On an overcast afternoon, addressing the hundreds of thousands gathered on the grounds of the United States Capitol and the millions watching across the globe, the Forty-Fifth President of the United States of America vowed to “Make America Great Again.” He unabashedly assailed the political establishment for profiting at the expense of “millions upon millions of American workers left behind” in an era of globalization. To recover its former glory and greatness, Trump vehemently proclaimed a new nationalist vision for the country: “America First.”
Trump’s statements and policy actions were exemplary of the populist rebellions that have succeeded across Western societies since the Great Recession of 2008. These new nationalist movements share similarities with ethnic and integral nationalist uprisings throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – namely nativism, aggressive populism, and a belief in the supremacy of national sovereignty – but they have distinctly emerged as a bitter reactionary force to the neoliberal status-quo that global elites have imposed on the international system since the end of the Cold War.
Throughout his campaign and in the initial weeks of his presidency, Trump has endorsed a protectionist, anti-globalization agenda and has repeatedly fused the language of faith and nation in a way that promotes a particular ethno-religious nationalism. Despite little evidence to suggest that Trump is a devout Christian and that his ethno-religious nationalist agenda is, in many ways, a continuation of Republican presidents before him, Trump and many of his supporters believe that the United States represents a set of values that are rooted in an exclusive American identity – a Christian America.
To new nationalists, it is only the affirmation of the nation-state through a defense of borders and a parochial national identity defined in ethno-religious terms that a nation may be vindicated in a globalizing world. An open world to these new nationalists invites reckoning unto the nation-state as the fluid movement of commerce, ideas, and immigrants would undermine national unity, social cohesion, and economic sovereignty.
The original term ‘New Nationalism’ dates to the first wave of globalization at the turn of the twentieth century, and specifically during the United States presidential election of 1912. It was coined by Herbert Croly – a principal intellectual of the modern liberalism movement in the United States – and adopted and popularized by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt during his bid for a third presidency as the leader of the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.
On August 31, 1910, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of thirty-thousand in Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt articulated his political vision and humanitarian agenda for American society known as New Nationalism. At a time of rapid industrialization, massive urbanization, and widening income inequality, Roosevelt argued for the need for a new progressive political consensus that had a civic nationalism at its core – not a sectarian or exclusionary nationalism. It was a nationalism that prioritized human welfare, equality of opportunity and rights, and social justice before the interests of the elites, and envisioned the state as a steward of the people and not political machines.
Roosevelt believed that it was both unjust and detrimental to the unity of the nation for a minority of wealthy industrialists and corrupt politicians to amass prodigious wealth and live opulent lifestyles at the expense of many Americans living in abject poverty and working in abysmal conditions with little hope of redress. The platform argued for a broad range of social reforms advocated by progressives – including workers’ rights, healthcare, and female suffrage – but its main theme was to eradicate political corruption and unethical business.
The progressive spirit of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism is re-emerging, but with a new name: New Cosmopolitanism. This is an emergent ideology that considers all humans, irrespective of citizenship or background, as belonging to a single community and deserving of equal rights and opportunity. Just as the unleashing of the full potential of American industry created tremendous wealth stratification within American society, massive urbanization, and exploitation of human labor, the forces of globalization have widened inequality within and between countries, accelerated a race-to-the-bottom in developing countries, and facilitated the mass movement of migrants across borders.
Like contemporary new nationalists, new cosmopolitans see these issues as the discontents of a global economic system that is dominated by the interests of an elite minority. Yet, unlike new nationalists, they believe that an open and highly interconnected world promotes pluralism, cooperation, and empathy, they hold an outward disdain for Westphalian sovereignty, and they argue that states have a sovereign obligation to act in accordance to provisions of international law, such as the International Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions. Just as Roosevelt argued for the need of a strong state to serve the social interest, new cosmopolitans also value a powerful government that will regulate industry, protect individual rights, and undertake projects to improve communities at home and abroad.
In the days and weeks that followed the presidential election of Trump, hundreds of thousands of Americans and other citizens in hundreds of cities across all seven continents marched to protest the rising rhetoric of right-wing populism and support progressive values. One day after the inauguration of Trump, the Women’s March Global – the largest single-day demonstration in American history – galvanized up to two million people in cities across the world to peacefully defend the progress achieved on equality, diversity and pluralism, and the rule of law over the last half century. The message was clear: Governments must recognize that women’s rights, gender rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, civil rights, and environmental rights are human rights and human rights are universal.
The clash between the new nationalists and new cosmopolitans is not strictly an ideological contest between the right and left – conservatives and liberals – as both have a membership that cuts across political affiliation. Rather, the unfolding political dialectic that is defining the zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century is one between ethno-religious nativists and secular cosmopolitans: Those who yearn for the return of the nation-state or and those who envision a post-national global order.