“Make America Free Again” Isn’t Trump’s Agenda

I have had my say about Stephen Davies’s lead essay. I cannot, however, let Francis Buckley’s apology for Donald Trump, for whom he has previously worked as a speechwriter, pass without comment, as it is marked by grave falsehoods.

It is false in its particulars, for example, that, “on average immigrants are less educated than they were in the past.” In fact, according to a Pew Research study earlier this year, immigrants to the United States “are better educated than ever, due in part to rising levels of schooling in many of the countries they came from and an influx of high-skilled workers to the U.S. in recent years, especially from Asia.” Thirty percent now have at least a bachelor’s degree, with more than 12% holding a postgraduate degree. According to the Census, the proportion of immigrants with postgraduate degrees is now a hair more than the proportion of native-born citizens (see Table 1). Remember that mass immigration in the era of Ellis Island drew so many of Europe’s poor that a key immigration policy debate in the 1910s was whether to impose a literacy requirement.

And it is false in its larger central claims. Among these are that the Trump presidency stands for the rejection of the privilege of inherited wealth; a return to respect for the rule of law; and equal opportunity to prosper rather than “the old boy network,” deal-making, and cronyism.

I hardly know where to begin. Trump inherited great wealth and then made his living as a “deal-maker” in two of the croniest branches of American capitalism: the casino business and big-city real estate development. He did not do so respecting the “sanctity of contract provided by a mature and efficient legal system,” but rather with a long record of bilking contractors, defaulting on debts with a series of bankruptcies, and defrauding customers. Since he began running for office he has openly ignored the rules meant to prevent cronyism and self-dealing: funneling Republican donors’ money into rent for office space in his own properties, refusing to place his assets in a blind trust, leaving his immediate family members in control of the businesses that bear his name, turning his Mar-A-Lago resort and his golf clubs into near-constant sites for presidential visits, raising the fees on them as membership and attendance became obvious ways to get presidential access, and so on, ad infinitum.

But the more crucial falsehood, the one that animates Buckley’s response to Stephen Davies, is this:

They don’t really understand us, the Europeans. And Stephen Davies is no exception. His essay might, for all I know, be an accurate summary of modern European politics, but he simply doesn’t understand the 2016 American election. How could he, when he tries to compare the Trump movement to right wing movements in Europe? Whatever is happening in Germany, Italy, and Hungary has nothing whatever to do with America.

Between the nationalists of the continent and America there’s a gulf as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s because the American variant is a liberal nationalism based on the sacred texts of our founding. The focal point for nationalist and patriotic sentiments in America is the sense that we have a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called “American Scripture.”

Our constitutional liberties are the icon of American nationhood and constitutive of our identities as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.

I’ll address that “including Trump” and its attempt to preserve plausible deniability below; set it aside for the moment.

Buckley is wrong about American nationalism and egregiously wrong about Trump. American nationalism is a complicated mixture of the creedal and the ethnonational, sometimes coexisting quite comfortably and sometimes in tension with each other, but neither ever simply disappearing. At the border, demagoguery and panic about unacceptable categories of immigrant—Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican—are too recurring a feature of American history to be hand-waved away. Domestically, white supremacist ideology and practice, including slavery, Jim Crow, the massacre of American Indians, and the expropriation of their lands, have been constituent features of American nationalism. Self-conscious American nationalism has been white nationalism for a great deal of American history. One can wish it were otherwise—I certainly do—but that’s very different from asserting that it has always been otherwise in order to draw a bright-line separation between nationalism in the United States and elsewhere.

And Donald Trump is very far from emphasizing the creedal side of American nationalism. Racism toward African-Americans and American Indians were regular features of his view of the world even before he made himself a political celebrity with the suspicion that an African-American president just had to be not really American. He rode to office on racialized demagoguery about Mexican and Muslim threats, and those remain centerpieces of his rhetoric in office: the travel ban, the wall, invading caravans of Central American refugees that are somehow both filled with radical Islamist terrorists and funded by globalist Jews.

He has tilted toward Viktor Orban, praising him as “strong and brave” for walling out Muslim refugees; attacked Angela Merkel for failing to do so; and recurrently endorsed the European far right’s narrative about the decline of white Christian European civilization. He sees kindred spirits in European politicians like Marine Le Pen. He embraces what Buckley says he has nothing to do with.

Creedal American nationalism does not aim to slash legal immigration to the United States by half, and it does not prefer immigrants from Norway over those from “shithole countries” full of black people. It does not cut admissions for refugees by two-thirds; it has traditionally conceived the United States as a haven for those fleeing persecution from illiberal and undemocratic regimes. But then creedal American nationalism actually cares about which regimes are liberal and democratic and which ones aren’t, rather than currying favor with autocrats like Putin, while expressing contempt for liberal democratic allies.

