This decade has seen a sharp rise in nationalism internationally ranging from the ideological, such as President Donald Trump’s political platform, to the legally enforced as seen with Brexit. Yet, despite attempts at national unification, parallel movements of separation and disillusionment have emerged. And in response, the question has been posed about whether an exclusive and introspective foreign policy can truly unite a nation, or if it exacerbates the domestic divisions that already exist.
It seems that Trump’s nationalist platform has increased polarization; however, an emphasis on increasing patriotism as opposed to exclusionary politics could help to unify America’s diverse population. In the current 2020 election alone, unprecedented levels of division, across and within party lines have emerged that exemplify our country’s deep polarization. From issues like how local communities should be structured to the 2020 presidential impeachment, party-line splits have become increasingly stark and near-perfect divided plurality among votes has become common. These sentiments of division are present, and increasing, despite the measures Trump has taken to create a unified vision of America.
The Trump administration has been defined largely by an unyielding allegiance and loyalty to America. President Trump’s platform from the start has had an unashamed identity in the promotion of nationalism. In October 2018 he declared, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.” This bold stance appealed to many Americans who yearned for a realization of the ‘American dream’ and saw a focus on domestic reform as the solution to achieving that dream.
However, as many have come to realize, the American dream is not often inclusive of a diversified American public. The picture that Trump promoted largely catered toward a white America. “Make America Great Again,” identified as a largely white political theology, calls for a return to an ‘Americanness’ that can be ‘purifying’ and exclusionary to minority groups. Although Trump denied knowledge that his use of the term nationalism carried racist undertones and served as a “dog-whistle” for white nationalists, his nationalist approach has seemingly divided America further instead of creating unity. For some, the term nationalist promotes optimism and hope; for others, it can represent race-based dominance and inequity.
Part of the polarization stems from the fact that the idealized American dream simply fails to represent many groups domestically in the United States. America is a truly diverse country, not unified by language, ethnicity, or shared heritage alone. In fact, some refer to the United States as 11 nations, grouped by voting patterns, demographics and geography. Thus, to be effective, Trump’s desire to invoke a love and loyalty for America cannot imply the exclusion of some groups for the elevation of others.
In other words, Trump’s vision for America would be better expressed in terms of patriotism instead of nationalism. Patriotism, seeking to promote the interests of the entire country, encourages diversity instead of homogeneity. In celebrating diversity, people can understand their identity and the identity of others and find commonalities that transcend politics. This inter-personal connection is vital when engaging in questions of partisanship and polarization. If we as a diversified nation do not understand how others identify themselves on the most fundamental levels, there will be no room for other forms of unification.
On an international level, some facets of America’s current isolationist stance have distanced not only America from the international sphere, but intensified domestic division as well. By focusing on America’s presence in the international sector, citizens are motivated to present a unified front. Core to this notion of presenting a united front requires a re-evaluation of our country’s policies on immigration and foreign policy. This unity also necessitates the public to work together to understand what America stands for. Hopefully, we will be able to achieve a less polarized and more patriotic and unified base without a world war to push citizens and government to work together. Hopefully, the diverse groups within America will be recognized and make room for under-represented people to share their experiences and stories. Instead of polarizing nationalism, American citizens will be unified by patriotism and loyalty to their country.
It is impossible not to consider the state of our nation and the reevaluation of our sense of community and citizenship in response to COVID-19. In a recent New York Times article, David Brooks identifies the parallel self-isolation and global relativity that the pandemic has created: “people in Seoul, Milan, and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence. Most of us are self-distancing at the same time.” Being faced with a global crisis this dire and life-halting does make “us-versus-them” jargon seem hollow when the preservation of humanity as a whole is at stake. Now, more than ever—from the safety of our own homes—it is time to come together. Scientists from around the world are making headway by combining resources and sharing research, learning from how other countries are handling the issue. Governments are realizing the necessity of international cooperation regarding safety regulations and increasing multilateral approaches to mitigate socio-economic instability.
In light of all this, nationalism, in its traditional understanding does not have a place in our society; but patriotism may, and community cooperation certainly does. When fighting a pandemic, the realization of both America’s diversity and common identity is crucial because the participation of each and every person is equally vital.