EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is a response to “For Love of Country,” the cover story of the February 20, 2017, issue of National Review.
It is an awkward time for conservatives.
It’s not awkward on policy grounds — thus far, President Trump’s policies have matched the preferences of conservatives far more than most (including me) predicted. It’s awkward because those policies are being put into action by a man who sees nationalism as the core of his platform. And his version of nationalism has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
In 2009, Trump expressed discomfort with the Declaration’s famous creed “all men are created equal.” “They say all men are created equal,” he said. “It doesn’t get any more famous. But is it really true? . . . It’s a very confusing phrase to a lot of people.”
In 2015, he disowned the phrase “American exceptionalism.” “I never liked the expression,” he explained. “When I take back the jobs, and when I take back all that money and we get all our stuff, I’m not going to rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. But I never liked that term.”
This week, Trump proved yet again that he does not understand what it is that makes America great. Asked by Bill O’Reilly about Vladimir Putin’s horrifically violent and thuggish record, Trump immediately responded, “Boy, you think our country’s so innocent? You think our country’s so innocent? . . . Take a look at what we’ve done too.” He then characterized the United States government as one replete with murderers: “a lot of killers around, believe me.”
And yet President Trump also routinely invokes the slogans “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” In fact, his entire philosophy is rooted in nationalism.
This would seem contradictory on the surface. If America is a thugocracy like Russia, as Trump claims, then why would he care about putting it first? Why would he want to make our country great again if its founding ideal is confusing and untrue?
Trump’s definition of nationalism is not the conservative definition of nationalism.
Because Trump’s definition of nationalism is not the conservative definition of nationalism. Conservatives love America because we believe it is a nation founded on an idea. Our interests ought to prevail because our principles ought to prevail: limited government, individual liberty, God-given natural rights, localism in politics, religious freedom, freedom of speech and of the press, and so forth. If America ceased to believe those things or stand for them, we would not deserve to win. “Make America Great Again” would then ring hollow with the same blood-and-soil nationalistic violence of the Old World. If greatness is measured in utilitarian terms rather than ideological ones, nationalism is merely tribalism broadened, a way of valuing the collective over the individual.
Trump’s vision of American greatness doesn’t lie in ideas. What does Trump believe makes America great? Success. “We don’t win anymore,” he constantly complained on the campaign trail. In other words, he feels about the country the same way he feels about himself, measuring its greatness in crowd sizes and airplane sizes, in the height of towers and the breadth of walls.
And herein lies the conflict for conservatives: How do we bridge the gap between Trumpism and conservatism? In their opus on the subject, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru struggle with the conundrum but don’t quite come up with an answer. They rightly rail against knee-jerk rejection of nationalism as a concept. But then they define a sort of synthesized, “benign” nationalism they believe can bring both sides of the Trumpism–conservatism divide to the table:
Loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.
Lowry and Ponnuru admit that this is “the stuff of nationalism, both abroad and here at home,” which should prompt a simple question: What, exactly, makes it so benign? Sure, it doesn’t have to be malignant. But it’s not necessary to violate Godwin’s law to show that it can be: Mussolini talked constantly of attachment to people and culture, the solidarity of all Italians in their Roman heritage, a jealous centralized government supposedly determined to advance the national interest and deeply concerned with popular cohesion. Was that benign?
Rich and Ramesh do admit the need for an ideological basis for nationalism, calling America “a nation with an idea,” but then add, “Important as these ideas are, American nationalism is not merely about them. . . . A flyover or July Fourth fireworks display is not creedal.”’
This confuses the emotions of nationalism with the definition of nationalism. Emotions are crude things, powerful but vague. It requires ideology to channel them. Turning nationalistic emotion into a defining purpose rather than an animating drive to be utilized for the propagation of liberty runs the risk of turning nationalism into tribalism.
And once nationalism is tribalism, the question becomes why America should remain one nation rather than many. My connection to my local community is stronger than my connection to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. My connection with those who share my faith and my ideas is stronger than my connection with somebody living 2,000 miles away in an area I’ve never visited. It is not a coincidence that 60 percent of Trumpian nationalists in Texas were willing to secede from the country if Hillary Clinton became president, and 48 percent of California Democrats are willing to secede from the country now that Trump is president. Nothing holds us together, once we rule out idea-based nationalism in favor of blood-and-soil-based nationalism.
And, make no mistake, it is a choice; the two forms of nationalism can’t be synthesized. One form must have primacy.
Rich and Ramesh describe Trump’s nationalism as an “enriched understanding of what it means to be American,” citing his belief that we are both consumers and workers, that CEOs “are citizens with obligations to their countrymen.” This isn’t an enriched nationalism. It’s an impoverished one. In the end, it makes ideas secondary to blood and soil. What happens when the CEO’s individual liberty (nationalism of ideas) comes into conflict with the needs of the community (nationalism of blood and soil)? It’s a cop out to claim that Hegelian synthesis will magically obtain.
Rich and Ramesh finally seem to acknowledge as much. They admit that Trump “seems to want to make America great without appreciating what makes it exceptional,” and that “the country’s founding ideals, history, and institutions barely enter into his worldview.” But we should acknowledge, they say, that Trump “offers an important lesson: to reject “the atomism inherent in libertarianism and the Wilsonian millenarianism that characterized the George W. Bush administration” in favor of “a broad-minded nationalism that takes account of the nation’s idealism and rationally calculates its economic and foreign-policy interests.”
This philosophy didn’t need Donald Trump to elevate it into our politics. It has always been there; it’s called conservatism. Pretending that Trump’s European-style nationalism can be a vessel for American nationalism risks abandoning the only vision of American greatness that matters in favor of an alternative that can turn from benign to malignant with shocking speed.