Before Donald Trump formally accepted his presidential nomination, the 2016 Republican National Convention made it clear to America that the GOP was a changed beast.
Few appeals were made to the old platitudes of movement conservatism during the convention, much to the consternation of NeverTrumpers. Instead, American national identity and yearnings for past greatness and security served as the cornerstones of the RNC.
There were even a few affronts to past orthodoxies.
Peter Thiel’s primetime speech an hour before Trump’s Thursday night could not have been given at any past convention. The tech tycoon announced he was proud to be gay (but most proud to be an American) and dismissed the prolongation of the culture wars. “[F]ake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump,” Thiel declared.
Additionally, he mocked neoconservative foreign policy: “Instead of going to Mars, we … invaded the Middle East,” he said.
The crowd enthusiastically cheered Thiel’s unorthodox declarations, a stark contrast to the boos Sen. Ted Cruz received when he delivered his passive-aggressive non-endorsement of Trump on “constitutional” grounds.
But Thiel’s speech was merely a warm-up for what lay ahead in The Donald’s own speech. Trump vowed to protect the “LGBTQ community” from radical Islam, demanded trade protectionism, rarely uttered the word “freedom” and never mentioned abortion.
“America First” in international dealings and law and order at home were the main themes. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” was arguably the key line of the entire 75-minute speech. NBC News said it was a “dark” melding of Richard Nixon in 1968 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. Every other outlet on planet Earth also labeled the speech as “dark.”
Whatever the press thought of its overall message, Trump’s speech and his convention represented a shift in the ideology of the Republican Party. No longer was movement conservatism the dominant force at a convention that embraced the rising tide of nationalism. While the convention as a whole gave hints for what this kind of nationalism may look like, no speech gave a clear definition of it — not even Trump’s own talk.
Combing through the speeches of Trump, Thiel, Laura Ingraham and others, a few tenets begin to stand out for what might constitute the American nationalism of tomorrow. However Trump does in November, the man has laid the groundwork for what looks to be a strong force on the political Right for years to come.
Here are the characteristics that may define American nationalism in the political realm.
National Sovereignty Above All Else
Calling his foreign policy “America First” is a clear sign that national sovereignty is a primary principle of Trump’s ideology. Defined as “the authority of the state to govern itself,” the commitment to sovereignty lurks underneath his trade and foreign policies. America’s interests should always come first, and America should never be dependent on foreign entities for its survival. Trump’s intention to renegotiate NAFTA, rethink NATO, avoid entanglements in the Middle East and reconsider involvement in the World Trade Organization all come with an implicit desire to uphold national sovereignty.
His core immigration plank of securing the border is also related to national sovereignty. “A nation without borders is not a nation,” reads his immigration platform, explicitly saying the ability for America to control its own borders is essential to its status as a free nation.
Sovereignty also trumps any other argument for why America should engage in a project. Open borders are unacceptable because they jeopardize security and undermine the idea of citizenship — in spite of the Left’s moral preening and libertarian demands for unrestricted labor. International trade agreements are unacceptable if they interfere with America’s ability to run an economy that puts the average worker first. Trans-national alliances are unacceptable if protected countries don’t pay their fair share while American military power is stretched beyond reason — in spite of calls for America to serve as the world’s policeman.
A Belief In An Organic American National Identity
Many politicians and public figures like to say America was founded on abstract ideas rather than any culture or identity. Laura Ingraham’s speech rebutted that argument with the claim that Americans are connected by more than mere ideas. “It belongs to us… It’s where our dead are buried,” she said in her convention address. That sentence indicates that an American identity, as articulated by nationalists, would emphasize the shared history, language, culture and values of the people who have lived here long enough for their dead to rest here. All nationalisms are animated by this impulse, and the identity articulated by American nationalists would be no different.
Along with security concerns, mass immigration would be criticized from this angle for its potential to overturn the ties that bind American society.
