Nationalism and Its Discontents
July’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., was dedicated to “an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national,” claims the Niskanen Center’s Will Wilkinson in The New York Times. “The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character,” he continues. “This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America.”
Acknowledging that conference organizer Yoram Hazony is sharply critical of sovereignty-shredding supranational organizations in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, my friend Stephanie Slade nevertheless declares in Reason that “the true object of the nationalists’ ire is much closer to home: They cannot abide individual Americans making social and economic choices they do not like.” That, warns the Times’s Bret Stephens in a Hayek-heavy column, will lead us down a new road to serfdom. “Conservatives used to oppose identity politics for being hostile to individual freedom,” he writes. “Nationalism is the superimposition of one form of identity politics over various others.”
“I’m not one to conflate nationalism with ‘white nationalism,’ much less with fascism,” Stephens generously allows. “Nor would I deny that a nationalism moderated by liberalism can serve other countries well. When it comes to the United States, however, we should recognize nationalism for what it really is: un-American.”
Longtime readers of this magazine are used to over-the-top denunciations of “unpatriotic conservatives” who hate America as it really is. Sixteen years ago, that meant opposing America’s wars, even when ill conceived and manifestly detrimental to the national interest. Now merely suggesting that patriotism form the backdrop of American politics is unpatriotic conservatism.
There is of course considerable overlap between the two debates. Fervent advocates of the Iraq war on the Right disproportionately consisted of those who saw America as an idea that would find its fulfilment in spreading “freedom” and “democracy” throughout the Middle East. The relatively small band of conservatives standing against that folly tended to think nations—whether Iraq or our own—were the product of more than ideology and good intentions.
But the dividing lines aren’t exactly the same. John Bolton, a leading war hawk in the last two Republican administrations who is currently doing his best as national security adviser to ensure that Donald Trump’s foreign policy legacy resembles George W. Bush’s, delivered a keynote address at Hazony’s conference. Writing in these pages, Paul Gottfried avers, “With due respect to TAC editor Jim Antle, with whom I’ve often agreed in the past, I just don’t see how Trump and his electoral base can stay in power by appealing to a ‘new nationalism.’”
Perhaps not, especially if Trump fails to deliver on the key campaign promises that differentiate him from more conventional Republicans and his administration is associated less with draining the swamp than flooding the zone with chaotic tweets. But Trump’s nationalism and populism are core elements, if not necessarily the sole explanations, of how he got to the White House in the first place. The 2020 election could go a long way toward deciding whether future conservatives will follow his example.
Neither Trump nor Bush are men of ideas, yet the last two Republican presidents nevertheless sit on opposite ends of the spectrum in one of the most important debates in modern American conservatism. The Bush-era Right was, in the intellectual realm, post-national and increasingly abstract. Trump pushed back on the excesses of this neoconservative revision of movement conservatism during the campaign, if less consistently or effectively once in office.
But the truth of the matter is that the neoconservatives needed nationalism too. Throughout the 1990s, organizations like the Project for a New American Century agitated for regime change in Iraq. Other neoconservative thinkers sought a new Cold War, with Iran, “radical Islam” more generally, China or even Russia taking the place of the old Soviet Union. They got many column inches in magazines and major newspapers, but far fewer takers.
When the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was hit, what once seemed improbable gained a certain superficial plausibility among terrified and justifiably enraged Americans in urgent need of answers. That may not amount to “blood and soil” in the sense that nationalism’s detractors use the phrase, but those buildings—and the thousands of real, flesh-and-blood human beings murdered inside them—represented something as concretely American as any Founding era political treatise.
Columnists, policy wonks and Bush administration apparatchiks may have believed in democracy promotion, the freedom agenda or benevolent global hegemony. The president’s speechwriters may have lit a fire in the minds of men. But the average American who backed these wars was motivated by a desire to avenge their fallen countrymen and to defend our country. “We have to fight them over there so we’re not fighting them over here”—along with concerns about militant Islam—undoubtedly resonated more than Bush’s assertion that the “survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
Many of the neoconservatives’ fellow travelers understand that grassroots support for their foreign policy would be negligible without nationalist arguments and appeals to simple American patriotism. That’s why Bolton and other hawks descended on to the National Conservatism Conference. The national security adviser himself has tried especially hard to triangulate between Trump and the neocons. The Iran nuclear deal became a tough sell not when Barack Obama became president in 2009, but the moment dozens of Americans were taken hostage in Tehran in 1979.
