There is only one way to defend most of new President Donald Trump’s many moves in his first week in office, but it is powerful. Whether it is the Wall, or shutting down refugee resettlement, or building the pipelines, or pressuring companies to keep jobs here, or pulling out of international trade pacts, or even toying with torture again, all can mainly or only be defended as a means to “put America first.”
As such, many Americans find at least the general direction of what Trump is doing to be compelling. After all, isn’t it the job of the American president to wake up each day asking what he can do to advance American self-interest? The very fact that Donald Trump was elected on precisely this platform, or at least, this persona, speaks to its appeal.
Ever since there were peoples, and nations, such claims to patriotic duty and national self-interest have been among the most powerful in any leader’s arsenal. It is a fearsome challenge to overcome the power of patriotism when deployed by a ruler of some rhetorical ability, aided by the trappings of power.
Those who are unhappy with some or all of the new president’s moves have three basic options in front of them for their critique.
- They can critique his actions on the basis of an alternative patriotism, a different vision of what is actually best for the nation, either policy by policy or as a whole.
- They can make their critique on the basis of transcendent values that they believe are being violated or will be violated by the president’s policies.
- They can make their critique on the basis of their commitment to a different primary community, one that matters more to them than the nation-state called the United States of America.
These paradigms can be aligned, but not always easily. It strikes me that the first and second strategy can work together, the second and third can do so as well, but the first and third may be incompatible.
In any case, if effective resistance is going to be mustered, advocates of each of these approaches are going to need to raise their game. Let’s consider each for a moment.
The alternative patriotism paradigm is the one that Barack Obama was already attempting to deploy before and after the election of Donald Trump, and that Hillary Clinton attempted during her campaign as well.
Here the assumption is that every American is and should be committed to American well-being and national self-interest, but the question is how best to get there. The reigning paradigm on this side has been that the United States is best served by being wired into global economic, alliance, and governance relationships and playing by shared international norms, that our long-term best interest is served by being open rather than closed to the rest of the world, and that showing a compassionate face to the world better reflects who we really are as a people and engenders goodwill toward us.
Many are persuaded by this alternative patriotism, but it didn’t quite win in 2016 and it may settle in for a long eclipse. On security policies, the great challenge is persuading fearful people that advocates of this alternative patriotism are sufficiently serious about national self-interest, especially on security and economic concerns.
The transcendent values strategy is to say that U.S. policies should reflect values that many of us believe in at the core of our being — such as tolerance, inclusion, ecological sustainability, hospitality, care, mercy, and justice. These values, we say, matter more than other, more parochial values, including the mere value of national self-interest.
Again, this strategy is compelling to those who actually believe in these transcendent values, but it is a heavy lift (especially in times of fear) to get a majority of fellow-citizens to agree. Either adversaries say that such values are inapplicable to the (threatened) nation-state, or they redefine and/or reject the values altogether.
The alternative community paradigm is the most radical. Adherents of this paradigm grant that nations are inclined naturally to advance their self-interest, but then say that their particular community of people simply does not believe that the nation is their primary community.
For some, their alternative primary community might be defined by another identity marker, such as national origin, immigrant status, gender, or race. For others, the alternative community is religious. If your primary identity is, say, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, then your primary commitment is to follow his Way, not to advance any nation’s self-interest.
While I am attracted to all three approaches, this last paradigm is where I stand most fundamentally. My primary identity is as a follower of Jesus. My primary community is with others thus committed, wherever they may be found here or around the world.
I believe that Jesus’ Way, as embodied in his life and communicated in his teachings, is authoritative for me, and that this is simply the commitment that I made when I committed my life to Christ.
I believe that Jesus’ Way does represent a set of transcendent values and does at least inform an alternative patriotism. This makes deep and strong alliances of resistance possible even with those who do not share my faith.
And I strongly believe that mere nationalism is a permanent spiritual threat, primarily as a seduction, to those who claim to be followers of Jesus. I believe we are watching much of that seduction unfold among American Christians today. It is not the first time. The temptation to confuse nationalism and Christianity is as old as Christendom.