Populism is a term most generally identified with Donald Trump’s success. In fact it is nationalism that brought him to power. Trump is not a populist. To the contrary, he has surrounded himself with billionaires and ideologues whose nostrums would impoverish many of the people who voted for him. Some of his followers know this but don’t care. What energized them from Day One was his appeal to nationalism before which their economic interests and his personal defects paled. It was a home-grown variety, as American as apple pie, flavored with the traditional ingredients of protectionism, xenophobia and old-time religion.
One of the peculiar aspects of nationalism inflamed, is that it must have an “other” to hate. Love of country is insufficient. The “other” can be a foreign enemy or an alien within. Donald Trump took advantage of both. His entire campaign was fueled by an appeal to an aggrieved constituency that saw itself as the real America beset by predatory foes and feckless friends abroad, together with a tide of immigrants at home who were stealing their jobs, subverting their culture and threatening their security. Worse still, these aliens and their foreign allies were abetted by an elite cabal of domestic traitors who were selling the nation’s birthright for a mess of globalist pottage. Credit Trump for instinctively grasping this nettle and running with it. And run he did.
Whatever vicissitudes the campaign took, Trump never strayed from the nationalist playbook, a strategy that has carried over into the White House. What appeared to be improvised, and even ill-considered, was harnessed to a larger design, whether intuitive, calculated, or both. Well before his candidacy, Trump had already pre-tested this scenario by leading the birther movement that besmirched President Obama as both inauthentic and illegitimate, a long-running show that for years played to Trump’s audience.
Trump launched his campaign by promising to deport Mexican “rapists” and build a wall against Mexico to keep more of them out — a two-fer that allowed him to attack “foreigners” in this country and their nation of origin across the border. This was the leitmotif of exclusion and demonization that jump-started his campaign. The next target of opportunity was Islam, with Trump’s threat to impose a ban on Muslims entering our country, putatively in the name of protecting us from terrorism but in effect, throwing red meat to a xenophobic following. As President, Trump closed our doors to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and suspended refugee resettlement in a political move that caused international chaos and prompted worldwide condemnation, doing little for our national security but playing to the nativist sentiments of his base.
The serious issue of reinvigorating the rust belt was elided into a volatile exercise of finger-pointing at immigrants as the cause of job loss. Ignored were the more critical factors of robotization, globalized investment indulged by Trump himself and factory transfers from the rust belt not overseas but to corporate friendly venues in the South. All of these far greater causes of manufacturing job loss were subsumed into Trump’s attacks on the easy target of immigrants.
As for the nation’s actual security, Trump proceeded to denigrate America’s NATO allies as weak and feckless, undermining the stable world order that decades of U.S. diplomacy had painstakingly built since the end of World War II. He has threatened a trade war with China, alienated a Mexican neighbor, is challenging the Paris treaty on global warming and has abrogated a Trans-Pacific Trade accord that won’t bring any jobs back but will weaken U.S. interests in the Western Ocean. All in the name of putting America First, which may actually make our country a runner-up to China.
Our President may not be much of a history student but he understands instinctively that in terms of popular appeal, nationalism invariably carries the day over internationalism. In its history of little more than 200 years it parted company with liberalism and democracy early on as national movements of the 19th Century became intolerant at home, chauvinistic abroad and imperialist when possible. Socialist internationalism collapsed before the nationalist frenzy that led to the killing fields of World War I. Woodrow Wilson’s brief foray into the League of Nations ended in disaster followed by America’s withdrawal into the isolationism that permitted the march of Fascism paving the way for the slaughter of World War II. Today, we are undergoing a reprise of the right-wing dictatorships of the thirties with authoritarian movements throughout Europe that have made common cause with Trump in Poland, Hungary and France.
Globalism is, by definition, an international phenomenon and easy enough to disparage with impunity since it has no domestic constituency. But whatever its flaws, it is rooted in a world order implemented and guaranteed by the United States. Trump is proposing a dissolution of this system which generally worked to our advantage but also guaranteed a measure of security and stability in a volatile world. For all the tragedy that has befallen mankind in the past 70 years, nuclear disaster was prevented, there was no major war between the great powers and the menace of worldwide Depression and global economic chaos was avoided. The unraveling of this arrangement, weakens us and helps our enemies. America First is a slogan, but its execution has consequences. If other countries follow suit we may expect a China First or a Germany First or an India First — an international scrum with each against all and the prospect of international chaos.
In the prophetic “1984,” Big Brother rallied the masses by xenophobic hostility toward two global enemies, distracting the people with such diversions as a hate hour in which they railed at a treasonous dissident who symbolized a foreign threat. But even Orwell could not have foreseen an atomized world in which “the proles” elect their own Big Brother who fuels their animus toward enemies within and without. In this sense, the election of Donald Trump was “populist.” But it was a populism of the Right, fueled by resentment, animated by fear and driven by a raw appeal to nationalist sentiment. Trump didn’t so much inspire his followers as incite them on a path of smashing whatever came before. It is a populism heady with chauvinism but imbued with more than a touch of nihilism. Trump’s call for such a narrow nationalism can lead only to the decline of America and its example as a beacon of democracy for the world.
Jack Schwartz was book editor of Newsday and is the author of “The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman.”