Immigration was the issue that broke apart the nominal neocon-nationalist connection. Rank-and-file conservatives who were largely willing to patiently “stay the course” as Iraq descended into chaos resisted Bush’s amnesties. Even more than his 2000 attacks on the Christian Right or his campaign finance reform efforts, support for amnesty prevented John McCain from ever having the same strong bond with conservative voters Bush 43 and Ronald Reagan enjoyed before him. The same position likely kept Marco Rubio from mounting a stronger presidential bid in 2016. Grassroots anger at being ignored on immigration finally boiled over with Trump.
You can make a strong case against negotiating with the mullahs in patriotic terms. It is much harder for many neoconservatives to talk this way about immigration. “If only we could keep the hard-working Latin American newcomers and deport the contemptible Republican cowards—that would truly enhance America’s greatness,” opined Max Boot. “Yes!” his ostensibly conservative Washington Post colleague Jennifer Rubin tweeted approvingly.
“Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in?” Bill Kristol said at a 2017 debate. “You can make a case that America has been great because every—I think John Adams said this—basically if you are in a free society, a capitalist society, after two or three generations of hard work, everyone becomes kind of decadent, lazy, spoiled—whatever.” Not to put too fine a point on it, Kristol contended “immigrants do have more of the old-fashioned America virtues than lots of old-fashioned Americans.
Whatever can be said for it morally, these types of comments are politically more problematic than the demographic triumphalism of the Left. Here the neoconservatives are expressing a certain measure of contempt for the very Americans who not only fight in the wars they would like the country to wage, but also the people who vote for the candidates who make those wars possible. It’s probably not an accident that Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican senator who is among the few ascendant figures in the congressional GOP who aligns with Kristol on foreign policy, has broken decisively with him on immigration.
It’s also an illustration of why some version of the national conservatism project is needed. Just as white nationalists exclude tens of millions of nonwhite Americans from their vision of America, so too does an overly ideological conception of America exclude an equally large number of Americans of all races and backgrounds who are not progressives, neoconservatives or classical liberals, depending on which “American idea” we are discussing. It’s also an odd form of “American exceptionalism” to define Americanism in terms of loving one’s family, valuing hard work, or obeying the law, when these are universal characteristics of healthy human societies (though immigration is never limited in principle or practice to such societies).
None of this is to deny that nationalism can descend into something ugly or that Trump’s evident flaws frequently threaten to overwhelm the positive political opportunities his election has created. The Week’s Damon Linker, one of the more thoughtful critics of the new nationalism, has elucidated the challenges and contradictions of the present climate in which the Twitter-happy president battles the woke Left.
“Each side seeks a degree of national unity and homogeneity that would require the other side’s erasure or expulsion from the political community,” Linker writes. “Which means that the effort to attain national unity and homogeneity has the paradoxical effect of increasing disunity and political antagonism.” Writing on the president’s preferred social media platform, Linker also argues, “That’s the paradox of nationalism everywhere in pluralistic societies: it invariably reifies a sub-national identity (a part of the whole) that excludes other parts.” Or as Zack Beauchamp put it in Vox, “The airy theory of conservative nationalist intellectuals, when applied to real-world politics, always ends up looking like Trump’s assault on ‘the Squad.’”
Nationalism tends to emerge as a distinct political force only when national identity is perceived as being under assault in the first place. A society where that situation obtains is already divided. In periods of genuine national unity, no such movement is necessary and overt patriotic appeals by politicians are uncontroversial. The situation is made even more combustible when the demand for nationalist politics is met not by the mainstream but by outsider candidates who thrive on controversy, a description that surely fits the current president.
Such a fractured polity is also at risk of violence. In El Paso, the author of an anti-immigrant manifesto murdered nearly two dozen people in a terrifying mass shooting of the kind that has become tragically familiar to Americans. “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said at the White House, seeking to avoid the mixed messaging that followed the deadly Charlottesville protests. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.” Even the initial New York Times frontpage headline was “Trump urges unity vs. racism.” But inevitably comparisons were made to the shooter’s manifesto and Trump’s own rhetoric about immigration as Democratic presidential candidates rushed to condemn him as morally complicit. The Times’s Michelle Goldberg penned a column titled, “Trump is a white nationalist who inspires terrorism.”
