President Donald Trump has let the cat out of the bag. “You know what I am?” the president asked his supporters on Monday night. “I’m a nationalist, okay? Nationalist. Use that word.” Take all the time you need to process this shocking development.

Though it wasn’t exactly surprising, this was a revelatory admission. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa observed that Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign rejecting ideological labels, in part, because he didn’t have any ideological affinities. He did not see descriptors such as “nationalist” and “populist” as designations that defined a narrow set of ideas but rather as the names of clubs composed of individuals. And to associate with those individuals was to dilute his own brand. A tendency to reduce complex ideas down to the people who find them attractive is an anti-intellectual trait, but then so, too, are many of the pieties that comprise the nationalist’s dogma.

This political orientation’s essential characteristics have frustrated the conservatives who have tried to accommodate a little tempered nationalism in the Trump era. Conservatism is extroverted, egalitarian, and hostile towards a kind of pragmatism that is so materialistic it borders on nihilism. You cannot say the same for nationalism. Nor is nationalism synonymous with patriotism. In the American context, patriotism takes the form of pride in both the nation and its constituent parts. It values philosophy, non-governmental mediating institutions, commitment to federalism and egalitarianism. It respects demographic and political diversity and the energetic competition these distinctions foster. The same cannot be said for nationalism.

An American patriot does not see the local, state, and federal government as the fullest expression of the national will, but that is not always true for the nationalist. The patriot and the nationalist place very different degrees of emphasis on monoculturalism and heterogeneity as essential prerequisites for cohesion within the rubric of national identity.

Nationalism is burdened by negative connotations, all of which are well-deserved. It is hard to avoid confronting the fact that nationalism is often a precursor to national, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal conflicts around the globe. In the United States, nationalism is bound up with populism, and populism is linked to retributive politics and pigheaded policies. In countries without an egalitarian tradition or where individual identity is associated with the national or subnational character, chauvinism is no less dangerous but not necessarily anathema to the conduct of domestic political affairs. That is not the case in America, where nationalism is uniquely susceptible to hijacking by hucksters and megalomaniacs.

President Trump’s conversion to nationalism should surprise no one. He campaigned as nationalist in every sense of the word. He rejected an extroverted foreign policy, preferring instead to withdraw within the borders of Fortress America. He even resurrected the loaded slogan “America First” in the process. He catered to white identity politics, ethnic chauvinism, and stubborn protectionism. He also nurtured a cult of personality.

As president, Trump has pursued antagonistic trade policies that have produced escalating rounds of tariffs and mutual political dysfunction. He renegotiated existing trade deals in a way that distorts the international labor market, increasing the prices that Americans will pay for consumer goods and heightening the power of unions. It’s not a coincidence that these policies have united the nationalist right and the statist left.

Nor is it that surprising that a candidate who ran on preserving Social Security, Medicare, and Obamacare’s individual mandate to purchase insurance has converted his white nationalist supporters to the virtues of activist government. The communitarian spirit these compacts foster and their capacity to cement a political base behind a technocratic ruling caste are as attractive to nationalists as they are to socialists.

The nationalist temptation isn’t antithetical to the American experience. A healthy fear of entanglement in parochial conflicts abroad, for example, is as American as it gets. But nationalism does not strengthen civic cohesion. By setting expectations that can never be met, nationalism weakens the state. It erodes faith in civic culture and the private institutions that compose civil society, which traditionally bind ethnically heterogeneous and disaggregated nations like the U.S. together.

Nationalism encourages centralization, power lust, and intense devotion to symbols and personalities above ideas. It stigmatizes civilizing ideological combat in favor of something much more literal and Hobbesian. We have begun to see the state of nature return with force; restless young activists are being radicalized by unsophisticated propaganda and engaging in ethnic and communitarian struggle that manifests in street violence.

George Orwell defined nationalism as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interest.” As a governing philosophy, it is anti-individualistic and, as such, incompatible not just with conservatism but the American idea, which privileges autonomy, agency, and atomization within an ordered whole.

Many observers on the right have found the Trump administration confusing. The president talks like an atavistic strongman, but his government has operated—with some lamentable exceptions—like a boilerplate Republican operation staffed by ideologically consistent conservatives. Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency as a nationalist with an explicit hostility toward expertise, precedent, and ideals that transcend the pursuit of raw power. As such, his earliest supporters existed on the fringes of the conservative movement. They could hardly be trusted to run a government–and they weren’t. But the Republican Party’s professional governing class is cycling out of this administration, and there is no guarantee that Trump will continue to defer to people who do not share his newfound ideology.

Nearly 25 years ago, Patrick Glynn wrote in these pages that nationalistic conflicts would soon be a thing of the past. This was a pleasant fantasy. The vibrant hues of the “color revolutions” have faded. Nations still oppress and make war to acquire territory. They still conduct genocides and ethnic cleansings. The old hatreds persist. Indeed, they are making a comeback.

The president does not reject the return of history. He seems enticed by it. Republicans who make their peace with these things in deference to a few federal judges and a marginal decline in the corporate tax rate will regret that bargain.

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