May 06, 2016

A term from political theory that Donald Trump and his supporters are using to explain his “America-first,” anti-globalist stance.

“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” Trump said in his widely publicized, and heavily criticized, foreign-policy speech last week. “The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”

“Nation-state” generally refers to an entity whose cultural and political interests coincide through shared history, language and traditions. Nation-states seek to use government to promote unity by getting rid of tolls (as in Germany) or building an extensive internal rail network (as in France).

In the current U.S. context, the phrase “seems to be a way to emphasize sovereignty,” said Paul Stob, a communication studies professor at Vanderbilt University who focuses on rhetoric and history. “The term draws attention to the United States’ ability to make its own rules, protect its own interests, and pursue its own agenda. ‘Nation-state’ is a shorthand way of pointing to America’s unique—perhaps even exceptional—position in the world.”

Trump’s employment of the phrase appears to reflect the influence of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R), the billionaire GOP frontrunner’s leading backer in Congress and the chamber’s most outspoken critic of illegal immigration. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, a former Sessions aide, said in February that the presidential election amounts to a debate over “nation-state versus globalism.” And Sessions said last month: “The elites have become international, and they’ve ceased to have a primary loyalty to the nation-state.”

Despite its prevalence on the political right, Bernie Sanders also used the term last year when asked in an interview on about the idea of opening U.S. borders to immigrants. “It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don't think there’s any country in the world that believes in that,” Sanders responded. “If you believe in a nation-state or in a country called the United States or U.K. or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people.”

His comments led a Daily Kos contributor, “Steve1960,” to post a lengthy dissection of the Vermont senator’s phraseology. “The appropriate phrase in that instance, in my opinion, is sovereign state, that is, a state which incontestably rules over a delimited territory and which completely obligates those therein to obey its laws,” he wrote. “A nation-state, on the other hand, is a technical social science term and represents something completely different. It is a concept more deeply rooted in a particular historical epoch than is the much more transcendental concept of sovereignty, which merely denotes legitimate or recognized political authority over a particular area.”

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