Creedal American nationalism takes Lincoln’s side in the Civil War. It is white supremacist ethnonationalism that is concerned with the “very fine people” marching in support of statues of those who committed treason in defense of slavery.

On the strength of Steve Bannon’s work at Breitbart, which he said he had turned into a “platform for the alt-right,” Trump appointed him chief executive of the presidential campaign and chief strategist in the White House. While he eventually fired Bannon, it was for leaking and self-promotion, not for his (ongoing) work to solidify connections between “the Trump movement” and the European far right. Steven Miller continues the ideological work within the administration that Bannon began. And insofar as Trump himself has a coherent worldview, it is one in which being “great again” combines strength of the kind autocrats show and white dominance of the kind he is nostalgic for.

I say all of this although I am a skeptic of creedal nationalism. I have argued throughout my academic career that it is always dependent on an underlying non-creedal idea of “peoplehood” and can’t actually escape entanglement with ethnocultural nationalism. But to the degree that those are distinguishable strands in American nationalism—as they sometimes are, and not only in the United States but also in France, Britain, and Germany, among others—Trump shows no sympathy for the creedal side. Buckley’s objection to Davis here is utterly false.

In the long passage I quoted above, Buckley says, “if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.” That parenthetical “including Trump” seems to be an attempt to preempt these objections: any evidence that Trump and his administration are illiberal, lack attachment to constitutional liberties, and have a great deal in common with European far-right nationalists will be met with the reply “but I acknowledged that Trump himself might be illiberal.”

But that move makes a hash the rest of his apology. It would either require that “the Trump movement” has nothing to do with Donald Trump himself and those around him, or require acknowledging the truth in Davies’ comparison of “the Trump movement” to those European far right movements after all. Given the celebratory tone of the whole essay—”since then we’ve begun the slow process of restoring the American Dream,” no less!—it’s hard for me to believe that Buckley means that parenthetical aside as a serious rejection of Trump.

Maybe Buckley prefers to imagine a “Make America Free Again” movement, one that is more concerned with a restored commitment to liberty and constitutional principles than to racism and demagoguery. But that imaginary movement isn’t the one Stephen Davies was analyzing, and it isn’t one in which the really existing Donald Trump has ever shown any interest. Buckley can’t have it both ways. Either Trump, his campaign, and his administration are relevant to how we think about “the Trump movement” and the era of politics Davies is considering, in which case Buckley’s story about the moral purity of American nationalism can be assessed with the evidence of these actual nationalists, or true American nationalism is by definition always creedal and idealistic, never ethnic or racial, in which case he can’t simply identify “the Trump movement” with this imagined true American nationalism.

Buckley closes his essay with a paean to the 2016 election and what has happened since, and in an overlapping essay elsewhere he claims that “Trump has triumphed over a tone-deaf Republican Establishment, killed off the old party and created a new one called the Republican Workers Party. No mean feat. So whatever happens to him, the causes he identified will continue to dominate American politics and his effect on that will be indelible.”

I think it’s fair to say that he thinks he’s defending the real Donald Trump, his real campaign, administration, and presidency. And that defense rests on claims that simply are not true.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Stephen Davies argues that political realignments are regular features of modern democratic politics. In them, some longstanding issues lose their salience, while others rise to the top of the heap. Because the world is increasingly networked, our realignments are likewise increasingly taking place in concert, Davies argues; he goes on to suggest that nearly the entire industrialized democratic world is currently confronting a realignment that turns it toward questions of populism versus globalization.

Response Essays

  • Francis H. Buckley argues that American nationalism is nothing like the European variety. American nationalists stand for liberty under law, not an ethnic state. Libertarians, however, cannot easily be nationalists, because nationalism implies solidarity with citizens while denying it to others. On the whole, however, American nationalism is benign, and we should welcome its return to our politics, which began with the 2016 election.

  • Jacob T. Levy agrees with Stephen Davies that conservatives have recently moved away from moralism and toward national identity. But Levy sees national collectivism as potentially quite durable, a prospect that he does not welcome. He notes that authoritarianism and racism seem to be everywhere in contemporary populism, and he argues that attention to constitutionalism among conservatives has largely disappeared.

  • Henry Farrell argues that political bitterness across the world arises from a common source: neoliberalism. Domestic politics has been “hollowed out” in that all the real decisions are made by corporations or bureaucrats. Politicians prefer to compete on symbolic, highly contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Liberal cosmopolitanism is “toast,” Farrell writes, because it lacks any significant constituency. As to libertarians, he argues that they should expect even less.