Hearing Donald Trump’s proud self-identification as a nationalist turned my thoughts to his words at the UN earlier this year as well as to the way his America First rhetoric intersects with the content of one of my classes this semester. So I decided to revisit the topic of (radical) conservative opposition to the UN here.
Trump’s words are situated in a long-standing tradition of conservative criticism of multilateralism that are rooted in soft forms of America First thinking: concerns that heavy involvement in the UN compromises U.S. sovereignty in the world, that the UN takes advantage of U.S. wealth and power and that enemies might use the UN against American interests. These are standard, run-of-the-mill concerns for conservatives. But historically, opposition to the UN has also had a radical strain interwoven with racism and apocalypticism.
In my class on Religion in American History, I cover the religious thinking that informs both black nationalism (Nation of Islam), and white nationalism (Christian Identity). In the class we look at primary source material for white nationalism, including the sermons of religious leaders such as Wesley Swift, a Christian minister and white supremacist. These sources are a portal into related rhetorical streams that surface in Christian nationalist circles. This would include the Christian Nationalism of Gerald L.K. Smith, who founded the America First Party in 1944. Within these circles, we find opposition to the UN that takes on a more conspiratorial tone. For Smith, the UN was the mechanism for a one-world, race-mixing government that would destroy the great patriot tradition of American independence. According to Swift’s teachings, which blended white supremacy with Cold Ward doctrines in the 1960s, the UN was secretly attempting to destroy American sovereignty and he believed its first step would be to take away American’s guns.
Trump’s criticism of the UN has nothing to do with Christian apocalypticism as far as I know, but his rhetoric about the UN, in tandem with support of Israel and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, does appeal to end-times gurus, many of whom fear a one-world government. Apocalyptic opposition to the UN is rooted in radical premillennialism and fears that Satanic forces will set up a global government as a preliminary stage in the road to the “end times” and ultimately to Armageddon. Though end times enthusiasts might believe these prophetic events are unstoppable, it has been important for them to identify this tool of anti-Christ.
Despite the fact that Trump’s criticism of multilateralism is part of a narrative within conservatism that is not necessarily racist or apocalyptic, his rhetorical choices nevertheless play into themes that are tinged with such radicalism and panders to those with racist or apocalyptic sensibilities. Trump may relish in taking on labels that are disconcerting to liberals, but does he realize that there are good historical reasons to be wary of words like “nationalism?”