You can oppose Trump's nationalism. But don't sneer at it.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Foreground: President Trump greets Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during a campaign rally in Houston on Oct. 22. Background: Cruz and Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

I vividly remember watching from a skybox behind the stage in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on the night Ted Cruz addressed the Republican convention. Facing a half-hostile crowd, Cruz pointedly refused to endorse a nominee who had mocked his wife’s looks and accused his father of having somehow played a role in John Kennedy’s assassination.

I had genuine respect for Cruz in that moment. He had earned his right to speak in primetime, racking up 551 delegates, and he was going to use that time the way he saw fit, without dishonoring himself.

But you know, as we all try to teach our children, there’s no value in life more important than being reelected to a Senate seat by a comfortable margin. So there was Cruz this week in Houston, throwing his wife and father under the campaign bus along with his own dignity, and hugging it out super-awkwardly with President Trump. As they say in Texas, better to be covered in dung than trampled by the herd.

Actually, no one says that in Texas. But if Trump can promise a middle-class tax cut in the next 10 days while Congress is in recess, then I guess I can make stuff up, too.

Still, it wasn’t the cringey hug in Houston that really got my attention, or the silliness about a nonexistent tax cut. It was Trump’s remarkable riff about national identity.

“You know what I am?” Trump asked the amped-up crowd. “I’m a nationalist, OK? Nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”

He then accused his opponents of being “corrupt, power-hungry globalists.” He went on: “You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much.”

Let’s leave aside the accuracy of that definition, for a moment, and take the president’s agenda seriously.

I often get mail from readers who ask me when I’m going to find something nice to say about Trump. Well, OK, here you go.

A lot of us have talked about Trump as principally being an entertainer, and I think that was certainly true when he ran and won. But unlike so many tepid and equivocating politicians in both parties, who have generally seemed content to run on trite slogans and meaningless distinctions (“I’m for jobs and prosperity!”), Trump has based his presidency now on a substantive argument, and he’s forcing the country to make a significant choice.

Because Trump is right about this: All over the world, nationalism and globalism are exerting a dueling pull on the politics of industrialized countries. And when the histories of this reactionary moment are written, no matter which way it comes out, Trump will have been an important player in determining the outcome.

The choice here isn’t quite the way Trump frames it, though, nor is it as obvious and extreme as a lot of his critics contend. It’s actually complicated, and reasonable people might disagree, assuming you knew where to find any.

Start with the premise that the last 40 or so years of deteriorating borders — the emergence of a world where capital and information bounce all over the globe instantaneously, where economies are interdependent, and where religious extremists threaten the security of states from within — haven’t been reassuring times for anyone.

Nationalists like Trump — and he’s been a nationalist far longer than he’s been a Republican — believe we’ve gotten far too concerned with being good global citizens, at the expense of our own identity and industry. America, to them, isn’t just an idea or a set of legislative precepts; it’s a place with its own common culture and native language, and it ought to worry first and foremost about the people rightfully born into it.

Practically speaking, that means erecting walls — both literal and economic — and pulling back from military commitments around the world that mostly protect other countries. It means retrenching around American businesses and American-born workers, and blunting the rapid social change, much of it led by government or judges or media, that’s left a lot of less educated white voters feeling overlooked.

Taken to its extreme — and there is far too much of that — this kind of nationalist impulse verges into ethnic superiority and sexism, the idea being that the country is more prosperous and secure when white, native-born men are in charge.

Trump often blithely harmonizes to this tune, in part because he seems to sympathize with it, and in part because so much of his rhetoric comes from the desk of this Stephen Miller character in the White House, whose intellectual development seems to have stopped with the ridicule he endured from liberals in his Santa Monica high school.

But you needn’t be a racist to believe that national identity and borders matter, and that all this emphasis on global alliances and global trade has hollowed out American communities. And that’s where most of Trump’s supporters are.

On the other side of the equation are globalists, which is a word some people don’t like, because ethnic purists have deployed it as an anti-Semitic slur, but you know, just because some idiots distort a word doesn’t negate its actual meaning.

Globalists don’t want to turn back the clock on technology or social change, and in any event they don’t think you can. They think America expands economically, as it always has, by leading international coalitions and competing in markets abroad, rather than fleeing them.

To the globalists, Americanism isn’t distinguished by an ethnic identity, but in fact by the absence of one; it’s an experiment governed by a common creed, which holds that anyone who aspires to American values can find purpose and prosperity here, as most of our ancestors did (Trump’s and Miller’s included).

Where American voters net out, ultimately, will have reverberations, as it always does, in the rest of the world. In recent years, right-wing nationalist movements have gained traction and power throughout Europe, as illustrated by this recent breakdown from the BBC. This weekend, voters in Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country, may well elect their own nationalist president.

We will either corral the stampede of nationalism or accelerate it. We will restore faith in globalism or mortally discredit it.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I count myself in the globalist camp, though certainly not in a partisan way. (There are plenty of globalists hiding out in the abandoned fortresses of the once great Republican Party, just as some leading Democrats are very much economic nationalists.)

But I don’t think you have to be crazy to take the other position. And I don’t think you can simply dismiss the president as a xenophobe or racist — however much he sounds like both from time to time — without at least taking his argument seriously, now that he’s clearly defined the terms of the debate.

Because if you do that — if you’re a liberal who takes the position that Trump and all his adherents are just evil and bigoted — then you’re not just doing disservice to a much larger historical debate. You’re actually setting yourself up for a crushing defeat, maybe in the midterm elections that are now just 12 days away, or in the next presidential election.

Americans won’t be shamed into rejecting nationalism; they can only be persuaded and inspired. Absent that, as we found out in 2016, the basest appeal will often prevail.

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