The incoherence at the heart of Trumpist nationalism
Trump has inadvertently revived anxieties that animated the debate over the Constitution
With the president of the United States launching flagrantly racist attacks on the congressional representative and residents of a major American city, it's worth pausing to assess precisely where we are and how we got here.
We don't lack for explanations. Some argue that Donald Trump is just the most extreme in a long line of increasingly right-wing Republicans. Others claim that he's just the latest in a long line of racists in American public life. Still others take a broader view and assert that he's the American expression of the global surge of anti-liberal populism. There's some truth to each of these accounts. But there's another that might be even more illuminating, rooted all the way back in the arguments of those who opposed the adoption of the U.S. Constitution more than 230 years ago.
Those who supported the Constitution, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were known as the Federalists. Their critics, including Patrick Henry, George Mason, and others, were the Anti-Federalists. Recognizing that Trump has (inadvertently) activated the concerns that animated the Anti-Federalists can help to explain why his unlikely campaign and presidency won support from Republican voters. And it can also help us to understand why the words and actions of the self-described "nationalist" president invariably have the effect of shredding the social and political fabric of the country.
First, it's important to know that the Federalists who designed and sought to defend the U.S. Constitution made a significant break from the pre-existing republican tradition. Whereas the history of republics, as well as theoretical reflection on them in the writings of Aristotle and other political philosophers, appeared to teach that self-governing communities needed to be small and homogeneous, the American Federalists made the case for a large, internally diverse republic. Rather than aiming for a high degree of social cohesion, the American constitution would assume and even seek to foster factionalism.
The United States would be a political community, but it would be highly dynamic and differentiated, filled with a multiplicity of clashing interests and disagreements — economic, regional, social, cultural, religious, political. The greater the diversity of interests and factions, the greater the liberty Americans would enjoy. Social cohesion would be an after-effect of the endless churn of competition among constantly jostling individuals and groups. The efforts of each to dominate the others would usually be canceled out, as the different interests and factions checked and balanced each other, not just within the federal government but also within civil society. National greatness would follow from allowing this dynamism to build, grow, and expand over time. The bigger and more diverse the country, the better.
The Anti-Federalists strongly opposed this vision of a large, dynamic, cosmopolitan republic. Drawing on political and intellectual history, they argued quite powerfully that there was no precedent for such an arrangement. Republics needed to be small. They needed to be homogeneous. Interests needed to cohere at the local level if there was to be any hope of their accurate representation in a legislature. When such accurate representation failed — because factions and interests grew too numerous, or because the representatives themselves began to pursue their own interests at the expense of those who elected them — the result was oligarchy, the formation of a wealthy, elite establishment that seeks to advance its own good over and against the good of the governed.
These concerns led the Anti-Federalists to oppose the new national constitution and instead to favor an arrangement much closer to the highly decentralized institutional structure that prevailed under the Articles of Confederation. The United States should be a loose union of states, with the central government checked by and highly dependent on contingent powers granted to it by those states. Because even the 13 states of the time were too large for healthy republican government, as much power as possible should remain at the local level, in small towns and rural villages, where ordinary citizens could gather face to face to make decisions effecting their lives and communities.
In certain decisive respects, Trump's political agenda revived Anti-Federalist themes and worries. The country, he claimed, had become too diverse, too heterogeneous. Washington D.C. had become a swamp filled with corruption, as a self-dealing establishment acted to perpetuate and enrich itself at the expense of ordinary Americans. Solving our problems would require empowering the people who live in more homogeneous rural areas and displacing those from diverse and more economically dynamic and oligarchic urban areas.
That's straight Anti-Federalism — but with one crucially important difference: Trump proposed to address the problems he highlighted with nationalism. Instead of advocating a massive decentralization of federal power and striving to empower localities, he proposed to seek homogeneity and pursue a populist economic policy at the level of the political community — the nation — as a whole. No Anti-Federalist would consider that wise or even remotely coherent. On the contrary, they would judge it utterly nonsensical and quite possibly a recipe for making our problems far worse.
Trumpian nationalism actually mirrors in surprising ways the approach of early 20th-century Progressives. They, too, tacitly followed the lead of the Anti-Federalists in devising a severe critique of the constitutional design and sociological vision proposed by the Federalists — though the Progressives took it in the opposite ideological direction, becoming the first nationalists in American history. According to the Progressives, and especially Woodrow Wilson, the federal government was too weak and riven by factions, too hamstrung by separated, antagonistic powers, to respond effectively to the country's problems. The aim, instead, should be national unity, with the president and the experts staffing the administrative offices of the executive branch responding to and shaping public opinion while sidelining a factionalized Congress.
The ideal of republican government held out by the Anti-Federalists — responsive to both the will of the people and the public good, opposed to oligarchic corruption, unified and marked by strong social cohesion — would be achieved not at the local and state level but at the level of the nation as a whole.
But of course, aside from the presidency of FDR, when the national emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II helped to inspire an unusual degree of national unity, the Progressive vision has fallen short. That's because unity and homogeneity in a large, populous, deeply diverse political community will almost always be impossible to achieve or sustain. Factions will coalesce, disagree, and organize against each other and any stated goal or agenda for the country from which they dissent. The conservative movement has certainly done that in reaction to the ideological descendants of the original Progressives, who have tended to respond in kind by claiming that such opposition is morally offensive and even politically illegitimate.
Which is exactly what Donald Trump has been doing in the name of his own counter-progressive form of nationalism — except that rather than directing his ire at the left as such, Trump prefers to attack the demographic groups that tend to gravitate toward and make their ideological home on the left (immigrants, people of color). In reaction, some on the left have now chosen to fight Trump's racism with an equal-but-opposite form of identity politics that decries the pervasiveness of "white supremacy" in the American past and present, implying that the time has at long last come to strip political power from the country's white majority.
Each side seeks a degree of national unity and homogeneity that would require the other side's erasure or expulsion from the political community. Which means that the effort to attain national unity and homogeneity has the paradoxical effect of increasing disunity and political antagonism.
What would an alternative look like? One option is the original vision of the Federalists — one that sees national strength and flourishing not in unity and homogeneity but in the proliferation of factions, diversity, and heterogeneity. That is a national goal perfectly harmonious with our size, our constitutional system, our fractious political culture, and our sociological pluralism and differentiation. (Various figures on the center-left and center-right embrace versions of this Federalist outlook.)
Then there is the original vision of the Anti-Federalists, which was eloquently conveyed by Patrick Deneen at the recent National Conservatism conference in far more coherent form than Trump and most of his intellectual apologists typically achieve. A movement that focuses its hopes and aspirations on the nation as a whole will never (outside of wartime or another existential crisis for the community) realize the goals of social cohesion and homogeneity, let alone republican self-government. If those are the goals, decentralization and localism are the only options. And they can only be compatible with a form of nationalism that, in Deneen's words, actively "supports the parts" of the national whole and views the nation as a "community of communities" that ultimately understands itself to stand under the authority and judgment of a God who transcends and limits its power and ambitions, inspiring humility on the part of the citizenry and its elected officials.
Short of a revival of coherent Anti-Federalism as an alternative to coherent Federalism, our politics are likely to remain torn asunder by rancorous disagreements — with the country poised between antagonistic forms of exclusivist nationalism that entertain fantasies of eliminating those who stand in the way of achieving an always elusive national unity.