Trump’s Brand of Nationalism Reinforces a Divisive ‘Us v. Them’ Playbook
Policy + Politics

Trump’s Brand of Nationalism Reinforces a Divisive ‘Us v. Them’ Playbook

© Molly Riley / Reuters

The extraordinarily nationalistic tone of President Donald Trump’s inaugural address on Friday surprised many Americans who are used to hearing presidents use that particular moment to deliver hopeful remarks about a kind of national greatness that extends beyond simple self-interest.

However, the bluntness of Trump’s “America First” vision of the country’s relationship with the rest of the world and his call for “total allegiance” to the country -- presumably the country as he believes it should be -- probably didn’t come as much of a shock to people who had been paying close attention to the stump speeches of candidate Trump, or even his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July.

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The inaugural address would also have sounded quite familiar to other listeners, particularly some on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Trump’s vision of a United States turned inward is, in many ways, an echo of calls for more nationalism that can be heard right now from the anti-immigrant hard-right National Front in France. It was on display last year, as advocates of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, particularly the UK Independence Party, pressed their case. From the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been relentlessly pressing a renewed Russian nationalism.

Indeed, appeals to the preservation of national identities have been heard across Europe for years now, particularly in countries that have seen large inflows of migrants, and they often come with a side order of racism and religious bigotry.

So it was no real surprise when, on Saturday, the White House dispensed with the fiction that the president wrote Friday’s speech himself, and admitted that the words had been heavily influenced, if not outright written, by a pair of his closest aides. One of them is Trump’s chief strategist and senior White House counselor, Steve Bannon, a self-professed “economic nationalist.”

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A former Goldman Sachs banker who went on to make a small fortune in movie and television production, Bannon took over the right-wing Breitbart News in 2012. The site became an unabashed supporter of Trump’s campaign, which Bannon eventually joined himself last August. (Bannon rejects the accusations that Breitbart has become a forum for not just nationalists, but for white nationalists.)

Bannon’s comments in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter late last year, in which he claimed the economic nationalist mantle, could have been the rough draft of part of Trump’s inaugural address.

“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” he told reporter Michael Wolff. “The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver, we'll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years. That's what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It's not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about."

It’s a vision that Bannon has had consistently for some time. In a lengthy question and answer session delivered to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon laid out his vision of how the world is being realigned by a new political reality in which national identity plays a central role.

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“Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement,” he said, according to the audio of the event obtained by Buzzfeed. “We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center-right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.”

Those remarks bear a striking similarity to Trump’s inaugural address in their contempt for a globalist worldview and their call for a return to traditionalism and nationalism. They also help explain the deference that the Trump campaign has shown to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Bannon referred to as a kleptocrat, even as he acknowledged his success in rallying the Russian people behind him.

I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty of their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union, or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a States-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.

However, we the Judeo-Christian West have to look at what [Putin is] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.

Related: Trump’s Blunders on NATO and Russia Make Our European Allies Cringe

The fact that the only specific issue of global concern that Trump mentioned in his inaugural address was the fight against the terror group ISIS can be chalked up to Bannon as well. Trump pledged to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the earth.”

In Bannon’s worldview, the fight against militant Islam is the single biggest threat -- “a war of immense proportions” -- that takes precedence over things like Russian aggression.

“[A]t the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that wants to expand,” he said to the audience in Rome. “However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.”

That tracks very closely with Trump’s repeated insistence that the US should look away from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and evidence of massive war crimes in Syria, and focus instead on convincing Putin to assist the US in fighting ISIS.

At the earliest stages of the Trump presidency, it’s impossible to know where the former reality television star who now sits in the Oval Office will take the country. But Friday’s inaugural address made it pretty clear who will be giving him the directions.