Politics & Policy

The First Nationalist

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers a fireside chat from the White House, 1933 (National Archives)
The Right makes its peace with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Professor Samuel H. Beer of Harvard, once a speechwriter for Franklin Roosevelt, lived nearly a century, from 1911 to 2007. If he’d lived a bit longer, he might have made a good speechwriter for Donald Trump.

In 1979 (about the time of my first political memories: inflation and gasoline rationing), Professor Beer took to the pages of The New Republic to advise a struggling President Jimmy Carter, offering him a way forward: nationalism. Nationalism, he wrote, was the real theme of FDR’s administration and of the New Deal. What Roosevelt was after wasn’t a socialist-style redistribution of income but a redistribution of power: among competing economic and social groups, to be sure, but, most important, to Washington, with the national government guiding the nation in an unprecedentedly direct manner toward the national ends defined by the president. Professor Beer wrote:

Franklin Roosevelt’s nationalism was, first, a doctrine of federal centralization. The principle of federal activism, which some have seen as the principal dividing line in American politics since the 1930s, was introduced by the New Deal. But Roosevelt called not only for the centralization of government, but also for the nationalization of politics.

Those masochists familiar with the grotesque thing currently calling itself The New Republic will be surprised to learn that, in the view of one of its most distinguished contributors, the great hope for progressive victories was to be found in nationalism, and that the great obstacle to progressive achievement was identity politics — “pluralism,” in the language of the time. As I have said on too many occasions, more Beer:

In recent years American politics has been distracted by a new and destructive pluralism. This new pluralism disorganizes public policy and sets group against group. Its paralyzing and disorienting effects challenge citizens, leaders and above all the president to elicit and affirm a new nationalism that will again put us in mind of what makes us a people and again give direction to our public affairs.

It is significant that my National Review colleague Conrad Black has in these pages and elsewhere made original and eloquent defenses of two American presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Donald J. Trump. Black’s biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom is one of the finest things ever written about Roosevelt, who emerges in Black’s telling not as a lefty antecedent to Bernie Sanders but as a thoroughgoing nationalist, one committed to that “principle of federal activism” that Professor Beer wrote about, whose purpose was to bend the fractious political, regional, and economic blocs to a unified national purpose: recovering from the Depression, first, and then beating back savagery abroad.

As Jonah Goldberg and others have noted, the rhetoric, imagery, and iconography of the New Deal were frankly nationalistic: all those Roman eagles and heroic bas-reliefs. Goldberg has covered this at length, but it is worth remembering that all that fascist-style architecture in Washington memorializes a phenomenon that went well beyond building style. Eugene Kontorovich writes in City Journal:

Today, it might seem improbable that American government projects would decorate themselves with symbols of European fascism, whatever the enthusiasms of architects. But at the time, Mussolini was widely admired by Americans for getting Italy back on its feet. . . . American leaders reflected this benign view of Il Duce. Then in charge of federal building programs, the Treasury Department directed the Federal Triangle office-construction project. Andrew Mellon, who served as Treasury secretary until 1932, personally oversaw much of the planning and design for it. He was an early and durable Mussolini fan, who, among other things, helped the Italian regime secure favorable terms for its World War I debt. Mellon urged that Italian economic policies be imported into the New Deal.

FDR sent aides to Italy to study Mussolini’s social-insurance policies and housing programs. As New Dealers including FDR himself would later acknowledge, Mussolini’s radical economic nationalism seemed benign, even salutary, when Il Duce was still maintaining some semblance of parliamentary democracy, before he entered into his subordinate alliance with Adolf Hitler. The Depression seemed at the time to represent a failure of global capitalism, and Mussolini seemed to have discovered a way to press economic resources into the service of the public good — the national interest — in a way that free markets did not.

If you won’t have what the rest of the world knows as ‘liberalism’ — which is the nemesis of nationalism — then you will pay your respects to FDR, and to the welfare state with which his nationalism was inseparably connected.

That idea remains very much with us: Barack Obama’s spoke of “economic patriotism,” an idea dear to President Trump, and he self-consciously imitated Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” even going so far as to deliver a speech on the theme at the site of TR’s original “New Nationalism” speech. “I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own,” he said, which was if anything anodyne compared to TR’s version, which calls to mind the rhetorical excesses of Elizabeth Warren: “We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well-used. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”

The words “permit it” speak to the divide between traditional conservatives on the classical-liberal model and the (New) New Nationalists on the Roosevelt-Obama-Trump model. This permission mentality touches every aspect of nationalist economic thinking, which is how such meaningless bookkeeping exercises as the calculation of trade deficits and income inequality come to be understood as pressing national concerns. Putting markets under economic discipline is where progressivism, socialism, fascism, and nationalism all intersect, each of those ideas being based on the superstition that the nation has interests distinct from those of the people who compose the nation.

Goldberg’s argument in Liberal Fascism was scorned by progressives (many of whom obviously had not actually read the book) who took his connection of progressivism to fascism as serving a merely pejorative purpose rather than a substantive one. But as Professor Beer wrote a generation ago, the question of federal activism is central to our politics, and nationalism is the spiritual energy of such activism. President Trump understands the federal government not as a guarantor of liberty but as an activist champion for American business interests, and nationalist hocus-pocus is deployed to prevent such inconvenient questions as why the interests of Americans who sell steel should trump the interests of Americans who buy steel, or why we should encourage automobile manufacturing rather than software engineering, commercial space exploration, or medical research.

The question of nationalism and its consequences for the federal government goes back to the beginning of our history. And while FDR’s rural-electrification and public-works projects have more than a little in common with Abraham Lincoln’s “improvements” — the canals and railroads he understood as national projects — it is Franklin Roosevelt (and not his cousin) who holds the best claim to being the father of modern American nationalism.

The family tree of American political ideas is complex. President Trump may have as his antecedents such figures as George Wallace and Ross Perot (both populists and economic nationalists), but he also owes something to Woodrow Wilson and FDR. The New Deal’s most lasting and popular legacy is Social Security, the most significant defender of which is, at this moment, Trump.

Like FDR, Trump came to power during a period of isolationist sentiment, and, like FDR, his administration has honored that sentiment more in rhetoric than in fact. American nationalism is not in the main isolationist, isolationism having its American home among government-wary libertarians rather than among national-greatness men with a taste for federal activism. Nationalism in domestic matters paired with internationalism abroad is the American mode. Trump is faulted for rupturing multinational relationships, but consider William Leuctenberg’s account of FDR spurning the internationalist approach to ending the Depression:

FDR essentially embraced a form of economic nationalism and committed the United States to solving the Depression on its own. He scuttled the London Economic Conference in the summer of 1933 and devalued the dollar by removing the United States from the international gold standard. With this latter maneuver, Roosevelt sought to artificially inflate the value of the American dollar in the hope of putting more currency into the hands of cash-poor Americans. Unfortunately, this measure further destabilized the world economy.

Conservatives have a conflicted view of government. Many who revile FDR as the root of all welfare-statist evil revere Ronald Reagan, who insisted all his life that he was an FDR Democrat whose former party had simply gone insane. But if you won’t have what the rest of the world knows as “liberalism” — which is the nemesis of nationalism — then you will pay your respects to FDR, and to the welfare state with which his nationalism was inseparably connected. That conservatives in pursuit of “American greatness” have found hope and comfort in President Trump’s strong-arm economic nationalism testifies that the Right has finally made its peace with the New Deal after all, under the most unlikely of circumstances.


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