Politics & Policy

The Nationalism Show

President Trump greets supporters at a Make America Great Again rally in Wheeling, W.Va., September 29, 2018. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)
What American nationalism might mean as a question of public policy is unclear.

Do you thrill to the sight of a military parade?

Planning a splendid military parade was practically the first thing Donald Trump did upon being elected to the presidency, a $100 million exercise in political semiotics. He calls himself a “nationalist,” not a conservative. And there’s something to that, and the parade is part of it—maybe all of it.

At the National Review Institute’s biennial Ideas Summit in Washington last week, National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry and NRI fellow Jonah Goldberg had a spirited discussion about nationalism’s place in U.S. politics, with Lowry advancing the nationalist banner and Goldberg wary of it. It was intellectual nutrition: spirited, frank, unrehearsed, and I am grateful to have been there for it, and to be part of an institution where ideas matter.

What American nationalism might mean as a question of public policy is unclear. Self-proclaimed nationalists talk about acting in the national interest, but that’s no good: Senator Sanders thinks implementing a Soviet-style health-care system would be in the national interest; Tom Metzger has other ideas about the national interest. People of good faith (and other kinds of people) have radically different notions of national interest, because they have radically different notions about community and the good life. Nationalism as a creed does not help us to distinguish prudently between those competing conceptions. As Goldberg argued, the character of nationalism depends greatly on the character of the nation—and the times, too: The New Deal was the nationalist project of a nationalist president. Mohandas K. Gandhi was speaking as a nationalist when he conceded the excellence of British administration but insisted that any people would naturally prefer bad government of their own than the good government of an alien power. Joseph Stalin was a nationalist. Jack Kennedy’s motto was a nationalist one: “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” As -isms go, nationalism is pretty loosey-goosey.

“Make America Great” is the nationalist motto of the moment (the “Again” is a concession to conservative nostalgia), but that gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, inasmuch as our gentle new nationalists despise so many of the very flourishing institutions and endeavors in which the United States actually excels: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, the universities, the National Institute of Science. (Yes, yes, but doesn’t national greatness supersede your petty partisanship?) Do our nationalists swell with pride thinking of Eugene O’Neill’s Nobel Prize . . . or Barack Obama’s?

Abraham Lincoln’s nationalism (in matters not related to the immediate preservation of the Union) was directed in the service of “improvements”—canals, railroads, etc.—exemplifying a tendency that carries through such New Deal enterprises as rural electrification. These programs are not engaged in the creation of “public goods” formally understood, but neither were they directed at the economic interests of a single corporation, community, or party. A country with universal access to electricity and water, with railroads and canals, is different in important ways from one that lacks those things, and this difference is more significant in the long run than is the particular mix of private enterprise and government action involved in those projects. Our spasmodic attention to infrastructure programs is arguably the most specifically nationalistic aspect of our current politics. And there is a healthy current in that: Men planting trees knowing they will not live long enough to sit in their shade.

But that is not much of a policy fight, for the most part. Nobody is in favor of crumbling roads or collapsing bridges, and the discrete disagreements over the particulars—this bridge, that road—are not the source of our nation’s current political convulsion. Even the very bitter fights over such important infrastructure projects as oil and gas pipelines are proxies for disputes that are at least as much cultural as economic or related to the particularities of energy production.

To the extent that 2016 vintage nationalism has produced a policy agenda at all distinguishable from the old Republican stuff, it is anti-capitalist and anti-liberal: in favor of trade restrictions and suspicious of big business, especially banks, anti-immigration, anti-elitist, longstanding tendencies to which American populists from William Jennings Bryan to George Wallace and Ross Perot have been stubbornly attached. That these represent an orientation toward the actual national interest is not obvious: Tariffs function mainly as a sales tax on American consumers and as a crutch for certain U.S.-based firms that wish to be protected from foreign competition. There is more to a nation than its economy, but markets are national institutions, too, and far from the least important of them. Hostility toward these does not serve the nation, even if it serves the interests of some of the nation’s people.

