Across the Western world, post-Cold War politics have long been characterized by an orthodoxy of free trade, nurturing the service economy, neoliberal trading arrangements, and liberalized immigration policies. But now, in many of these countries, there is a broad nativist revolt against such politics.
This revolt is the politics of the provinces against the capital cities. These nativists are trying to reassert their cultural and economic interests, which they believe have been denigrated by a political settlement that enriches the elite and provides opportunity to foreigners at the expense of the old industrial and rural heartlands. Let's call the phenomenon "the new nationalism."
In America, of course, the new nationalism is best seen in the ascendancy of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The new nationalism challenges our post-1989 political orthodoxies. It questions whether Western governments should continue to facilitate the ever-freer movement of capital, goods, and people. In America, it questions whether the U.S. should continue as an unchallengeable global hegemon, promising to defend the integrity of Estonia's borders against Russian invasion the same way it would Oregon's.
If the new nationalism is going to achieve real political power and influence in America, it will be a major paradigm change in our politics. And that's exactly why it is so dangerous for new nationalists to support such an obvious incompetent and charlatan as Donald Trump.
There is a strong and real case for the new nationalism. Don't let Trump destroy it.
Even if you could somehow swallow the ways in which Trump has made the pitch for American nationalism narrower, more exclusively white, and vastly more hostile to American minorities than necessary, there is the towering problem of Trump's sheer boobishness and incompetence. If anything, the bar for performance should be raised for leaders who promise to upend a generation of political certainties. A bunch of time-servers and idiots can make a well-established, existing system work reasonably well. They have the incumbent interests, the rentier classes, and the people who make their livelihoods off the old system to keep them in check. But a man leading a revolution should be able to reassure us with his discipline, his gravity, and even his caution. Trump has none of these.
Consider the interview he gave to The New York Times the week of his nomination, in which he casually put into doubt America's security guarantees for Eastern Europe. This was plainly dangerous. An American president who judged that the 1990s expansion of NATO left the United States with too much security risk and liability would have to begin untangling or reforming this alliance with great care. Putting the whole damn thing into doubt in a news clipping, without any warning or consultation, is an invitation to either Russian escalation or Baltic panic. Both of these increase the chance of catastrophic diplomatic or military miscalculation.
Like a lot of famous rich people, Trump is subject to many lawsuits. The problem is that these lawsuits aren't frivolous money-sniffing lotto tickets from the plaintiffs. Instead they are for the kind of fraud and abuse associated with late-night infomercial grifters. See the Trump University scam, where instructors were taught how to push customers into upping their credit limits to go deeper into debt for Trump. For a supposed billionaire, Trump lends his name and likeness to a lot of scummy businesses. His campaign is stuffed with people who think it is a good idea to share memes from racist Twitter accounts, or that you can win votes from Latinos by sending out a picture of a Trump Tower Taco Bowl.
If you support new nationalist ideas — like regulated immigration, renegotiated trade, and a more hands-off foreign policy — aren't you a little worried that Trump will do to these ideas what he did to Atlantic City? Champion them for a little while, try to build up his brand, and then leave a gaping disaster behind him?
Hillary Clinton is the candidate of big trade deals, liberalized immigration, and using America's military to manage civil wars and conflicts across the global. She, too, is incompetent. She chooses the wrong battles: See her intervention in Libya that has blown up in everyone's faces. She responded to queries about whether her email servers were "wiped" with the lame retort, "With a cloth?" Her homebrew email server was likely hacked by foreign intelligence.
If you're at all sympathetic to the new nationalism, wouldn't you prefer the incompetent Hillary Clinton discrediting her beliefs than the incompetent Donald Trump discrediting yours?