In 1945, George Orwell distinguished between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” Nationalism, he argued, is the belief that your nation should dominate others. It “is inseparable from the desire for power.” A nationalist, Orwell argued, “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige … his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” Patriotism, by contrast, involves “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one … has no wish to force on other people.” Orwell’s explanation of patriotism is brief. But his implication is that while nationalism is about the relationship between your country and other countries, patriotism is about the relationship between your country and yourself. It derives from the Latin pater, meaning “father.” Just as devotion to family requires placing its well-being above your own, devotion to country—patriotism—extends that principle to the nation as a whole.
Orwell’s dichotomy has its critics. But it helps to explain Donald Trump, the most nationalistic, and least patriotic, president in American history.
Trump has elevated nationalism above the competing principles that once guided conservative public policy. George W. Bush’s Christian moralism, for instance, led him to increase funding for AIDS in Africa and to declare, in a 2006 speech on immigration that, “every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say.” His belief in unfettered capitalism led him to embrace China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization and sign a free-trade agreement with Central American states. These statements and policies reflected a willingness to occasionally subordinate American sovereignty to other values that Republicans held dear.
For Trump, by contrast, “America First” means that American nationalism supersedes those other values. You can see this hierarchy in his policies: his tariffs on foreign goods, cuts in foreign aid, and efforts to reduce even legal immigration. You can see it in his rhetoric. In his inaugural address he declared, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” In his speech to the United Nations last September, he used variations of the word sovereignty 19 times. (In Bush’s final UN address, by contrast, he invoked the word once.)
But it’s not just that Trump wants what’s best for America and Americans. As Orwell suggests, his nationalism expresses itself in a fixation on “competitive prestige … victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”
In Trump’s narrative, “the United States has been taken advantage of for decades and decades.” His role is to rectify that and ensure that America wins again. In practice, this often means retaliating for the supposed humiliations that America suffered in the past by humiliating foreign governments in the present. During the campaign, Trump didn’t just say he would build a wall to stop illegal immigration across the southern border. He demanded that Mexico pay for it. At the recent NATO summit, he didn’t just express concern that Germany had entered a pipeline deal with Russia. He publicly berated it for being a “captive of Russia.” After America’s NATO partners agreed to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, Trump upped his demand to 4 percent.
One reason Trump is so skeptical of NATO and NAFTA is that both institutions are premised on the notion that, by pooling their sovereignty, every member gains. Trump’s nationalism makes this hard for him to accept. His fixation on “competitive prestige” inclines him to believe that if Mexico is benefitting from NAFTA, or Montenegro is benefitting from NATO, America must be losing. Thus, he must renegotiate the deals to reassert America’s position as top dog.
What’s remarkable about Trump’s extreme nationalism is that it coincides with his extreme lack of patriotism. Patriotism, as Orwell implies, requires the subordination of oneself to something larger. It’s an extension of the subordination implied by family and marriage. But Trump isn’t capable of this self-sacrifice in either arena. It’s not clear that he even understands it. Trump’s declaration that Senator John McCain was not “a war hero because he was captured” illustrates this cognitive failure. Trump’s comment suggests that he measures service in war by if one triumphs personally. People who evade capture have triumphed, and are thus heroes. People who get captured—let alone killed—have failed, and are thus not heroes. But the whole point of serving your country in war is that you subordinate your individual self-interest to the country’s. Thus, soldiers who desert—and place their own well-being above the nation’s—are villains. By contrast, those who sacrifice their well-being for the nation’s cause, such as McCain, are heroes.
Trump’s comment about McCain offers some insight into how he’s characterized his own years of unprotected sex: “It’s Vietnam.” Like Vietnam, unprotected sex is dangerous. Trump survived, and thus told Howard Stern that he deserves “the congressional Medal of Honor.” If you see war purely as a trial involving personal risk and glory—if you ignore the fact that you’re fighting for your country, not yourself—the analogy begins to make sense.
Trump’s refusal to subordinate his personal interests to the country’s is crucial to his response to Russia’s election interference. Why did Trump fire FBI Director James Comey? Because he feared that Comey’s desire to protect the nation and uphold the law might keep him from protecting Trump the man. As the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway explained after the firing, Trump “expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration.” National loyalty and personal loyalty, in other words, are synonymous. In their reporting on Comey’s firing, The New York Times and The Washington Post suggested that Trump compared Comey unfavorably to Keith Schiller, who ran security at Trump’s company. It’s no surprise that Trump talks about “my generals.” He sees federal employees as his employees, whose primary loyalty should be to him.
From this perspective, it’s not surprising that Trump has doggedly refused to acknowledge Russia’s meddling in 2016 in clear terms. In their story Thursday revealing that intelligence officials gave Trump specific evidence of Vladimir Putin’s role in directing Russian electoral interference, David Sanger and Matthew Rosenberg of The New York Times describe Trump’s “fear” that “any admission of even an unsuccessful Russian attempt to influence the 2016 vote raises questions about the legitimacy of his presidency.” Trump, in other words, could not subordinate his personal interest in claiming an untainted victory to the nation’s interest in acknowledging—and combatting—Russian meddling. Not only did Trump’s response betray an astonishing lack of patriotism, it’s not clear he even understands the distinction between self and country upon which the concept rests.
In modern American history, Trump is an unprecedented combination: an unpatriotic hyper-nationalist. In some ways, the debate over whether he’s a Russian agent misses the point. He is, ultimately, an agent only for himself.