With apologies to the often misunderstood Charles Erwin Wilson, the interest of General Motors is not synonymous with the national interest. There is no substantive nationalist argument for privileging the business interests of U.S.-based firms that produce steel over those of U.S.-based firms that consume steel. Occasionally one will hear arguments that the existence of a thriving steel industry is in sum important to the country in a way that exceeds the value and interests of the firms that compose that industry, but this is ultimately a very limited line of reasoning, one that could be deployed on behalf of any industry, from frisbees to wine. (The national-security case for traditional heavy-industry protectionism is in practice a limitless warrant; Senator Rubio, who also was kind enough to speak at the NRI event, has defended sugar subsidies as a matter of national security, a deficiency that is more irksome in so admirable a senator). It is difficult to say with a straight face that we must act to preserve the frisbee factories as a matter of national interest—because they are our frisbee factories—and not many nationalists, even the perfervid ones, in practice begrudge the French their oenological excellence or the Germans their automotive genius or the Canadians whatever it is they are good at. They do produce cabernet sauvignon in Ohio, after all.

If our nationalists do not think very much of the parts of America that are actually thriving—many of them the envy of the world—and do not think very much of U.S.-led developments, such as international trade, that have enriched the country immeasurably, then what is it they are thinking of?

I think it’s that parade.

Trump-era nationalism is about 3 percent policy and 97 percent aesthetics, rhetoric, and affectation, a kind of identity politics of the Right. That is one of the reasons why critics such as Tucker Carlson (also a hit at the NRI event—you should have been there!) have so much trouble describing in meaningful terms what it is they want. They are well-versed in who is to blame, but a little vague on what to do. This fundamentally aesthetic orientation also is one of the reasons for the nationalist bias toward that which is easily visible and comprehensible: steel mills, not logistics, “Made in China” labels on consumer goods in Walmart, not integrated supply chains, software, or intellectual capital. It helps to explain the bumptiousness, narrowness, and pettiness so closely associated with nationalism as it is in fact currently practiced, in situ, as opposed to in essay form—a politics not of love and community (including community with future generations) but one of resentment and anxiety. Not manifest destiny but the melancholy long withdrawing roar. The associated variety of politically proprietary patriotism has its obvious counterpart in the adolescent and often unserious anti-patriotism of the Left, which is why we have expended so much spittle in a national confrontation over sporting-event etiquette.

The military parade offers a display of uniformity (literal uniforms) to a nation that has struggled with its diversity, a dramatically visualized and sacramental unum in the face of all that messy and incomprehensible pluribus. Flags, monuments, chants, songs, marches, ceremony—all are efforts to wring the unum out of the pluribus. The Left’s program, for the moment, is to stand in the middle of all that with two raised middle fingers while simultaneously sobbing and demanding money.

Style matters, and it may matter more than policy. Rich Lowry points out that the American Revolution was a nationalist revolution—the colonists could have remained largely autonomous provinces within the British empire or gone their thirteen separate ways in independence. It is true to say that the American Revolution was fought by nationalists, but in the sense that is trivially true: Many of those 18th-century nationalists were skeptical of standing armies and the prospect of a binding national constitution. The content of their nationalism was different from ours, as it had to be—they were in the process of building the nation, and fighting among themselves about what to build. A move toward the actual founding political condition would not represent a nationalistic triumph but a radically libertarian one.

(If only George Washington had had someone to lecture him about “open borders.”)

What we can draw out of it in terms of action items on our political agenda is not plain to see. The Constitution venerated by conservatives had not yet been written, and Lowry’s point—that a specific and unique Us, a nation, had come into being—is to that extent obviously true. The American people are not a race or a nation of ancient common ancestry, but neither are they mere adherents to a unifying national creed.

(If only they would actually adhere to that creed!)

