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Romney And Nationalism

It’s been ages since I have had an occasion to mock Mitt Romney, so I was very grateful to one of my commenters for drawing attention to Romney’s silly book title, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness. Via Andrew, I see that Alex Massie has already said much of what needed saying:

That alienation responds to emotion, not policy. It’s nationalism – or, if you prefer, its definition of patriotism – is instinctive, suspicious and belligerent, keenly aware that there are sell-outs and traitors everywhere. This, then, is the crew Romney is pandering to. Maybe he is right to do so, perhaps he needs to do this. Either way, it’s a sad commentary on the state of the modern conservative movement.

Just to be clear: the notion that Obama has been scurrying around the globe grovelling and apologising on behalf of the United States is utterly absurd. As candidate Obama said over and over again, he owes everything he has to the United States. It was America, after all, who gave his father the chance to come and study in the US. Without that there is no Barack Hussein Obama, far less a President Obama.

Nor can it be said that Obama’s foreign policy views diverge much from the American mainstream. They are, for the most part and at bottom, pretty conventional. Certainly there are few areas in which Obama’s views would have been considered extreme in, say, the time of the George HW Bush administration. Nor, needless to say, has he staffed his administration with radicals.

Still, that’s by-the-by. Romney’s little book – and it is bound to be terribly small – wrestles with a straw man. Sadly that’s only to be expected these days. The GOP has, for the time being at least, decided to double down on nationalism amidst an atmosphere of festering resentment. Denouncing your opponents as un-American isn’t serious politics, nor does it seem likely to be sufficiently persuasive in serious times. But at the moment, that’s where the GOP is at.

What I find intriguing in Romney’s choice of topic for his book, which I imagine will be a more long-winded version of thisspeech, is that he has absolutely no background in foreign affairs, military policy or national security issues. Just as he did in the last cycle, he is intent on identifying himself with hard-line positions on issues where he has no credibility, and he is also studiously avoiding all those areas of policy where his business experience and his inner domestic policy wonk might help him. Of course, as a proponent of bailouts for Wall Street and Detroit and as the governor who signed off on MassCare, Romney has less credibility than most other Republican presidential aspirants in attacking Obama on either front. No doubt he will transform himself yet again into a hard-charging, government-slashing radical if he thinks that is what will win him support, but the man’s lack of any enduring convictions will reveal itself before long.

Last time, Romney determined that social issues were his weakness with core GOP constituencies, and so he worked overtime to cover that weakness by saying all the right things despite having zero credibility as a serious pro-lifer. While it is true that Romney comically tried to out-hawk everyone in the Republican field in 2007-08, memorably telling Cuban exiles that they should appropriate Castro’s slogan of “patria o muerte, venceremos” for their own cause and touting his lame grandstanding over Khatami’s visit to Harvard in 2005 as proof of his strong leadership, he had to be aware that national security was not his strong suit. The latest incarnation of Romney, in which he pretends to be the vigilant security hawk and super-nationalist, has no more substance behind it than Romney the social conservative, but as Massie correctly observes it is emotion and not substance that matters more to most nationalists.

Specifically, it is the emotional satisfaction that the U.S. government is ultimately always in the right, because America is always right. It is the pleasure derived from the idea that whatever the government does or has done abroad should be praised, or at the very least not criticized. Unless, of course, we are talking about an episode of withdrawal or negotiated settlement, as these represent a “betrayal” of American “leadership” and “mission.” As long as Romney sets the right mood, demonstrates the appropriate attitude of idolatrous reverence for the nation, and acts as the national cheerleader, his actual policy positions probably could be less hawkish and aggressive than Obama’s and he would be taken seriously. Even if acknowledging past U.S. mistakes aids our public diplomacy and enhances American influence in another country by repairing tattered relations with a foreign government, what matters to the kind of nationalists to which Romney evidently wants to appeal is that the U.S. government never admit serious error, because to do so would be to diminish “American greatness” and somehow invite foreign attacks.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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