Donald Trump gave a notably unifying State of the Union address that didn’t back down an inch from his controversial nationalism.
This doesn’t represent a contradiction, but a step toward fulfilling the political promise of his nationalism, which could appeal much more broadly than to Trump’s devoted base.
A true American nationalism should be grounded in our common citizenship, champion popular sovereignty and exult in our history, culture and ideals. It should the enemy of identity politics. It should be expressed in first-person plural, rather than first-person singular.
It should believe government exists to serve the nation, not the other way around. Or as Trump put it: “Americans love their country. And they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.”
To say Trump has often fallen short of these standards is an understatement. Nationalism is not yelling at rallies, tweeting inflammatory messages or insulting political adversaries. It is an American tradition that runs through Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
The social psychologist Michael Billig wrote an influential book arguing that nationalism is part of the air we breathe as citizens of modern nation-states. He coined the term “banal nationalism” for the routine ways in which we are reminded of our nationhood — flags, anthems, etc.
“The metonymic image of banal nationalism,” Billig writes, “is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.” To extend the metaphor, Trump noticed the flag when other political players neglected it.
Nationalism had always been part of conservatism’s appeal, although contemporary Republicans lost touch with it under the influence of libertarianism, humanitarian universalism and a globe-trotting business elite. For the left, nationalism is a swear word — a small-minded perspective tinged with racism.
This gives Trump running room, and his State of the Union usefully trafficked in banal nationalism.
Trump hailed 12-year-old Preston Sharp for leading an effort to place flags on veterans’ graves, saying it “reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
How can anyone disagree, unless he has been cornered into maintaining the opposite out of outrage at Trump’s intervention in the NFL kneeling protests?
Trump said, “As president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers and America’s forgotten communities.”
Is there anyone else’s children who should be his constant concern?
You could hear the teeth-grinding among Democrats when Trump declared, in a reference to the DREAM Act, “Americans are dreamers, too.” The line had all the subversive, common-sense potential of saying, “All lives matter,” when the left insisted it was only permissible to say, “Black lives matter.”
Immigration is such a flashpoint in the Trump era because it is the hot-button domestic policy issue that most directly involves the clash of world views between cosmopolitans (who care most about the interests of immigrants) and nationalists (who care most about the interests of people already here).
Trump took Reagan’s old trope of recognizing exemplary people in the House gallery and stretched it to its maximum possible extent. The speech was almost a long disquisition on ordinary heroes, each illustrating a theme of the speech. It was a long way from “I alone can fix it.”
He ended his speech hailing people from all walks of life, saying that “above all else, they are Americans. And this Capitol, this city, and this Nation, belong to them.”
If he resolved to routinely live up to the sentiments of the State of the Union, he’d do himself and our political culture immeasurable good. Politically, it isn’t Trump the alleged tool of the Russians or Trump the budding dictator that Democrats have to fear most; it’s Trump the nationalist unifier.