The Great Nationalist Whitewash of 2017

by Rich Lowry

I appreciate Jonah’s wonderfully well-done response to the cover story I wrote with Ramesh for our last issue on nationalism, and he makes some powerful points. Also, check out Ben Shapiro’s terrific and deeply felt reply to our piece today.

Ramesh and I will be responding at more length to critics at some point. But I just want to take up Jonah’s charge that Ramesh and I have written a “whitewash” of nationalism to pretty up Trumpism.

Before I get to that, just two quick things. It is a charming characteristic of American nationalism to believe it isn’t and can’t possibly be nationalism — that is for other countries, not us. So Jonah seems to imply that other countries can’t have true patriotism because they don’t have the Declaration and our founding ideals. Their heroes honored with statues — I guess that means you, William of Orange, and you, Admiral Nelson, and you, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – were combatants in grubby wars of tribe versus tribe, as Jonah puts it. This is the equivalent of the New Yorker “View of the World from 9th Avenue” for world history, with the ideals and struggles for independence and self-government of others reduced to utter inconsequence. I must admit I find this view emotionally appealing on a certain level, but it is a particularly blinkered and ahistorical expression of nationalism.

Also, as he defines them, Jonah’s emphasis on patriotism and opposition to nationalism (except in a healthful little spoonful)  doesn’t account for some of the most important questions facing us. I can imagine a liberal of the decent sort who is just as patriotic as Jonah, who believes just as deeply in our founding ideals, who is just as distrustful of nationalism. This liberal might favor quasi-open borders because he believes the universal principles of the Declaration extend to everyone. He might, as a way of controlling the potential dangers of American nationalism, favor subsuming American sovereignty in trans-national institutions and, as a reflection of his ideals, oppose a national interest-based foreign policy. What is wrong with this liberal’s worldview? As stipulated above, it’s not that he’s not patriotic enough; it’s that he’s not nationalistic enough.

And the thing is, as Samuel Huntington suggested in Who Are We?, when you lose our nation and common culture, you’re going to lose our creed, as well.

Anyway, what I really wanted to push back on was Jonah’s charge of whitewashing. First, National Review, thanks to the leadership of John O’Sullivan, has been writing sympathetically about nationalism for about 30 years. I remember as a young staffer here going to an event where John debated Walter Berns, who Jonah mentions, on the question of whether America was an idea or not. So if this is a whitewash, it’s been going on for longer than some of our young writers have been alive.

Second, obviously nationalism is a subject of much greater interest because of the Trump phenomenon, which we believe it’s important to understand and glean the appropriate lessons from. To wit, Trump ideologist Stephen Miller refers to America as a home. I assume Jonah considers this a healthy rather than a dangerous expression of nationalism. If so, isn’t it important to think about why almost no other Republican or conservative has been willing to say it? I’m certain that most Americans understand their country in these terms rather than as “an idea” (for the understandable reason that no one has ever lived in an idea nor ever will).

Finally, there are plenty of criticisms of President Trump in our piece. Jonah says he won’t hold his breath for Trump to get “educated” by us. Fair enough. But is it too much to ask that conservatives use this moment to re-think some of the cliches and misapprehensions that have led them to neglect the importance of nationalism, to the detriment of our cause?

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