There is much to disagree with in Donald Trump’s interest in nationalism. In his version of it, nationalism is a fragile egotism applied to the affairs of state. This approach has, like the president himself, created problems out of whole cloth before “solving” them. Regarding trade and defense agreements with our long-standing allies, we seem now always to be in some phase of this cycle.
But it was a little rich to hear French President Emmanuel Macron during the WWI armistice centenary observance on Sunday scold Trump on the evils of nationalism. Before an audience of world leaders gathered in Paris, Macron connected the European nationalisms that presaged the Great War to the nationalist posturing of the American president.
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Macron said. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ‘our interests first, who cares about the others,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what is essential: its moral values.” He went on: “I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death.”
If the new demons of chaos and death can be found chanting “USA! USA!” in MAGA caps, it’s striking how little they resemble the American demons of yesterday. In 2003, America’s foreign policy was anything but nationalist. It was, in fact, universalist in its prescription of liberty for all, and European leaders were also pretty worked up about that. Back then, the complaint out of Paris wasn’t that the Americans were abandoning their “moral values.” The problem was that we were championing them.
Our European allies, important as they are, tend to be inconsistent about values and consistent about criticizing America. That’s just the way it is. No matter what Macron says, nationalism is a potent force in daily life across Europe. Its why populist parties are on the rise and why the EU is being challenged from within. A lot of what we call identity politics, Europeans just call identity, and it goes to the core of their self-understanding.
The creation of the European Union itself wasn’t entirely about unity. It was spoken about, in the early going, as a potential challenger to American dominance in all sorts of ways—a kind of super-nationalist project. Of course, none of that came to pass. But the point is, in European idealism, there’s always some space for taking a shot at the U.S.
Trump’s nationalism is such big news because in America, unlike in Europe, it’s an anomalous sentiment. But reckless as it is, the president’s push for what he considers fair burden-sharing and better trade deals is a far cry from the nationalist posturing that ignited the First World War. It’s a strange kind of brinkmanship indeed that sees the American president pressuring other countries to increase their military spending. In fact, it’s a strange kind of nationalism. That’s because Trump, for all his bluster, occupies the nationalist wing of internationalism. He hasn’t blown up NATO. And he hopes to reshape NAFTA, not dissolve it.
In light of Macron’s claim that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” it’s worth recalling that before nationalism became a political buzzword, left-wing critics of the U.S. considered patriotism to be the chief demon of chaos and death. Patriotism, that now-cherished ideal, was attacked both in and out of the United States as a dangerous, jingoistic American fetish. Regardless of terminology and leadership, the enduring fact is that Americans will always take more heat than the next country for doing bold things. It’s a small price to pay for being the kind of country we are—the kind of country that can bring an end to world wars.