These days, “nationalism” is all the rage on the right. I put it in quotes because there are a lot of different ideas of what nationalism means. Some of it is just rah-rah “U.S.A. No. 1” sloganeering. For others, nationalism is basically code for white-identity politics.
And for the so-called alt-right, it’s not even code.
“The ideal of a white ethno-state — and it is an ideal — is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America,” Richard Spencer, a leading alt-righter, has said.
Note the phrase “after America.” For that crowd, American patriotism — love for our creeds of liberty and devotion to the Constitution — is already a dead letter.
Among intellectual conservatives there is a much more elevated and defensible call for a renewed sense of national identity, one that is racially inclusive and rooted in American history and patriotism.
For instance, my National Review colleagues Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argued in a widely discussed essay last year that “nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force. Since nationalistic sentiments also have wide appeal and durability, it would be wiser to cultivate that kind of nationalism than to attempt to move beyond it.”
That strikes me as entirely reasonable. While I’m skeptical about the utility of relying on nationalism as an organizing political idea, I have always believed that a little nationalism is necessary for a country to bind itself together and for citizens to feel that their nation is worth defending. Sustaining the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union would have been impossible without some amount of nationalist commitment (which is not to say that this sentiment couldn’t boil over into hysteria from time to time).
Moreover, without a little nationalist sentiment, it’s difficult to cultivate patriotism or assimilate immigrants into American culture.
While many on the left are eager to blur the distinctions between the benign nationalism of Lowry et al. with the atavistic identity politics of Spencer & Co., there is actually very little overlap between the two camps, except in two aspects. As an analytical matter, the nationalists insist that nationalism is the wave of the future, transforming politics around the globe. And they may be right.
Second, and not unrelatedly, nationalists of all stripes have pinned some of their hopes on the idea that Donald Trump could serve as a useful champion for their particular kind of nationalism. Indeed, they are often quick to say that their real passion is for the nationalist cause and not the flawed vessel that is Trump.
So here’s what I’m confused about. It seems to me that virtually every understanding of nationalism is rooted in the idea that the nation should be jealously defended from foreign interference, aggression, and insult. Even purely symbolic disrespect should quicken the blood of every true nationalist.
In ancient Greece, the Trojan War was waged over a romantic squabble. Modern Greece and the Balkan nation of Macedonia have nearly come to blows in recent years because the Greeks believe the name “Macedonia” is their historic property. Every learned American patriot knows that the Barbary Wars were fought on the nationalistic battle cry “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”
Most of the rah-rah nationalists on cable, talk radio, and social media have been remarkably blasé, more interested in Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds than those of a contemptuous foreign power.
Meanwhile, it is now an accepted fact that the Russian government attempted to meddle in our elections and is planning on doing so again in 2018 and beyond. Members of the Trump administration, with the notable exception of the president himself, are unequivocally blunt about this. But where is the outrage from the nationalist caucus?
To be fair, National Review has issued stern editorials. But most of the rah-rah nationalists on cable, talk radio, and social media have been remarkably blasé about it, more interested in Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds than those of a contemptuous foreign power. For some of the alt-right, the silence is understandable; many of them are simply fanboys (or clients) of Vladimir Putin.
But at least part of this outrage lacuna must be attributable to the distorting effects of partisanship. The Russians didn’t win the 2016 election for Trump, but the whole topic remains politically charged for him, and his refusal to squarely address this issue sends a powerful signal to his own party. So it gets downgraded to a mere technical challenge for the Deep State to handle. And maybe that’s the right course.
But it does pose an interesting question: How powerful can nationalism be if it cannot overpower partisan loyalty?