Nationalism has gone international.
You can see it in the news that three months before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, Jr., took a meeting with an emissary of two wealthy Arab princes and "an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation." Of course, this raises lots of intriguing and narrow questions: Was the alleged meeting, supposedly orchestrated by Erik Prince, former head of the private security contractor Blackwater (and brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos), somehow connected to contacts between affiliates of the Trump campaign and representatives of the Russian government? Or was this a wholly separate effort at soliciting illegal foreign election assistance? Those are questions Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators will surely be seeking to answer.
But the alleged meeting also raises a broader set of issues about the character of the nationalistic form of populism that's on the rise across Europe and has been championed most forcefully in the United States by President Trump and his administration's pledge to put "America First" in all things.
The president certainly talks as if he's proudly putting America's interests ahead of those of other countries — and even more so ahead of the liberal international order of transnational norms, institutions, and agreements on international law, human rights, free trade, and immigration and refuges. Those are the concern of the "globalists." But an American president needs to focus on what's best for us, not them. That conviction is what fueled Trump's campaign, and the same nationalistic vision animates his administration.
The problem, of course, is that these meetings between affiliates of the Trump campaign and foreign nationals eager to provide it with assistance point to a more complicated reality coursing beneath the nationalist surface — which is that today's nationalism is itself a variant of internationalism.
One might even call it an expression of counter-internationalism.
On one level, this is surprising. From the origins of the left-right spectrum in the midst of the French Revolution, the left has been more international in outlook, claiming to speak for and champion universal humanitarian ideals, while the right has emphasized the irreducibility of particularistic attachments, including attachment to the political community rooted in an often mythical history (the nation).
The most militant forms of leftist politics, from democratic socialism to Marxist-Leninist communism, have been explicitly international in scope and ambition, aiming to liberate the "enslaved masses" of the whole "human race" from their bondage at the hands of industrialists and other capitalists. The postwar effort on the part of centrist liberal governments (led by the U.S.) to forge a liberal international order was an effort to meet and match the challenge posed by the Soviet Union, which placed itself at the vanguard of an international communist movement.
That liberal variation on internationalism — in the form of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Criminal Court, and the many NGOs that grew up around them, as well as an ever-expanding NATO and European Union — ended up outliving the communist original they were intended to check. But the populist-nationalist movements of the present are now taking it on, attempting to curb its growth, and in some cases explicitly pushing back against it.
Yet it would be a mistake to view this nationalist upsurge as a series of spontaneous, reinforcing developments happening independently in countries around the world. On the contrary, it's a global movement against globalism.
The same was true of fascism in the years leading up to World War II, when far-right movements in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and other countries influenced and inspired one another, and (in the case of the Axis powers) joined together in a military alliance. Had their side prevailed in the war, they probably would have begun squabbling and perhaps eventually going to war with one another. But during the 1930s, they shared common enemies and were happy to support one another as they made common cause in tearing down the international order of the time, along with the governments that fostered it.
Something similar is happening today — which is why those who insist on treating President Trump as some kind of Manchurian candidate being manipulated by Vladimir Putin to pursue a foreign policy that directly advances Russian interests substantially miss the point. The idea isn't that Trump will do Putin's bidding in specific cases but that by weakening international institutions and undermining international cooperation — as Trump has done so effectively by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and by heightening global tensions over trade — Trump gives Putin a much freer hand in the world. Thanks to Trump's actions, undertaken in the name of American nationalism, Putin is able to pursue his own aims without having to worry about triggering a coordinated response on the part of the powers that control the liberal international order.
The same could be said of the foreign participants at that alleged meeting at Trump Tower in August 2016. A Trump victory against Hillary Clinton promised great benefits to Israel, as it also did to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which were alarmed at Barack Obama's overtures to their regional rival Iran. So those at the meeting apparently pledged to do their best to help the Trump campaign.
In that way, American nationalism was advanced by a touch of internationalism. Call it a glimpse of the illiberal international order that Trump and his closest (usually autocratic) friends abroad are doing their best to construct.