By Samuel Wonacott, Staff Writer
Donald Trump rode to power on the promise of making America great again. His campaign trafficked in strident appeals to nativism and nationalism, and called for reversing America’s declining position in the world and punishing those supposedly responsible—China, political elites, Mexican immigrants and so on. He repeated the line “America first!” twice in his inauguration address and promised a politics based on “a total allegiance to the United States of America.”
By the end of his first week he had issued Executive Orders directing the construction of a wall along the country’s southern border, ratcheting up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants and temporarily banning refugees from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States (in the case of Syria, the ban exists indefinitely).
While Trump spent much of his campaign shamelessly stoking racial resentment and anxiety—such as when he suggested a U.S. District judge’s Mexican heritage might bias him in the Trump University lawsuits he was presiding over—his inauguration address focused more on nationalism than ethnicity.
“We all bleed the same red blood of patriots,” Trump intoned, signaling a belief that national identity can transcend race and other identity markers. Although his rhetoric, at its most xenophobic, reveals an undercurrent of ethno-nationalism geared heavily toward whites, he clearly sees nationalism as a balm for healing a deeply divided country.
The sudden resurgence of nationalism hit close to home last Wednesday when the Boise State community awoke to find that a group calling itself the “Boise State Nationalist” had plastered campus with flyers inviting those who have a problem with — among other things — “immigration,” “male emasculation” and “degeneracy” to join them. The flyers, posted in violation of university policy—the perpetrartors were apparently emasculated to such a degree that they had to put up the flyers in the dead of night—and strongly suggestive of National Socialism, were quickly removed by enterprising professors and students before the morning was over. The incident caused a stir both on and off campus as people realized that Trump’s nationalist drumbeating had percolated to the Treasure Valley.
Historically, nationalism has proven a powerful unifying force, often pulling together countries riven by internecine conflict. Nationalism most often manifests itself in a willingness to believe that one’s country can do no wrong. Nazi Germany may be the most recognizable case in point of virulent nationalism, but one can find examples from countless countries through the centuries, including in America. After all, it was less than 20 years ago that George W. Bush whipped up nationalist fervor to invade Iraq, a country which posed no threat to the U.S.
Because we are social creatures who desire community with others, nationalism often succeeds in bringing together people living under the same flag. But nationalism’s chief flaw is that it ignores our common humanity, relying on artificial borders to draw morally artificial distinctions between us. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum asked in 1994 in the Boston Review, responding to the claims that only patriotism can bind a society together, “why should these values, which instruct us to join hands across boundaries of ethnicity and class and gender and race, lose steam when they get to the borders of the nation?” Nationalists take one aspect of who we are—our national identity—and define us wholly in that respect.
This question of how much moral weight to give national identity is not a modern one. The ancient Greeks grappled with their own form of nationalism thousands of years ago. The constitutive element of Greek nationalism wasn’t the nation-state but, rather, the city-state, the polis. The polis was a political community, a microcosm of the nation-states that stretch out over the globe today. Some Greek philosophers, resisting the pressure to pledge allegiance to a single city-state, disavowed parochial ties and pledged themselves, instead, to a cosmo-polis, a universal community, or, as it would later come to be called, cosmopolitanism. When asked where he came from, the Cynic philosopher Diogenes reportedly answered, “I am a citizen of the world.” For the Roman statesman Seneca, cosmopolitanism is grounded on what “is truly great and truly common, in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun.”
Cosmopolitanism, properly formulated, doesn’t deny the importance of that which makes us unique. The aim is not to erase our identities, national or otherwise, but to situate them in a way that doesn’t undermine our common humanity. The cosmopolitans of antiquity didn’t demand that we ignore our fellow citizens; rather, they argued that our sympathies ought to extend beyond our local and national loyalties to people everywhere. For nationalists, allegiance to country supersedes universal principles of justice. For cosmopolitans, the reverse is true. In other words, to put this into an American context, morality doesn’t stop at El Paso.
For immigrants and refugees escaping failed states and conflict, America offers peace, relative economic security, and, most importantly, opportunity. Nationalism tells us to overlook the plight of people born outside the U.S. based on nothing more than the accident of birth. A cosmopolitan perspective, on the other hand, recognizes the historically contingent nature of borders, the way they ebb and flow over tuime for largely arbitrary reasons. A cosmopolitan perspective demands that we treat all people with respect, because the recognition of human dignity—not just the dignity of American citizens—is an integral part of justice.
Nationalism offers a blinkered perspective on the world, one that won’t make America great again. Instead of a shining city on a hill, America will look more like a fortress, walled off from the world and suspicious of those outside. Now, more than ever, America needs to be embrace the cosmopolitan values of tolerance, and compassion toward humanity as a whole.