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Speaking at the United Nations climate conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said he couldn't "speculate about what policies our president-elect will pursue." (Photo: Carlo Allegri/ Reuters)

What Kind of Nationalist Takes Away Your Health Care?

A nationalist is supposed to love his people, even if he despises others. Trump would seem to fit the bill, and yet he just kicked tens of millions of his fellow Americans to the curb.

Jason Opal

Since taking office two years ago, Donald Trump has wounded Obamacare by enabling insurance companies to sell shoddy policies and eliminating the individual mandate for coverage. This week, his administration moved in for the kill by endorsing a federal court’s ruling against the entire Affordable Care Act.

This would endanger everyone with pre-existing conditions, not to mention anyone who gets diagnosed with cancer or hit by a car this year.

"Thin and cruel, this kind of nationalism is also self-fulfilling. For if we assume the world has no place for democratic norms, then we won’t have any."

We should expect this from the modern GOP, whose motto might as well be the peanut-gallery reply that Wolf Blitzer received at a 2011 Tea Party debate, when he asked if we should let an uninsured person in a coma die: “Yeah!”

The puzzle is how Donald Trump, the self-described “nationalist,” can still pass as one. A nationalist is supposed to love his people, even if he despises others. Trump would seem to fit the bill, and yet he just kicked tens of millions of his fellow Americans to the curb.

What kind of nationalist is that?

Part of the answer is that Mr. Trump does not see all Americans as equally American. In his eyes, people of Mexican descent aren’t really one of us. Neither are black people, gay people, handicapped people, or women who talk back. They are part of the population, but not of the nation, a word that implies the deeper bonds of blood and culture. (From the Latin natio, birth.)

Indeed, Trump sees that nation as threatened by non-white enemies—a very old state of mind that reaches back to America’s history of slavery and frontier violence. The result is a dangerous brew of racist pride and paranoia. Whether rapists from Mexico or drug-dealers from the inner city, he warns, they are coming for your family, your home, your body.

“Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger,” Trump declared while announcing his run for President in 2015, “and we as a country are getting weaker.”

This leads Trump to call for massive military spending, just like most Republicans. Unlike many Republicans, though, he applies his grim view of the world to every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, leaving the nation both lonely and nasty.

If the world is as vicious as Trump insists, then there’s no reason to support other democracies or respect human rights. So Trump cozies up with North Korean despots and Saudi Arabian murderers. Nor is there any alternative to dog-eat-dog capitalism. So Trump favors American companies—the owners, not the workers—while demanding free access to oil in Venezuela, timber in Brazil, and arms-buyers anywhere.

In sum, the nation that Trump loves is always at war—with unfriendly countries and non-European immigrants, to be sure, but also against its own gentler side. It must be hard not only on external foes but also with its own members. It must be cruel to itself.

Such a nationalism hates the thought of universal care for two reasons. First, it would apply to every US resident, white or otherwise. Second, it would make the United States a more decent and caring society. In Trump’s mind, that would mean a weaker nation, more forgiving of “losers.”  

Thin and cruel, this kind of nationalism is also self-fulfilling. For if we assume the world has no place for democratic norms, then we won’t have any, and will need to hunker down even more. And if no one can have any security against the random cruelty of life, then our best option is to join forces with bullies like Trump.

To fight back, we don’t just need new leaders, but also a new nationalism, a way of being and feeling American that would never let one of us go bankrupt when their kid falls sick. We need to take pride in the care we take of all our people, in the better angels of our nature rather than the worst.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jason Opal

Jason Opal

Jason M. Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and the author of Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation from Oxford University Press.

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