The Trump Case and the Decline of True American Nationalism

The Trump Case and the Decline of True American Nationalism

In his entire political approach, Trump is anything but an American nationalist. He is appealing to only one part of America while fomenting hatred toward other parts.

The federal indictment of Donald Trump is of significance in multiple ways.

For one, it is a matter of accountability for the willful, flagrant violation of the law and sustained attempts to obstruct efforts by authorities to enforce the law. In short, the concern is with the rule of law and the consistent application of it.

At another level, the importance of secrecy of the documents that Trump so cavalierly mishandled—and the possible damage to national security from such mishandling—must be considered. Despite discussions about overclassification that often arise in the wake of major leaks or other compromises of classified information, there is a good reason for why the type of materials described in the indictment are kept classified. Exposure would make U.S. plans, capabilities, and sources of vital information vulnerable to hostile foreign powers. It may be hard for individual citizens to see how any of this relates to their daily lives, but it is integral to the security of anyone living in the United States. Harmful exposure could result from the sheer carelessness of Trump’s handling of the documents, or from anything Trump himself might do with them, given his own foreign connections.

More broadly, as David Rothkopf elaborates, the case is but one of the most recently and thoroughly documented facets of the larger danger that Trump has posed to the nation in the past and will do so again in the future if he is put in a position to do so. That danger has included—as in the subject of his second impeachment—no less than the attempted overthrow, including through incitement of violence, of the American democratic system of choosing leaders through free elections and respecting the results of those elections.

An even broader level extends beyond Trump himself and includes reactions to the indictment from many of his supporters or those attempting to appeal to his base of support. Those reactions reflect how many citizens of this country do not identify their interests with the United States of America but rather with a narrower, largely party-based, subset of America. Such sentiment does not uphold the national interest and is often contrary to the national interest. The bluntest way to describe this pattern is in terms of loyalties—of having primary loyalty not to the United States but rather to a party or to some demographic group—although speaking of someone’s loyalties risks sounding like some kind of latter-day McCarthyism.

A safer terminology is that of nationalism—in the non-pejorative sense of strong identification with, and love for, one’s nation. Trump has called himself a nationalist, and in doing so was endeavoring to ride a wave of nationalist sentiment that in recent years has extended to many other countries besides the United States. But in his highly divisive rhetoric and entire political approach, Trump is anything but an American nationalist. He is appealing to only one part of America while fomenting hatred toward other parts. Many of his supporters exhibit an extreme form of political sectarianism, in which Americans of other political persuasions are regarded as enemies every bit as much as foreign adversaries are. Differences across party lines are perceived less as differences of opinion over the best way to pursue a national interest than as a fundamental conflict between adversaries who are not part of the same community of interests.

In interpreting reactions to the case at hand, consider that even before the recent indictment was unsealed, enough was publicly known about Trump’s actions and the Mar-a-Lago documents for legal experts to opine that prosecutors would have a very strong case. Now with the indictment—replete with details of Trump’s own words and actions, his aides’ shuffling of boxes between bathrooms and storerooms and ballroom stages, and duped lawyers being set up to make false statements about the documents—the case is one where, as one former Bush administration official and federal prosecutor put it, “If this were a normal person and a normal case, you’d be talking to your client about pleading guilty.” This prosecution, and seeing it through to a full administration of justice, is unquestionably in the U.S. national interest. It would have been a dereliction of duty by the Department of Justice to have done otherwise.

And yet some politicians, especially concentrated among Republicans in the House of Representatives, are voicing reactions to the indictment, calling it a “brazen weaponization of power” (Speaker Kevin McCarthy), “a sham indictment” (Majority Leader Steve Scalise), and “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye” (Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona). One hears nothing in any of this caustic rhetoric about the nature of Trump’s actions or of the implications for the rule of law and for national security if law enforcement officials did not do their duty and instead gave this sort of conduct a pass.

Nor is there, among all the accusations about supposed weaponization and political persecution, the slightest shred of evidence that federal investigators and prosecutors have acted on this case out of anything other than a sense of duty to enforce the law. If one were to speculate about the innermost thoughts of Special Counsel Jack Smith, they probably would be—beyond a strong sense of duty in doing his current job—that his life would have been much simpler and less unpleasant if he had remained at The Hague prosecuting Balkan war criminals, where he would not be subject to the months of partisan abuse that he now will have to endure.

In the weakening or outright absence of a sense of national interest that is part of extreme political sectarianism, the sectarians have no place for the concept of nonpolitical civil servants whose job is to serve that interest. This exclusion underlies the often-heard nonsense about a “deep state.” It is not clear to what extent politicians who employ such rhetoric really believe that there is no such thing as an apolitical public servant, or if this is merely part of their attempt to appeal to what they see as their constituency. Either way, the willingness to cripple and discredit essential national functions of security and law enforcement—all just to try to shield their party’s man from the consequences of his own misconduct—shows the extent to which some Americans, including powerful members of Congress, have abandoned whatever dedication they may have once had in serving the national interest. The unfounded accusations about the motives of dedicated and honest public servants constitute a new form of McCarthyism.

The damage extends beyond FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors. Trump tried to destroy the entire upper reaches of the federal civil service with his “Schedule F” scheme. He certainly would try again if returned to office, and other Republican presidential aspirants are also attracted to the idea as a campaign plank. If such destruction were to occur, the consequences would be severe. Internationally, the United States would present a fractured, inconsistent, and ineffective face to the rest of the world, with no one speaking on behalf of all Americans. Domestically, it would bring the United States a couple of steps closer to a Hobbesian state of nature in which the nasty and brutish aspects would flow from government no longer being populated with officials working in the interests of the entire nation, but only with partisan warriors.

Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

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