September 2021 Church & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism: The Christian Right and Secular Nationalism in America by Jeffrey Haynes, Routledge, 122 pp.

By Kevin Chisolm II

As a Youth Organizing Fellow with Americans United, I’ve had the privilege of learning about the church-state separation movement in various ways. Over the course of my fellowship, one of the most impactful projects I’ve had was reading Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism by Jeffrey Haynes, emeritus professor of politics at Lon­don Metropolitan University. Reading this book served as a great way to cap off my year-long fellow­ship with AU, as this book helped me digest some of the most extreme events of Donald Trump’s presi­dency and provided me with re­sources to deepen my understand­ing of religi­ous freedom in the Uni­ted States.

Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism details how Trump was able to capitalize on division in the United States to acquire power in 2016 and sustain it beyond then. The book focuses on two key groups Trump appealed to: white Christian nationalists and secular “America first” nationalists.

Christian nationalists are defined as wanting America to be “pro­tect­ed” from secularization, and they’re asso­ciated with powerful Religious Right movements that influence the Rep­ublican Party. America first nat­ion­al­ists are characterized by the belief that the national security of the Uni­ted States is threatened by creeping socialism. Trump was able to appeal to both groups by stres­sing issues particularly relevant to white conservatives, such as immigration and “radi­cal Islamist terrorism.”

Haynes describes Trump as a catalyst of American culture wars as much as a beneficiary. The rise of the Religious Right played a major role in the develop­ment of neo-nationalism as it took over the Republican Party in the late 20th century. Haynes notes the change in foreign policy that the rise of neo-nationalism brought, including the changing focus of U.S. foreign policy under Trump, which shifted to an isolationist “America first” policy that disrupted the post-World War II international order.

The first chapter of Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism demon­strates how today’s culture wars must be understood in the context of the rise of neo-nationalism that began in the early 20th century. Haynes re­views the development of the concept of nationalism going back to the post-colonial era. During that period, for­mer colonies dev­eloped national identities as they broke away from the power and influence of their col-­     o­nizers. Haynes describes national­ist ideology as one which asserts that “a nation has the political right to constitute itself as an independent, sovereign political community, be­cause of both a perceived shared history and a common destiny.”

A century ago, many thought Western ideologies and democratic values would dominate the global scene. But that did not happen; some nations saw the rise of ter­­­rorism instead. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks forever changed the inter­national focus of the United States, and therefore the Western hemis­phere, toward a policy of fighting global terrorism.

Haynes sees the Sept. 11 attacks and growing Islamic extremism as an example of how religion and nat­ion­alism can often be sym­bio­tically intertwined. These growing cultural and religious crises have allowed the right wing to appeal to national and religious identity to build political coalitions capable of dominating mod­ern American politics.

In the second chapter, Haynes discusses issues that stoke neo-nationalism. He provides context as to how religion in America has become more private as the concept of “civil religion” has declined. Civil religion is defined as a unifying, non-partisan outlook on religion. Civil religion’s steady decline made it possible for progressives to score major social victories in the early 21st century. But these victories have triggered a backlash from the Religious Right, often culminating in the appoint­ment of extremist judges to federal court benches posing judicial challenges to prior landmark decis­ions such as Roe v. Wade.

Lobbying on behalf of the Religi­ous Right has been relentless to this day as state legislatures inflame the culture wars with legislation that openly attacks immigrants and the LGBTQ+ com­munity, notably in­cluding transgen­der health care bans. Trump has been more than willing to use this backlash to his political advantage, and he has promulgated numerous policies that contribute to it.

The third chapter frames the impact of neo-nationalist policy on domestic culture and society. Neo-nationalist domestic policy includes the creation of the 1776 Commission, a response to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which sought to under­mine the Project’s goal of demon­strating how a legacy of institu­tionalized racism has dominated U.S. history.

Haynes shows how the Religious Right has made its mark over the past few decades legislatively through Project Blitz, a lobbying effort aimed at achieving conser­vative Christian goals through the legislative process. In addition to legislation, the Religious Right has impacted the courts through the judicial nominees of Trump and victories in cases such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Lastly, the state prayer caucuses (the state chapters of the Congressional Prayer Caucus) lobby state legislatures to advance their conservative Christian agenda.

The fourth chapter examines the international impact of neo-nat­ionalist policy from the pers­pec­tive of the Trump adminis­tration’s for­eign policy focus and attitudes. Haynes reiterates many points men­tioned earlier through a systematic review of Trump-inspired isolation­ism that disrupted the post-World War II in­ter­national order. Haynes asserts that Trump interrupted an American “tradition” of promoting democracy, human rights and relig­ious freedom throughout the mod­ern world typ­ified by President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Internat­ional Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and Presidents George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s stressing “tradi­tional policies of strong U.S. support for human rights.”

Trump and the Politics of Neo-Nationalism shows how appeals to neo-nationalists can harm minor­ities caught up in culture wars  be­tween progressives and con­serva­­tives and affect geopolitics inter­­­nationally. Haynes recaps the domestic elements that have caused the right-wing seizure of democratic institutions such as state legislatures and federal courts over the decades following the Reagan era.

Overall, the book is a great re­source for those inter­est­ed in the development of neo-nationalism in the United States over the past 40 years and Trump’s role in exace­rbating these cultural tensions.

Kevin Chisolm II was a member of the first cohort of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellow­ship.