The election of Donald Trump, after a campaign that featured slogans such as “Make America Great Again,” and “America First,” as well as rhetoric aimed at Muslims and immigrants, marked the rise of a new force in American politics. Nationalism, which has already spread across Europe in recent years, finally arrived in the United States.
While race has always been a factor in American culture and politics, no modern presidential candidate has so explicitly appealed to nationalism in order to win votes. Trump played upon concerns among many Americans that the country was being transformed by immigration and demographic change. The single biggest issue for Trump voters, ahead of terrorism or the economy, was immigration. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” was seen to harken back to a time when America was whiter, more Christian, and minorities held less political and economic power. Trump ultimately won 58 per cent of the white vote.
While the rise of nationalism in the United States was unexpected, the factors that led to its rise have been present for some time. Trump was able to tap into a pre-existing discontent that was simmering under the surface of American society. As in many countries, it appears that the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed aided the rise of nationalism in the United States. Lower income Americans had already endured the brunt of globalization, and the financial crisis only accelerated trends in income inequality, shifting power further away from them. Anger grew against the political status-quo as well, as mainstream, elite-driven politics were viewed to have led to the Iraq War and massive bank bailouts during the financial crisis.
Trump has proven to be flexible on many issues over the course of his public life, and it is possible that his appeals to nationalism were an opportunistic move. The ideologues populating his White House staff may indicate otherwise. White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, senior advisor Stephen Miller, and deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka, have all espoused nationalist beliefs. Bannon, the former chairman of the alt-right news website Breitbart, has described himself as “an economic nationalist… an America first guy.” Bannon and Miller are believed to have been the authors of Trump’s “America first” inaugural address, and the executive order on immigration that was seen by many as the first step toward the “Muslim ban” that had been promised during the campaign.
Could Trump’s nationalism unleash a darker force in American politics? The far-right has traditionally been politically marginalized in the United States, but Trump’s winning campaign for the presidency has energized many white nationalist groups. These groups had waited decades for political legitimacy, and had viewed mainstream politics with derision. They had long viewed the Republican Party as “Zionists” or “corporate puppets,” and had even accused Trump of being a “Jew lover.” However, they were attracted by the nationalist tone of his campaign, and have emerged as consistent supporters of his presidency, with many viewing him as a vessel for their objectives. Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, has said that Trump’s campaign was a “body without a head,” and that many of his policy ideas were “half baked.” However, he noted “Donald Trump is the first step toward identity politics for European-Americans in the United States.”
Will Trump’s nationalism become a lasting force in American politics? Unlike previous large ideological shifts in American politics, such as the Reagan Revolution, Trump appears to have arrived on the political scene independent of a broader movement. While Reagan’s rise to the White House was aided by several decades of ideological and political development, there have been few think tanks, publications, or political groups that have laid the groundwork for nationalism as a force in American politics. Many members of the Republican Party, as well as conservative intellectuals, are now scrambling to catch up and make sense of Trump’s fluid ideologies, while others remain reluctant to embrace them.
Beyond the lack of a historical ideological development, Trump’s nationalism may face challenges within his own party. Trump disagrees with many mainstream Republicans on issues such as trade and foreign policy. However, similar to his rise to power, Trump may simply continue to force the party to accommodate him, rather than accommodate the party. He has already proved effective at changing opinions among the Republican base on issues such as trade. Trump’s presidency is still in its early stages; it remains to be seen whether future candidates for office will embrace his tone and if nationalism becomes the new normal in the United States.
Photo Source: Creative Commons, Gage Skidmore