2016 Elections

Trump's Nationalist Appeal Fades When He Starts Winking at Putin

The candidate alienates his own base when he asks Russia for help defeating Clinton.

Best friends forever?

Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The word of the year 2016 has to be “nationalism.” All over the developed world, electorates seem discontented with elites who were too quick to embrace immigration and trade, too unwilling to value native culture, native workers, native interests over those of foreign lands. Donald Trump’s campaign has some unique American twists, but when you pull back the camera, he looks like part of a pattern of resurgent nationalism, nativism, a desire to hear a politician stand foursquare for “Us” against “Them.”

Trump has played on that desire very well, of course. At least, until now. Then today he gave a press conference where, among other things, he invited Russia to find and release missing e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server.

The possibility that Russia has been trying to influence this election has already been raised by reporters and Democrats. Trump seems to have a lot of Russian money in his projects, and his advisers have close ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime.  He’s also considerably friendlier toward Putin than Republican candidates are wont to be. And the feeling seems to be mutual; Russian media backs Trump, and there are credible allegations that the recent leaks of Democratic National Committee e-mails, which started the Democratic convention on a chaotic note, were the product of a hack by Russian intelligence services.

This argument, however, is the sort that generally stays mostly within the wonk community. It’s a complicated “follow the money” story. Those always sound great in movies, but most readers (voters) are not going to sit still through your 15,000-word tour of banking statements and legal filings.

Trump’s pronouncement today, on the other hand, was the sort of gaffe that every voter can understand -- and resent. It’s the sort of statement that seems precision-calibrated to alienate exactly the nationalists whose votes he’s seeking.

“Nationalism” is a bit of a dirty word these days, because people have done some very bad things in the name of nationalism. On the other hand, they also did some good things, like … building modern nations. The sense of the nation as an important source of identity is rather modern, and while it has been the cause of wars, that identity was also absolutely necessary to get all those folks to do anything together -- like have police and welfare states and foreign aid and all the stuff that we like nations doing. Tribalism, for all its flaws, is one of the main vehicles that human beings have for collective cooperation. (Market exchange is the other one.)

Inviting a foreign power to start attacking Clinton seems like a first-class way to engage voters’ nationalist instincts. No matter how much one faction of the American tribe may hate Clinton, she’s still an American, and this is still an American election. If we have to choose between having our president selected by other Americans we dislike and having our presidential election swayed by the government of another country, I suspect that most of us would prefer to stick with our fellow Americans.

I was skeptical that the rumors that Putin was trying to help Trump get elected would actually matter in this election. On the other hand, when Trump starts soliciting that help, that certainly raises some alarms.

In Trump’s thumping rhetoric, voters found the nationalist strain they’ve been looking for. But his statement today makes it sound as if Trump doesn’t really feel any of that sentiment. He’s perfectly happy for his country to be manipulated by foreigners, as long as this happens to advance the interests of one Donald J. Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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