Al Jazeera Net (AJN) interview with Jeffrey Haynes on his book: Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism
Posted on AJN, 28 March 2021.
(Arabic version at: https://www.aljazeera.net/news/cultureandart/2021/3/28/%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AC%D9%8A%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%B2-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%86%D8%AA-%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84?fbclid=IwAR0o5iItLIBuMKRzDz2wZBN4p8rt3iY5ulucV1U-Mmc34xSwGC_q1hMcTZA)
AJN: You mentioned in your important book that Trump is considered a direct cause and consequence of political differences in America, can you explain this idea?
Haynes: The Trump presidency used significant political, social, economic, and cultural disquiet, and the post-2008 economic crisis and associated global turmoil, to fashion and progress policies which appeal strongly to both the Christian Right and many secular nationalists. As everyone is aware, Trump divides opinion in the USA. Yet, he did not cause the political polarisation which characterises America today. Trump is both a proximate cause and a consequence of America’s stark political disagreements. He is a proximate cause because of his manner, style, and social media engagement. He is a consequence of a long process of division, developing since at least the presidency of Ronald Reagan four decades ago. After a lull during the George W. Bush administration, Barack Obama’s presidency brought fundamental political and social divisions to the fore again. For conservatives, Obama was too liberal, overly concerned with gender, sexual, and racial equality, and uninterested in the problems of white conservatives, especially Christians. Many believed that Obama was a Muslim and a foreign alien. In short, Obama was the catalyst and Trump was the beneficiary of the USA’s resurgent culture wars. Not necessarily initially pro-Trump, many conservatives voted for him in 2016 not only because they were ‘anti-Hillary’ (‘Lock her up’) but also because they liked Trump’s nationalist policies: he was regarded as ‘anti-establishment’, anti-immigration, and ‘pro-family’.
AJN: Trump sought to attract millions of American voters with a simple slogan: "Make America Great Again." But what does that mean?
Haynes: Trump sought to appeal to millions of American voters with a simple slogan: “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). But what did it mean? When was America not great? How do we measure ‘greatness’ in this context? ‘Greatness’ for whom? ‘Greatness’ for what? As a slogan, MAGA found favour with Trump’s support base: white Christian conservatives and white less-Christian (and secular) ‘America First’ nationalists. What they shared was a yearning for the supposedly halcyon days of a prosperous white America, a ‘return’ to when the ‘American dream’ seemed for many realisable. For lots of white Americans this would be the post-war boom years: the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time when white Americans were demographically in the majority, the USA enjoyed strong and consistent economic growth, and many (white) Americans experienced rising prosperity in a country seemingly galvanised by a get-up-and-go dynamism. For many Trump voters, MAGA also implied a promise to deal with the allegedly corrupt administrative/bureaucratic system: referred to by Trump as the ‘deep state’ and ‘the swamp’. For many white conservatives, MAGA underlined Trump’s promise to return the USA to a position where the supremacy of their social and political worldviews would be assured.
AJN: When Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, the political, social and cultural chasm between "conservatives" and "liberals" that, as you say, is fueling "America’s culture wars" reached a climax. Can you explain that?
Haynes: America’s political polarisation is characterised by culture wars involving the Christian Right and secular conservatives, on the one hand, and religious and secular liberals, on the other. Many white Christian conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic, agreed with Trump that America was a country where religion, especially Christianity, needed to be protected from secularisation. Many secular white conservatives also liked what they heard when Trump proclaimed he would kick start a new era of American prosperity by strictly controlling immigration and increasing availability of well-paid jobs to native Americans. Trump’s neo-nationalism gave his policies focus and direction, appealing to millions of Americans, especially the 73% of the population who in 2017 described themselves as ‘white’.
AJN: Is Trump's anti-globalization stance the basis for Neo-Nationalism in the USA?
