The Nationalism That Trump Can’t See

The president fixates on America’s sovereignty but refuses to acknowledge that Iraqis and Iranians have their own aspirations.

Iranians set a U.S. and an Israeli flag on fire during a funeral procession organized to mourn the slain military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Atta Kenare / AFP via Getty

Iran’s missile attack last night on bases where American forces in Iraq are stationed offered the latest evidence that the Trump administration has done something extraordinary. By killing Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military leader, at a Baghdad airport, it has turned both Iranian and Iraqi nationalism against the United States.

“Just a few weeks earlier,” notes The New York Times, Iran’s “streets were filled with protesters angry with their leaders over the flailing economy and the country’s international isolation. But at least for now, Iran is united—in anger at the United States.” Even some of the Iranians who hate their government most have temporarily subordinated that feeling to hatred of the United States. On Sunday, Soleimani was praised, and Trump denounced, by Ardeshir Zahedi—who served as foreign minister to the Shah.

The story is similar in Iraq, where mass demonstrations against Iranian interference have been replaced by mass protests against American interference. Iraq’s Parliament and prime minister have responded to Soleimani’s killing by demanding that U.S. troops depart the country. And the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful opponent of Iranian influence, has directed his militia to kill American troops.

How has Donald Trump greeted this surge of anti-American nationalism? By stoking it even more. In a tweet Saturday, he threatened to destroy “sites … important to Iran & the Iranian culture”—places, presumably, that symbolize not just the Islamic Republic but Persian civilization. In addition, he’s answered the Iraqi government’s call for American forces to leave by demanding that Baghdad “pay us back” for the “extraordinarily expensive air base” America built there, and by threatening sanctions against Iraq that will “make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

For any president to so recklessly foment anti-American nationalism would be remarkable. But that Trump is doing so is particularly ironic. No other president in modern American history has made nationalism as central to his political identity. None has so loudly and unambiguously celebrated it on the international stage. How can a president so attuned to nationalism’s power at home ignore its power in Iran and Iraq? The answer, as with so much about Trump, involves religion and race. Trump respects—and even reveres—nationalism in countries he views as Western and white. But he derides and dismisses it almost everywhere else.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand the foreign-policy tradition that best captures Trump’s thinking: that of Andrew Jackson. Given Trump’s impulsivity and ignorance, discerning any ideological basis to his behavior might seem far-fetched. But as Walter Russell Mead—who first argued that Jackson had birthed a distinct school of American foreign policy—has explained, Jacksonianism is less a doctrine than a set of impulses and instincts. And Trump embodies them far better than any other contemporary American politician.

In his 1999 book, Special Providence, Mead notes that “Jacksonians recognize two kinds of enemy … honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case rules don’t apply.” The template for each was formed early in American history: The quintessential honorable enemy was Britain, whose soldiers wore uniforms, marched in formation, and—most important—shared the race and religion of the men who ran the nascent United States. The quintessential dishonorable enemies were Native Americans, whom Jackson brutally displaced.

In the centuries since, this racialized distinction has shaped the way America fights. The tendency of white Americans to see the Japanese as “ruthless, dishonorable and inhuman,” Mead notes, contributed to the “vitriolic intensity” of America’s war in the Pacific. By contrast, the German army during World War II “won a measure of respect from the Americans”—despite its horrifying crimes—because it acted “more in accordance with American ideas about military honor” and, not coincidentally, because its members were mostly Christian and white.

This divide has also shaped the disparate ways in which many Americans view Western and non-Western nationalism. In the 1960s, the Americans most sympathetic to civil rights at home generally exhibited the most sympathy for anti-American nationalism in Vietnam. “The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954,” noted Martin Luther King Jr., but “our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” By contrast, Jacksonians of the era—who generally opposed civil rights for African Americans—tended to see the Vietnamese communists as Soviet pawns whom America should bomb, in the words of Air Force General Curtis LeMay, “back … to the Stone Age.” (Ronald Reagan said the North Vietnamese should “go to bed every night being afraid that we might” use nuclear weapons.) Jacksonians only began souring on Vietnam when they realized America’s government was imposing limits on its use of force.

The antipathy to post-colonial nationalism in Africa was even stronger. Stylistically, the patrician William F. Buckley did not resemble a Jacksonian populist. But his distinction between civilized and uncivilized nationalism derived straight from the Jacksonian tradition. Which helps explain why, at roughly the same time the National Review founder was attending vigils for the Eastern European “captive nations” denied their independence by Soviet imperialism, he was denouncing liberal sympathy for independence movements in Africa as “suicidal” and lauding Portuguese imperialists for treating their African subjects “as you would treat grown-up children.”

That legacy continues in the way Trump and his allies treat Western and non-Western nationalism today. In his first address to the United Nations, in 2017, Trump announced, “In foreign affairs, we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty.” When he addressed the body again in 2019, he declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.” Under that banner, Trump has lauded ultra-nationalists in Britain, Hungary, and Poland, and his ally Steve Bannon has traveled the Continent helping those movements attempt to sabotage the European Union.

Yet Trump has also repeatedly waxed nostalgic for the colonial age, before African and Asian nationalism limited how America and Europe could exercise their power. As inspiration for his approach to fighting terrorism in the Muslim world, Trump has repeatedly cited a myth about General John Pershing responding to a turn-of-the-century Filipino-nationalist uprising by shooting Muslim rebels with “bullets dipped in pig’s blood.” Trump has reminisced about “the old days, when you have a war and you win, that nation is yours.” And in an attempt to bring back those old rules, he has repeatedly, in public and private, insisted that after invading Iraq, America should have taken its oil. He’s also called for buying Greenland—whose population is largely Inuit—from Denmark.

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.