While one could argue that nationalism in its textbook form represents a coherent ideology with an identifiable set of principles, the garbled mess we see today — as proudly touted by the likes of Senator Josh Hawley and aspiring senator JD Vance — are remnants of a phony ideological narrative created by right-wing political players and media types to rationalize Donald Trump’s rabid popularity and devotion among Republican voters.
In reality, his intense support was (and still is) largely about personality, attitude, and cultural grievance… not ideology, and really not even policies. But it was recognized early on that such a thing would come across as mindless and cult-like to those outside of the Trump bubble, and perhaps more importantly to those inside who had trouble adequately defining that support amidst their past positions and standards. Thus, a philosophical explanation was required to try and make substantive sense of it all.
There was plenty to explain, after all, like why lifelong social conservatives suddenly decided it was no longer important for a U.S. president to have a moral compass, and why lifelong fiscal conservatives ultimately concluded that $8 trillion added to the national debt in just four years really wasn’t such a big deal. The shallow answers were "Would you rather have Hillary?" and "We must stop socialism!" The supposedly more profound, intellectual one was the alleged strength of nationalism.
Of course, the only real “nationalist” policy one could argue that Trump actually employed (as opposed to just talking about) was his trade war… which was a very expensive, colossal failure that produced exactly the opposite results of what it was premised on. I guess you could also include the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan (which has already turned disastrous), but it was President Biden who ultimately pulled the trigger on that one.
Regardless, in today’s American politics, transparently bogus narratives often trump logic and consistency, and that’s what people like Hawley and Vance are counting on. They don’t have the charisma or rhetorical appeal of someone like Trump, so (when they're not tossing out dopey pandemic jokes on Twitter) they're focusing on harnessing the “nationalist” sentiment they believe the former president instilled in his devotees. Out of one side of their mouth, these politicians are decrying government incompetency, overreach, and corruption; out of the other, they’re proposing big-government intervention into the private sector to “fix” things.
Hawley hopes his efforts will give him an edge in 2024’s GOP presidential primary, and Vance hopes for the same in his Ohio senate race this year. While their political advisors are assuredly telling them this is the right direction to go in, their poll numbers (so far) aren’t showing that it’s working.
This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who understands the true appeal of Trumpism, in that it's tied directly to an individual, not governance.
In other words, they're not Trump. The rest is just noise.
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