US_Navy Aerial_view_of_the_Washington_Monument

Trump’s Ethnic Nationalism is Not the Same as Reagan’s Civic Nationalism

by Tony Wyman

Trump’s Ethnic Nationalism

America’s last nationalist president was Ronald Reagan, but there was a stark difference between the nationalism of the country’s 40th and 45th presidents.

In 1980, when the country elected Ronald Reagan president by a 51% to 41% margin, America was reeling from the failures of the Carter Administration. Soaring unemployment, the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis and the resultant military catastrophe during our attempt to rescue them, the decline in American prestige around the world and an overarching sense of pessimism about the country’s future weighed heavily with voters.

Reagan and Trump
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were both Democrat entertainers before becoming Republicans and winning the Oval Office. But that’s where their similarities end.

Along came Mr. Reagan. He brought a different vision of America’s future that inspired voters to believe the country’s days were still ahead of them. He depicted America as the world’s leader, its best hope for a better future, famously calling the country “a shining city on a hill.”

Most importantly, unlike other nationalists who capitalize on the passions of dispirited citizens trapped in a morass of national decline by feeding off and validating their pessimism, Mr. Reagan led the country out of its funk with a positive and affirming message of hope for a brighter future.

Citing repeatedly all the wonders and benefits that America brought the world, the country’s role in keeping the free world safe from tyranny and its place as the economic engine of the West, he shared an optimistic and hopeful vision of the world, one where America “is not turned inward, but outward—toward others”.

Contrast Mr. Reagan’s nationalism with that of Mr. Trump. Unlike President Reagan, Mr. Trump believes the world is a dark place full of enemies, nations and people who threaten our country, that routinely take advantage of her and wish her ill.

In Mr. Trump’s vision, America is beset by unfaithful allies and ruthless enemies who have chipped away at our rightful place in the world. His solution is to withdraw from the global scene, to pull out of treaties, to rewrite ones that have existed for years to redress unidentified wrongs that slighted America, leaving us the laughing stock of the world.

Mr. Trump doesn’t see America as a shining city on a hill; he sees her as a ramshackle and decaying city, besieged by invaders climbing over her ramparts. Where Mr. Reagan beseeched Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, Mr. Trump wants to build one of his own to keep the others out.

Reagan speech at Brandenburg Gate.
Ronald Reagan delivering his famous speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall in 1987, demanding Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”

Mr. Reagan’s nationalism, which was “civic nationalism,” was positive, hopeful and optimistic. Mr. Trump’s nationalism, which is “ethnic nationalism,” is negative, pessimistic and angry.

Civic Nationalism vs. Ethnic Nationalism

The difference between the two types of nationalism – civic (or civil) and ethnic – is significant and meaningful, so let me explain it. Civic nationalists believe a nation is an association of people who are drawn together to enjoy equal and shared civil rights under a common political framework.

A nation, say civic nationalists, is based on an allegiance to these principles and upon the consent of the governed, not on its ethnic make-up.

Ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, believe a nation is made up of a people based on the common ethnic and hereditary connections. Ethnic nationalists don’t believe that people from other ethnicities can ever truly be members of the nation, so they don’t reach out to include people who don’t reflect the ethnic make-up of the majority of people in the nation. In fact, they attempt to reverse immigration trends that dilute the ethnic purity of the nation.

Civic nationalism, like that of Mr. Reagan’s, is conciliatory and inclusive. It seeks to strengthen the country by being forward-looking, by reaching out to other nations to build bonds and alliances that create benefits for both nations. Civic nationalists welcome interactions with people from other nations as an opportunity to learn from others and, by so doing, using that knowledge to strengthen their own country.

Civic nationalists promote their nation’s values abroad, seeking to export the principles and values their country has as a form of cultural currency.

Ethnic nationalism, like that of Mr. Trump’s, is defensive and exclusionary. It seeks to withdraw the nation from entanglements in treaties with foreign nations and entities like the European Union, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It believes the nation is better off on its own, focusing more on internal issues that on international ones. It believes the nation benefits from isolating itself behind its borders, allowing the rest of the world to do as it may without becoming embroiled in foreign intrigues and adventures.

World War 1.
More than 17 million people, including 100,000 American troops, during World War 1.

The problem with this nativist kind of thinking is that the last time America became an isolationist nation was before World War I and the result was a global disaster that led to two world wars. Withdrawing American influence from the global scene didn’t produce a safer, more prosperous world; it produced quite the opposite.


And that is what would happen today if Mr. Trump and his ethnic nationalist allies get their way. The void America would leave by withdrawing from the world stage, by ceasing to be a “globalist” nation, using a word the ethnic nationalists like to throw around as if it were an insult, would be filled by other nations, most prominently Russia.

It is, of course, no coincidence that Russia supported the candidacy of Mr. Trump. They saw, well before anyone else did, the value in supporting an ethnic nationalist like the New York billionaire. Vladimir Putin, whose greatest ambition is to restore the territory Russia lost after the Soviet empire was defeated by Ronald Reagan, saw an ally in Mr. Trump, perhaps an unwitting one, but one nonetheless, in seeing his ambitions become reality. And Mr. Putin knew that Hillary Clinton, a globalist, would present a greater obstacle to his expansionist plans than would Mr. Trump.

Mr. Putin’s support of Mr. Trump likely had nothing to do with his personal relationships or feelings about either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton, but, rather, about which of the two would present the fewest obstacles to his global objectives.

We are already seeing early signs of Russian adventurism in Europe. They’ve expanded their control of Crimea, territory gained unchallenged during the Obama Administration, and they’ve menaced their Balkan neighbors with military exercises on their borders. They’ve also announced plans for major military expansion this year and in the years to come.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russia is trying to “build a sphere of influence through military means” by deploying forces “in (the) Arctic, the Baltic, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.”

Mr. Trump and his ethnic nationalist allies must understand their policies won’t strengthen America or make her more secure behind her borders. They will have the opposite effect, leaving her vulnerable to hostile nations that will fill the void our country leaves behind.

If Mr. Trump’s goal really is to “Make America Great Again,” he ought to follow the example of the president who restored American greatness in 1980, Ronald Reagan, and re-engage our country as a leader on the global stage.

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