Despite loudly touting their nationalist credentials, Trump’s allies have a similar habit of ignoring the possibility that nonwhite people deserve sovereignty, too. In defending Trump’s Greenland proposal, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas noted, “Negotiated acquisition of sovereignty is a longstanding and perfectly legitimate tool of statecraft. More than one-third of America’s territory was purchased from Spain (Florida), France (the Louisiana Purchase), Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) and Russia (Alaska).” For Cotton, the fact that the native peoples who lived on that purchased land had no say in the matter isn’t a problem. It’s a model. As a good Jacksonian, he doesn’t treat their national aspirations as worthy of mention, much less respect.
Tucker Carlson has made the point more crudely. No one on television offers more hymns to the glories of nationalism. In interviews taped between 2006 and 2011, however, he described Iraq as “a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys” where “they can just shut the fuck up and obey,” because “the second we leave, they’re going to be calling for us to return because they can’t govern themselves.” To be sure, Carlson doesn’t want America to govern Iraq. But not because Iraqi nationalism is legitimate, let alone virtuous. He wants America to keep its distance because Iraqis are too uncivilized to be worth conquering.
To be fair, Trump sometimes bullies European governments too. But he doesn’t call them “shithole countries.” He doesn’t threaten to bomb the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben or, for that matter, the Hermitage. He accords white, Christian countries a degree of deference—respect for their sovereignty and national pride—that he doesn’t offer to countries like Iraq and Iran. And Trump’s view of foreign nationalism—like Martin Luther King Jr.’s—is intimately bound up with his preferred vision of the American nation. In Trump’s view, and in that of many of his supporters, this means a nation that must retain its white, Christian character in order to thrive.
In the Middle East, America is now witnessing the costs of Trump’s disregard for non-Western nationalism. Iran is abandoning virtually all limits on its nuclear program. The State Department has called on all American civilians to leave Iraq. And last night, bases used by American personnel came under attack.
Iraqis and Iranians can now retaliate in a way that Cherokees in the age of Jackson, and Filipinos in the age of General Pershing, could not. That’s what makes Trump’s Jacksonianism so frightening. His imperial instincts are colliding with the post-imperial world.