Order In The Homeland
Prior to the 2016 campaign, the Republican Party appeared to be on the path of backtracking from its reputation as the party of law and order by embracing criminal justice reform. Trump has changed things a bit. The argument among Republicans for enacting criminal justice reform was that it offered the party a chance to make inroads to minority communities. With the current tumult in our country, Trump has made it clear that he thinks the safety of our citizens is more important than any possible gain at the polls. His open admiration of law enforcement also expresses the view that order at home is a priority, and nothing should get in the way of achieving it.
Observers of Trump’s speech noted its distinct lack of religiosity. The New York Times’ resident conservative Ross Douthat dubbed it “Buchaninism without religion.” One RedState writer viewed it in the same light as Thiel’s speech and concluded “Trump’s New GOP Cheers Homosexuality And Boos God.” Both conservatives are right in seeing a secular drift in the Republican Party. Religion and appeals to God are likely to take a muted place in nationalist rhetoric, just like in America itself. Faith-driven issues like abortion and marriage will be pushed out of the way in favor of issues with less of a need for divine justification. The flag will take greater precedence than the cross for 21st century nationalists.
A Different Kind Of Culture Warfare
With the secular orientation in mind, it’s natural that nationalists won’t engage in the “fake culture wars” Thiel spoke of. But there would still be a kind of culture war engaged in by nationalists — one dealing with the intrusion of political correctness and multiculturalism. Debates over instituting hate speech laws and curriculum denigrating American historical figures would be more important to nationalist polemicists than which bathroom Caitlyn Jenner decides to use.
Trump indicated this mindset himself by criticizing the removal of Andrew Jackson from the face of the twenty-dollar bill while remaining quiet over North Carolina’s bathroom law. Fighting back against political correctness ties in with upholding freedom of speech — the bedrock of American society. Curtailing the ability for citizens to speak their minds in order to shelter the feelings of protected classes is not just an outrage; it undermines the fundamental character of American society.
These culture fights have more to do with the widely-shared values and the national history we pass on to our children than what the Bible says. Thus, these cultural wars have the potential to engage a broader range of citizenry than our present battles.
A Skepticism Of Elites
American elites oppose Trump. Wall Street, movie stars, major corporations, church leaders, university presidents and the mainstream media are all in agreement that Trump must be stopped. The media’s innumerable hit pieces and supposedly devastating exposes of Trump have done little to dampen his support. Why? Because The Donald’s core supporters feel that the media is dishonest and all in for Hillary Clinton.
There’s the distinct sentiment that America’s elites have interests that conflict with the interests of the rest of the nation, and that they abuse their power to push their own niche agendas. A skepticism of elites comes easily to a populist movement, and the nationalism heralded by Trump would harbor a distaste for an establishment that is dead-set against the real estate billionaire.
Government Is No Longer The Enemy
For years, conservatives have painted big government as what’s wrong with America. That’s not a tune to be carried on by nationalists. To Trump and the potential movement he unleashes, government is a tool for accomplishing one’s agenda. Private enterprise is not seen as capable of securing the border or upholding the law. That’s the government’s task. Trump’s infrastructure plan calls on government to take the initiative to revitalize America’s roadways and bridges. Government is no longer the villain for this insurgency on the right.
Realpolitik On The Global Stage
Trump has repeatedly said throughout the campaign that America should work with dictators like Bashar al-Assad and that it was a mistake to take out Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The reasoning here is that America has to work with bad people in order to defeat terrorists and ensure global stability. The desire to spread democracy and the dream that every nation on earth wants Western-style government are absent from nationalist foreign policy.
Wilsonian idealism is thrown aside in favor of realpolitik. Bad things will always happen somewhere in the world, but America will only intervene if its interests are threatened.
Projects On Behalf Of American Greatness
Trump has vowed to make America great again, but he has been vague on visionary projects that would push America forward. He has talked up infrastructure plans that could remake the American landscape. Nationalists could very well adopt Thiel’s suggestion that our country should focus on exploring space as a way to demonstrate our greatness.
Whether the project for showing off American greatness comes in the form of space travel or monumental public works, a nationalist movement would push for these developments in order to rally the people together in pride and accomplishment at what our country can do. In order to make America great again, it must dream like it did when it conquered a continent and landed a man on the moon.
And these dreams are what a nationalist movement could strive to realize in the coming years.