Ross Douthat recently suggested that President Trump had failed to adequately address the coronavirus crisis, and that this failure was difficult to explain given Trump’s emphasis on protecting our borders from foreign threats. I see his point, but I also believe that Douthat has somewhat misunderstood Trump’s core values.  In order to fully explain why I’ll need to make a rather long digression discussing the difference between patriotism and nationalism. This distinction is easiest to see by looking at some examples from around the world.

Patriotism means love of one’s country. An Indian patriot loves the people who live in India. In contrast, an Indian nationalist loves Indian Hindus, both inside and out of India. A Chinese patriot loves the people who live in China; a Chinese nationalist loves the Han people, wherever they live. The same concept applies to Russian patriots and nationalists, Hungarian patriots and nationalists, Japanese patriots and nationalists, Turkish patriots and nationalists, etc. For nationalists, minorities such as Muslims, Kurds, Roma, Koreans, and others don’t quite count.

In America, patriots love all ethnic groups, whereas nationalists favor white Americans. Patriots see African-Americans and Hispanics as real Americans. Immigration from Africa is not seen as something that would change America; rather a lack of immigration from Africa would change America, gradually reducing the African-American share of the population. Nationalists drive through neighborhoods with non-white faces and say that they don’t feel like they are in America.  In their hearts, they wish it were a more white country.  American patriots see African-Americans and Hispanics as a valuable asset, whereas nationalists see them as a liability.

There are of course many other differences between patriots and nationalists:

1.  Patriots favor free trade while nationalists favor protectionism.

2.  Patriots favor immigration while nationalists oppose immigration (outside their ethnic group.)

3.  Patriots favor freedom and democracy, whereas nationalists try to suppress the political power of minorities and (when in power) favor more authoritarian policies.

4.  Patriots are serious people, while nationalists tend to make childish jokes about violence against those that they see as not on their side.

5.  Patriots favor an honest account of their country’s flaws so that it can learn from its mistakes, whereas nationalists promote a fake history that covers up embarrassing incidents from the past.  Here it’s useful to recall the different approaches to history in Japan and Germany.  The Germans recoiled from nationalism after WWII and honestly confronted their mistakes.  The somewhat more nationalistic Japanese did this to a much lesser extent.

I see dishonesty as a core nationalist concept, as the ideology cannot easily survive in an environment of honest inquiry.  Thus nationalist governments hide their true intentions in order to appear patriotic.  It’s embarrassing to admit that some people in your country just don’t count.  And the structure of nationalism requires a belief that the dominant ethnic group is somehow superior (even if only morally, as in the cases where the dominant group is less well educated).  When nationalists are in power, this requires covering up failures in order to make the nation seem “great again”.

I believe this is what Douthat gets wrong about Trump.  President Trump’s core beliefs don’t revolve around this or that policy issue; they are based on a vision of American greatness, especially white American greatness.  An honest engagement with the coronavirus epidemic would have required an admission of weakness. An admission that the US government had been asleep at the wheel, that the crisis might cause a recession, that many Americans might die.  This conflicted with Trump’s belief that he was making the nation great again.  At a local level, this same dynamic led the Wuhan government to initially cover up the epidemic.

Douthat portrays “cosmopolitans” as ideologues that are obsessed with ideas like “open borders”.  That may be true of a few cosmopolitans, but most (like me) are pragmatists who were quite comfortable with reasonable measures to control the epidemic.  Douthat seems to believe that while Trump is a highly flawed figure, there is a core of Trump’s nationalist agenda that is good.  He might view the description of nationalism in this post as a crude caricature, just as I view his description of cosmopolitanism as an over-simplification.

Communists sometimes argue that places like the Soviet Union did not represent true communism, and that Marx’s ideal was never really tried.  But I’m not interested in any sort of mythical “true communism”, what matters to me is actual existing communism as was practiced in the 20th century.  Similarly, I view “true nationalism” as a chimera.  All that matters is the actual nationalism we see in India, Russia, China, Hungary, Turkey, Japan and the United States.  Or the earlier nationalism of Mussolini, Hitler, Peron, Stalin and similar historical figures.

When people try to describe a “good nationalism” they are generally either describing patriotism, or are confused about what’s good for a country, as when they promote protectionist economic policies.  I wish conservative intellectuals like Douthat would give up on nationalism, as his core beliefs are (in my view) more closely aligned with patriotism.  Similarly, people who favor the Nordic economic model should stop talking about “socialism”, and use a term that better describes highly free market economies with extensive social welfare systems, perhaps social democracy.