There's been some heavy lifting lately, in the non-Trumpist precincts of our politics, to rescue the idea of "nationalism" from the clutches of President Trump and his alt-right followers. Lest liberals and progressives be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we're reminded in books and essays that nationalism has its uses — forming the glue that provides us with social cohesion and a welfare state, among other goods.
These "nice-guy nationalists" make good points. There's just one problem: America's best-known nationalist is the president. And he's not much interested in social cohesion.
"You know what I am? I'm a nationalist," Trump declared Monday night in Texas. "Okay? I'm a nationalist."
To get a sense of what this means in Trump's hands, it's good to take a look at the so-called "migrant caravan" currently marching north from Guatemala to the United States border. From the accounts of people on the ground, it appears this caravan is composed largely of people fleeing deprivation and violence in their home countries. It's the sort of thing you or I would do if our families were similarly endangered; ardent nationalists have decided to treat these fleeing families like an invading military.
"An assault!" Trump told told the Texas rally.
"Migrant hordes," writer Rod Dreher blogged at The American Conservative.
Even The Associated Press got in the act, calling the caravan a "ragtag army of the poor" in a tweet that was later deleted.
But the people forming the caravan are not an army. They aren't seeking collectively to capture land or dislodge governments. They are merely individuals seeking a better life and traveling in the direction they think most likely to help them find it.
"Treating this as an 'invasion' is a bad idea, and it's going to end horribly if it is treated such as that way," an independent voter said Monday on Fox News, and that's perhaps the most sensible statement made on any cable news network this year.
Nationalism may provide us with social cohesion — and that's good — but it is also a garment best worn lightly. That's a tricky, perhaps impossible, expectation: In many cases, nationalism asks us to disregard our own moral sense in favor of group loyalty.
Morality tells us that when people are hungry, we offer them food.
Morality tells us that when people flee violence, we offer them protection.
Morality tells us that all humans are worthy of moral consideration, no matter their origins or circumstances.
Nationalism often — not always, but often — asks us to disregard those moral considerations, or at least to quiet them a little bit, to place a higher importance on defending the integrity of arbitrarily drawn borders than we do the lives of people trying to escape inhumane situations. Nationalism tends to divide humans into "us" and "them" and tells us "they" are worth less. Frequently — and Trump has based his entire political persona on this idea — it tells us that "they" are probably bad people. Why? Mostly because they're not us. How do you get to be us? Well, it's all kind of an accident of birth, really. At best, it's absurd. In many cases, nationalism is simply racist.
The nice-guy nationalists advocate a rather bloodless view of nationalism's benefits, but the history of the last century, with its wars and genocides, provides plenty of evidence that nationalism can turn very bloody, indeed. Still, it probably is utopian to think we poor humans can get very far without organizing along national lines. And "Morality Is Complex and Transcends National Lines!" is a poor riposte, politically, to the pithiness of "America First!" This column isn't going to win any elections.
The caravan keeps advancing north. So what to do? How do we balance the benefits of nationalism — and the legitimate obligation to protect our citizens and their well-being — against the need to look out for our neighbors beyond our borders?
In the short term, you can treat the caravan like what it is — a collection of needy, dispossessed humans fleeing dire circumstances — instead of as an invading army to be met with force. Instead of cutting off aid to the caravaners' countries of origin, let's figure out how to help them, now, where they are, before they get to our border. Difficult? Sure. Worth it? Probably.
In the long term, the United States can consider how its policies may actually create the refugees it so desperately wants to reject. U.S. policies, for example, helped create the circumstances that allowed the MS-13 street gang to flourish in Central America. Maybe we should do less of that kind of thing?
In the same vein, perhaps Trump — who needs to serve American interests — might come to understand he does not best serve an "America First" vision with his preferred "we-win-you-lose" deals with our allies and rivals. America's security and prosperity can best be enhanced by assisting the security and prosperity of people around the world. It's that vision, not some utopian altruism, that has guided much of the postwar world order that Trump seems ready to undo.
The migrant caravan is still hundreds of miles from the American border, but it's not too late to seek constructive solutions. Right now, though, it's the regular nationalists — not the nice-guy kind — who are running the show.