Opinion

Trump Exploits American Nationalism, But Disrespects Its Special Character

Alan Keyes Former Assistant Secretary of State

So join with me in this campaign. Lend Senator Eagleton and me your strength and your support, and together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning.

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world… (George McGovern, his Speech Accepting the Democratic Party’s Nomination for President, 1972)

Before Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, I’d say that George McGovern had the distinction of being the most decidedly leftist Democrat Party candidate in my lifetime. Relying on what candidate FDR was said in 1932, rather than what he did after winning the White House, before Obama, McGovern was probably the most leftist Democratic candidate of all time. At the time, he won support particularly among people who were in my age cohort. Many of them proved their faith by their works when it came to the so-called sexual revolution. They proved their patriotism by opposing the Vietnam War, and making heroes out of those who skipped across our borders to avoid military service.

McGovern was the champion of their anti-war fervor. He was also a fervent advocate of their wishfully idealistic passion for “social change.” He stood for achieving it by way of income redistributing government spending programs, tax measures targeting the wealthy in general and big corporate power in particular. He also decried the power of elite special interests who used their influence to profit at the expense of America’s workers.

This week during the debate among the elitist faction media’s so-called “top-tier” candidates, it arrested my attention when I heard a voice arguing passionately for policies that would curtail America’s foreign involvements to give priority to dealing with the deterioration of our domestic economic prospects. I said to myself “There’s Donald Trump, channeling George McGovern.” With the obvious exception of Rand Paul, all of Trump’s GOP opponents decried his neo-isolationist views as a dangerous abdication of America’s responsibilities in the world.

Sadly, none of them articulated their anti-isolationist views in a way that counteracts the natural appeal Trump’s simple logic has, and has always had, for many Americans. McGovern’s speech remains fresh in my mind to remind me of the power of that appeal. I staunchly opposed McGovern’s purblind isolationism, yet his words touched my heart at the time, and they still do these many years later. I have often pointed out that, because they make such good use of peace, most of the regular folks in America regard war as something alien, something that interferes with the good order and atmosphere of their home.

We don’t like seeing the mayhem of hateful battle streaming over the airwaves into our houses every day. We don’t care for the thought of youth cut down or torn apart in combat before the promise of God within them can be wholesomely fulfilled. To be sure we admire the courage and conscience of our sons and daughters, accepting to risk or give their lives to the moral necessity that sometimes justifies taking up arms. But we mourn that necessity, even as we mourn the sacrifice of life it requires.

Put it all together, and it leads to a natural predisposition to greet war as an always unwelcome guest, even when right conscience impels us to accommodate it. I understand and share this disposition. In fact, it is one of the qualities that feed my decent pride in being an American. I think it is one of the reasons our Founders deliberately chose to make the multitude of regular folks (in their day they would have said the “common people”) the arbiters of power under the U.S. Constitution. People commonly prefer peace to war. They commonly reject the ambitious schemes, paid for in blood, that serve and titillate the fervor of self-serving elitist ambition. They see heroism in the discipline that saves and nurtures life on the strength of caring that has no thirst for fame or domination.

When they agree that their nation’s involvement in war is morally necessary, they will endure it to the end of righteous victory. Otherwise, they want no part of its vain glories. “I’ll mind my own business,” they seem to say, especially when business is good. That sense of caring for your own, and leaving it to others to do the same, is a proverbial American characteristic, portrayed in every era by characters in song and story.

Donald Trump and Rand Paul are tapping into that ever present character (portrayed, for example, by Jimmy Stewart in the 1965 film “Shenandoah,” set during the first U.S. Civil War.) Post-911 America is a country that lives in the shadow of an ongoing war against our very existence. In that sense, our whole nation is like the farms and settlements in our history, perched on the edge of the frontier. The home of our heart lies beyond danger, warmed by the hearth of productivity at which we prepare the good things that sustain and comfort our lives. But because of the threats we face, we live now in a cold, unwelcoming twilight, feeling like strangers in our own land.

Considering my appreciation for the characteristic disposition that wins approval for their neo-isolationist views, it’s fair to wonder why, in fact, I do not agree with Donald Trump and Rand Paul in this respect. It’s because I also appreciate the fact that Americans have ultimately made it clear that they want their home to be a place of good repute, even if, occasionally they are resigned to tolerating a house of the opposite kind. So, when they went to war in defense of their liberty, they felt obliged to justify their decision in terms that showed “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.”

But to show decent respect we must acknowledge and apply a standard of decency, like the one articulated in the American Declaration of Independence. It is the standard that respects God’s endowment of right for all humanity, in light of which we cannot feel at home where human beings are being mistreated on account of their exercise of right. We cannot feel at home once our connection with that mistreatment is driven home, either because it takes place in the land for which we are ultimately responsible as citizens; or because it involves people with whom we are connected by ties of natural heritage or common faith. But this means that we will take an interest whenever human beings suffer injustice — partly because there is no place on earth to which some Americans are not bound by heritage of blood, and partly because our faith encompasses the obligation of humanity, enjoined upon us by the Creator God who made us all.   

Like Jimmy Stewart in the movie, Americans eventually realize that this gives us a stake in the whole of humankind. More than that, it leaves us with a sense that we can never truly be ourselves, never truly realize our character and destiny as Americans, if we ignore our calling to example and defend the truth that we live for and belong to what is larger than ourselves, which makes the heaven and earth of God’s creation our true home, and humanity our kith and kin within it. So we are right to defend our own. We just understand what is our own in a way that gives special meaning to our nationality.