Haynes: For all the talk of globalisation bringing increased diversity, many Westerners,
including Americans, continue to demonstrate a widespread lack of basic knowledge about Islam. That deficiency is compounded in the USA, as elsewhere in the West, by social secularisation and accompanying death of religious taboos, which serves to decrease interest in and empathy with non-Western religions. This helps explain how right-wing populist politicians in the USA and other Western countries are successful electorally by pointing to a perceived or imagined existential threat from ‘Islam’ and Muslims, especially
‘radical Islamic terrorism’, to justify draconian, anti-Muslim policies in the interests of ‘security’. Examples of such a policy include President Trump’s executive order barring from entry into the USA people from six or seven mainly Muslim countries, from which no one had ever been convicted of terrorism in America. In short, neo-nationalism in the USA built on a growing anti-globalisation sentiment which saw globalisation as the root cause of America’s failure to progress economically.
AJN: Is Neo-Nationalism different to populism? Is Neo-Nationalism using populism in order to get stronger?
Haynes: Nationalism developed in the West as a secular ideology from the 19th century. Explaining how it developed into neo-nationalism, we need to combine religious, cultural, civilisational, and secular concerns. In Europe, neo-nationalism tends to be cultural rather than religious, related to the advanced regional state of secularisation. In the USA, on the other hand, neo-nationalism is buoyed by Christian nationalism and America First nationalism. Both categories primarily involve white American conservatives, the main adherents to neonationalism in the USA. Trump successfully used a populist approach to rally voters by appealing to the ‘common people’ who, he claimed, should blame the ‘elites’ for their existential dissatisfaction.
AJN: In your book, you talk about the peculiarities of two groups of Trump voters: Christian Nationalists and "America First" nationalists. What do you mean by Christian nationalism and "America First" nationalism? How did they affect Trump's rise?
Haynes: Christian nationalist policies – including a concerted attempt to enact laws favoured by the Christian Right – and America First nationalist policies – including anti-immigration efforts directed primarily against Mexico and Muslims – were favoured by Trump. The main goal of America’s Christian nationalists is to increase religious freedom and to decrease the state’s influence. Critics claim that this is primarily about protecting Christians, although
it is acknowledged that some other religious groups – such as China’s Uighurs – also receive the support of the USA. Advancing international religious freedom was a key goal of American foreign policy during the Trump presidency. Trump’s favouring of Christian nationalist goals was a direct response to his popularity among this constituency, especially among white conservative Christians – that is, it was transactional: vote for me, and I will deliver what you want. It was similar with America First nationalists: vote for me and I will bring the jobs back ‘stolen’ by China and elsewhere and America will no longer kowtow to the United Nations with its failed ‘liberal’ policies.
AJN: Can Trump's rejection of immigrants be attributed to Samuel Huntington's thesis related to the clash of civilizations, and does the emergence of these theories today confirm that the United States of America and its democracy are suffering?
Haynes: Huntington saw two main threats to the wellbeing of America, racial dilution at home and international threats from China and Islam. Globalisation makes international interactions inevitable, and Huntington believed that the values, beliefs, and behaviour of China and Islam were different from that of the USA, which were moulded by European-style Protestant Christianity. Cooperation was impossible and conflict highly likely. Huntington’s last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), examined the USA in relation to racial diversity. Huntington claimed that America’s peace and prosperity had their foundations in Christian cultural foundations brought from Europe. For Huntington, ‘diluting’ it with recent non-Protestant immigrants, such as Catholic Mexicans and Muslims, fatally undermined America’s capacity to be a ‘melting pot’, that is, to incorporate numerous cultures and ways of like without excessive strife in the 150 years following the end in 1865 of America’s civil war. These ideas and sentiments have aided the political polarisation in America, arguably leading to a significant challenge to democracy.
AJN: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected Trump and his policies, and can it be said that the Neo-Nationalism will disappear after Joe Biden's victory over Trump?
Haynes: Whether the issue was “Build That Wall” to keep out “Mexicans” or to protect America’s Christian heritage from attacks by ‘secularists’, conservatives were strongly behind Trump in 2016. Many, but not all, retained their support for him as the 2020 presidential election approached, even though many Americans blamed the Trump administration’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic for the more than 230,000 deaths as a direct result of contracting Covid-19 that Americans had endured by voting day: 3 November 2020. Arguably, his failure to deal with the pandemic was the main cause of his failure to be re-elected. I don’t anticipate that the Biden presidency will do much to blunt the support for neo-nationalism in the USA: like many other countries, the USA is undergoing a nationalist ‘moment’ where international cooperation is called into question like never before in the post-WW2 era.