The Man Without a Country

Donald Trump was America’s first stateless president.

Donald Trump and Edward Everett Hale
The president’s predicament brings to mind the fate of Philip Nolan, the central character in one of the most popular American short stories ever written. (Getty / The Atlantic)

Residents of Palm Beach are not amused. There has long been speculation that Donald Trump intends to take up postpresidential residence at Mar-a-Lago, the waterfront club he owns in Florida. Neighbors now point to a 1993 deal whereby Trump, in return for permission to turn a private estate into a profit-making business, agreed that no club member would live on the premises for more than 21 days a year, or for more than seven consecutive days at a time. If the agreement is enforced, the former president may find himself shuttling forever among Trump Organization properties in the U.S., Scotland, Dubai, the Philippines, and elsewhere; perhaps even being put up from time to time in the settlement named for him in the Golan Heights. In the worst case, he might live like King Lear, serially testing the goodwill of his children.

The president’s predicament brings to mind the fate of Philip Nolan, the central character in one of the most popular American short stories ever written—a staple of school reading lists for a century, up until the 1960s, but now largely forgotten. “The Man Without a Country,” by Edward Everett Hale, was published in The Atlantic in the winter of 1863. It was a moment of national crisis: America was deep in civil war; Gettysburg had been fought that summer; soon after, Lincoln had given his famous address. Hale, a prominent Boston writer and minister—the grandnephew of the Revolutionary martyr Nathan Hale, and the nephew of Edward Everett, who gave the other speech at Gettysburg—conceived a patriotic tale to aid the Union cause.

In the story, the narrator has just received word of the death of Philip Nolan—“poor Nolan, as we all learned to call him”—an Army lieutenant and a decent man who, decades earlier, when Thomas Jefferson was president, had found himself caught up in some questionable business involving Aaron Burr. Upon being convicted by court-martial, Nolan had jumped up and cried, “D--n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

The judge, pronouncing sentence, granted Nolan his wish. ’Til the end of his days, he must live aboard a Navy corvette on the high seas. The buttons with the initials U.S. on his military uniform are replaced with buttons of plain brass. He is to be given his own quarters and treated well, but no one is permitted to give him news about his native country. He may read books, but not from an American publisher. Blocks of text are cut out of foreign newspapers to remove references to the United States. Whenever his ship sails home to an American port, he is transferred at sea beforehand to an outbound vessel.

Half a century goes by. Now Nolan lies dying. A shipboard officer named Danforth visits his cabin. He finds that Nolan has created a shrine to America. He has drawn a majestic eagle and a portrait of George Washington. He has created pennants with stars and stripes. He has drawn a detailed map of the United States as he remembers it, one still marked with an “Indiana Territory” and a “Louisiana Territory.” Nolan looks up at Danforth and says, “Here, you see, I have a country!”

Taking pity, Danforth ignores his orders and tells Nolan of all that has happened in America since the judge handed down his sentence. Nolan had noticed the occasional addition of stars on the ship’s flag; Danforth tells him the names of all the new states that have come into the Union. He describes the coming of the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph. He gives the current president’s name as Lincoln. The one thing that Danforth cannot bring himself to reveal to the dying man is that America has been plunged into civil war. “I told him everything I could think of that would show the grandeur of his country and its prosperity; but I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal Rebellion!”

I remember reading my father’s tattered Little Brown edition of the story, with the embossed sailing ship on the cover—his boyhood copy—and feeling overcome with sadness at Nolan’s predicament; sadness, and also fear. The idea of being forcibly detached from family, church, neighborhood—the “country” of the title referred to all of this, as well as citizenship—was chilling. National identity and the nature of citizenship were Hale’s subjects; the Civil War was being fought over them. A few years after Hale’s story was published, birthright citizenship would be guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This is the era when United States becomes a singular rather than a plural noun. Worldwide, in the course of the century, ideas of nationalism, sovereignty, and citizenship were codified in international law.

I have sometimes wondered how Edward Everett Hale’s mental map would have changed if he were writing his story today. He might well decide to make it a parable not about renouncing country but about embracing statelessness. I don’t mean forcible statelessness—when people are driven from their homeland. Those refugees would like nothing better than to have a state to call their own. Rather, Hale today might cast his eye on the voluntary statelessness of the affluent—of people who enjoy the benefits of one or more nation-states but give support and allegiance to none. For them, statelessness is a lifestyle option.

As analysts have documented, the globalized opt-out class is a large and expanding group. If they have territoriality, it is the Premier Club lounges at airports. The wealth they possess is sheltered “offshore.” They are bound to one another by mystic cords of tablet and smartphone. Their pedigree is mix-’n’-match international—maybe Hong Kong, Dragon School, Harvard, Blackstone—and their indigenous culture is the high-end eclecticism of FT Weekend. They qualify for Global Entry, which they need when moving from house to house. They buy nationalities and passports as flags of convenience. They are people without a country, and happy with their lot.

In his own way, Donald Trump is a member of this stateless class—not in terms of personal taste and private behavior, which would repel many other members, but in terms of outlook and consequence. He is American by birth, yet has paid more in taxes to other countries than he has to the U.S. Treasury (and not very much anywhere). His concept of America is empty of values, history, and law. In his lifetime he has committed himself to no public or private institution, no church, no party, no school; nor to any person as a friend, or to any idea as a conviction. His business ambitions preclude nothing and no one. No patch of earth is held to be sacred; geography is a figure of speech. While registering to vote in Florida, he sought to keep Washington, D.C., as his permanent address. He is incurious about what happens in his own land. Pandemic deaths in America do not interest him, much less move him. To give your life for your country is unimaginable: “What was in it for them?” he reportedly asked, among the soldiers’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Two centuries ago, Philip Nolan’s judge had to go to great lengths to mete out a punishment of statelessness: condemning the defendant to live aboard a sailing ship, beyond sight of land, for the rest of his life. Today, statelessness can be achieved without moving an inch. Donald Trump, when he took his seat behind the Resolute Desk, became our first stateless president. A postpresidency spent touring his global properties would be a logical next step.

And unlike Philip Nolan, he will lash out. In “The Man Without a Country,” poor Nolan gives Danforth his Bible and asks him to open it after his death. On a scrap of paper, Danforth finds what Nolan hopes to have carved on a simple stone as his epitaph: “He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”