Proponents of more moderate immigration levels could do more not only to make their case in terms that are less demeaning to people of immigrant stock but also make their cause actively repellent to white nationalists. Far from a “furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character,” a more robust American civic nationalism would seek to unify these various groups—E pluribus unum—without the threat of an event like World War II or 9/11. The success of this project would further marginalize white nationalism as much as any other extreme form of identity politics (indeed, actual white nationalists were frequently critical of the Hazony conference).
At the same time, efforts to conflate American and white nationalism are deliberate and strategic. Even conservatives who believe America is exclusively a proposition nation—think commentator Ben Shapiro, who has himself been a target for racist harassment—have been so smeared. A National Review editor questioned whether conservatives were too forgiving of Trump on race because of tax cuts and conservative judges; a Mother Jones editor replied that the tax cuts and judges were themselves racist. Former Bush aide Matthew Dowd publicly suggested Fox News radicalizes American whites and should perhaps be shut down like a network that similarly radicalized Muslims. Less attention was paid to the Dayton shooter, whose politics appeared more left-leaning. Unintended consequences or not, these tactics give aid and comfort to the alt-right, as millions of ordinary Americans fear necessary efforts to curb white nationalist violence will be extended to them.
Instead of an American story of the gradual fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s promise, one that increasingly incorporates communities of color into a shared love of the homeland, not even the Declaration itself is safe from those who would turn on previously innocuous national symbols at breakneck speed. A defensible line could be drawn at symbols of the Confederacy. As William Murchison notes elsewhere in this issue, it hasn’t held as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have joined the Besty Ross flag in the problematic category. This is especially a challenge to those who want to ground patriotism in the idea of the U.S. as a creedal nation.
Even a nuanced, sophisticated and inclusive American nationalism will struggle in a political atmosphere where the two largest electoral coalitions view each other with suspicion and fear. On the Left, there is the belief that lurking inside millions of Trump voters is a violent racist waiting to break out. On the Right, there is anxiety about why progressives want mass immigration into a country they believe is irredeemably tainted by white supremacy. Deplorables suspect it might be a form of punishment for them and their children, as outlined in Suketu Mehta’s book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. “Has the West ever respected anybody’s borders?” Mehta asks, later adding, “Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries.”
At the same time, this race and culture war can be exaggerated. Nearly a third of Hispanics continue to vote for Trump’s GOP, suggesting they are not fully assimilated to the woke Left. Black voters, who have far greater historical grievances than most immigrant groups, have been a moderating influence in the Democratic primaries for at least the past two presidential election cycles. Polls suggest it is overwhelmingly white liberals who are driving the trends that make Barack Obama circa 2007 sound like some sort of reactionary.
The vast chasm between these radicalized progressives and a nationalist Right doesn’t signal an end to the intraconservative debate, however. Many self-styled national conservatives are skeptical of the relatively libertarian character of post-Reagan movement, even if libertarians don’t see much sign of their influence in Trump-era tariffs and deficit spending. Nationalists believe that what their country and community ultimately look like is more important than the size of our GDP or the federal budget. The character of their home is what they want to conserve and pass on to the next generation.
Some of this could be understood simply as “conservatism for conservatives”: they want to deliver tangible benefits for their voters, protecting their institutions and penalizing the Left’s, even if that means using government policies that are difficult to justify from a Reagan-Buckley philosophical perspective, as tax cuts appear to deliver diminishing returns. This means a certain willingness to go after university endowments and corporations that are hostile to traditional values (especially the Big Tech companies), to make it cheaper to have children and more expensive to offshore American jobs.
This strategy is not without risk. An “industrial policy” can easily degenerate into cronyism or worse. It’s possible the Trump tax cuts would have produced more business investment if it weren’t for the uncertainty caused by the trade wars. Conservatives can’t easily create a new Facebook using the magic of the free market; they probably can’t count on controlling the FCC indefinitely either.
After a highly pragmatic and extremely well received speech at the National Conservatism Conference, Tucker Carlson was asked if he feared the openness to new government programs could go too far. Yes, he replied. We could end up with the DMV but with guns, and he could wind up becoming a libertarian again in 10 years.
National conservatives believe we are a long way from communitarian excess—and also a long way from home.
James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.