Writing in The Week, Damon Linker reacts to Zack Beauchamp’s Vox piece on the widespread resurgence of the far right with a sarcastic question: “Have you noticed that liberals think Donald Trump and his supporters are racists?” Of course you have, Linker answers: It’s the universal left-wing take, so prominent that even the normally cautious traditional news media is beginning to embrace it publicly. But Vox’s article, Linker says, is not only “the latest and most ambitious” of this flood of “hit pieces” against Trumpians, Brexiteers, and related others; it is “a perfect distillation of liberalism in 2016.” Distilled because it doesn’t change the subject by attributing far-right attitudes to economic dislocation, and perfect because of its unabashed willingness to look straight at these attitudes and deem them “regressive.” This, writes Linker, is “the real problem with the way Beauchamp and so many others on the center-left talk about those on the nationalist right”:
it displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.
Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but ‘racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia’ — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic.
There is an interesting (and quite active) debate about the place of particularism in politics, but I don’t think it maps onto the issues Linker is describing here. Perhaps there is a causal link between one form of liberalism that views politics in strongly cosmopolitan terms and various forms of particularist backlash, but—to focus on the American side of this transatlantic issue—this does not seem like an especially apt description of Trumpism.
As I argued in my Chronicle Review piece on Trump and nationalism, the dichotomy between right-nationalism and left-globalism (a common frame among Trump’s supporters) is not only badly misleading; it collapses into belligerence toward outsiders and insiders. Linker defends particularism as a legitimate posture for humans who wish to maintain the integrity of their community against rapid, uncontrolled change from the outside, whether in the form of transnational governance or high levels of migration and accompanying cultural changes. Without addressing whether that kind of particularism is defensible, I simply want to note that it doesn’t explain major parts of the particularistic vision that Trump has promoted and that his supporters have embraced. Theirs is not a conservative attempt to preserve America as it is from rapid change by outsiders; it’s a quasi-reactionary fantasy, an attempt to restore America as they imagine it once was by writing out most other Americans from the national community.
To get a sense of just how sweeping this reimagination of America is, start with the idea that the presidency is the only political office that (in principle) represents all Americans. Then consider the people Trump has denigrated, disrespected, and slandered—who he has placed, by extension, outside the vision of the country his campaign stands for. To start, even if you leave out his supporters, the candidate himself is unquestionably a misogynist and a racist. He’s slandered Muslims and advocated shutting down mosques, he promoted the execution of five black teenagers for a crime they didn’t commit, he mused that a Black Lives Matter protestor beaten at one of his rallies “should have been roughed up,” he’s mocked the disabled, and he has repeatedly promoted and hired white nationalists. That’s just a partial list of ways he’s insulted other Americans, to say nothing of new immigrants or refugees. To say that Trump is suggesting that self-styled white alpha males are the “right” kind of Americans, and everyone else is somehow lesser or an aberration, would be a gross understatement. He’s practically screaming it from the top of his lungs. That alone provides more than enough material for a debate over the meaning of the Trump phenomenon—regardless of your position on national particularism versus global universalism.