The Flawed Nationalism of Donald Trump

The president can’t grasp that what matters most about the Russia attack is not what it reveals about his political legitimacy but what it reveals about America’s national vulnerability.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The astonishing thing about Donald Trump’s response to Robert Mueller’s recent indictments is his inability to recognize that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is about something bigger than him. Look closely at Trump’s tweets.

February 16: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”

February 17: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”

February 18: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!”

Each tweet makes basically the same point: “Sure, Russia may have tried to undermine American democracy. But what really matters is that I never colluded with Putin and won the presidency fair and square.” Even if you believe that Trump is right—that his campaign never assisted Russia’s efforts to swing the election in his favor and that Russia’s efforts had no material effect on its outcome—the narcissism is breathtaking. It’s like Franklin Roosevelt going before a Joint Session of Congress on December 8, 1941, and declaring: “Sure, Japan bombed Hawaii. But there’s no evidence I knew the attack was coming or that my decision to impose oil sanctions on Tokyo contributed in any way.” Or George W. Bush declaring the day after September 11: “Sure, Al Qaeda just took down the Twin Towers. But there’s nothing my administration could have done to stop it. If anyone deserves blame, it’s my sleazy predecessor, Bill.”

Trump can’t grasp that what matters most about the Russia attack is not what it reveals about his political legitimacy but, what it reveals about America’s national vulnerability. He keeps focusing on how Russia’s meddling affects him; not how it affects the country.

There’s an irony here. Trump often sounds like the most nationalistic president in modern American history. Again and again he has accused his political opponents of favoring non-Americans—undocumented immigrants, foreign countries, international corporations—over American citizens. George W. Bush frequently invoked a universal God. Trump more often invokes the sanctity of the American nation. In his September speech at the United Nations, he used the word “sovereignty” 21 times. In his inaugural address he declared that, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

How can a president supposedly so devoted to sovereignty be so nonchalant about a foreign power’s effort to sway an American election? The answer has to do with the kind of nationalist that Trump is. Although Trump sometimes talks like a civic nationalist—someone who emphasizes the things that all Americans share regardless of background—he often acts like an ethnic nationalist: someone who sees true Americanism as bound up with a particular ethnic, racial, or religious identity. This ethnic nationalism underlay his obsession with proving that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. It undergirds his preference for Norwegian immigrants over those from “shithole” countries in Africa and the Caribbean. And it undergirds his nostalgia for an earlier, “great” America in which a higher percentage of Americans were white and Christian, and in which their political and cultural dominance was less contested.

What does this have to do with Trump’s response to Mueller’s expose of Russia’s election meddling? A civic nationalist would have responded by explaining the common danger to all Americans. But instead of emphasizing the danger to America, Trump emphasized the danger to himself, and, by extension, his party and his tribe. And the danger to his, tribal, version of Americanism stems not from Russia’s meddling but from the people who would use it to undermine his legitimacy and power.

Moscow, apparently, tried to divide America along racial, religious, ideological, and partisan lines. And in Trump, it had the good fortune to find a president whose brand of nationalism does exactly that.