Which returns us to the matter of style and affect. As I have written at some length, I find the city of Washington, D.C., repugnant. But what I find repugnant about it is what many other people find magnificent about it: the monuments, the grand buildings, and the impossible-to-miss (often brutal) nationalist aesthetic of the place: Paul Cret’s Federal Reserve Building would not have been entirely out of place in the Berlin that Hitler dreamt of nor in the new Rome that Mussolini might have built. To me, these exercises in giganticism and severity are profoundly unrepublican and contrary to what I imagine to be the intended mode of national life. To establish a republic and then to build a neo-pagan temple (we call it the Capitol) in which those who achieve political power convene to worship themselves and that power was, to my mind, perverse. George Washington was no pharaoh, but we built a pharaonic monument to him, and an even more absurd one to Abraham Lincoln, who surely would have been embarrassed by his posthumous apotheosis. Needless to say, these are not universally held views. Many people find Washington magnificent, and its grand sights fill them with feelings of love and awe.

I do not wish to be awed, neither by my government nor by my nation. (“I mean to live my life an obedient man,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”) But there is a market for awe. To be awed is to be carried beyond one’s self, to be given a glimpse of something great.

Is the nation great? The Capitol dome is a great dome, but I know who’s in there.

But then there’s the flag, and the Washington monument, and the troops, who in addition to fighting the nation’s wars bear the burden of being the vessels of so many of our greatest national anxieties. A friend who is a lifelong military man says that he wishes sincerely that people would stop thanking him for his service as though doing so were a kind of mandatory social convention somewhere between “Welcome to Starbucks!” and “Have a nice day!”

Donald Trump could think of nothing more important and worthy than a great military parade. I myself would very much prefer that we never had another.

I am grateful to the men and women of our military for their service, but armies are only expedients, necessary evils. They should be kept out of sight for the same reason I keep the guns out of sight in my home. A military parade does not display greatness—it displays power. And that may be where I most part company with our new nationalists. To my eye, there is more American greatness in a New England town hall than in all of Washington, and more American greatness in an Oregon apple orchard or a Rotary meeting than there is in all the tanks and rockets that ever have been. (If that sounds unpatriotic to you, then take it up with General Eisenhower.) The Washington aesthetic and the Trump mode are rooted in a different kind of attitude, a masterful one with a taste for domination. That is in fact what some nationalists seem to mean by “American greatness”: the power and the will to dominate. Hence the bizarre pettiness in foreign policy and the nickel-and-dime approach to trade, the superstitious conflation of political power and virility, the preoccupation with status and appearances (the ability to “project power” is a telling phrase), the neurotic fear that someone, somewhere, is getting over on us, nationally.

I’d wager that the people who feel the way I do about military parades generally have my views on trade and those who have Trump’s view on trade share his enthusiasm for military parades. These essentially are matters of inclination, not calculation. You can talk to an American political partisan in 2019 and get a pretty good idea of how he’d have felt about the First Bank of the United States or the Indian Removal Act. You can get a sense of what people think the country is for, even if they cannot quite explain it. What to do with all that power?

There is a legend about a saint who allowed himself to be cheated when gambling. He was more than willing to part with the money, and considered that for the recipient it was less undignified than begging. There is greatness in that, for those with eyes to see—and power, too. I do not think Donald Trump has eyes like that, though it would be entirely fair to protest that one does not want or need saintliness in a politician. I myself take a generally instrumental view of politicians. But there is no refuge in pragmatism: Politicians may be instruments, but instruments used to what end? Power—for what purpose?

Lowry connects the American founding to the biblical account of the founding of the unified kingdom of Israel. The united monarchy seems to be more of a literary convention than a historical reality, but of course that story resonated with the founders: a city on a hill, a light unto the nations, a chosen people, a covenant. (Forget for the moment that the Israelites longed for a king, while the Americans longed to be rid of one.) There is more to the story than the people of Israel taking and holding their own territory as a people and a polity under a strong national leader, and the founders knew that, too, understanding its prefiguration of a subsequent Figure and a kingdom of an entirely different kind. If we Americans were to suddenly begin to take seriously the notion that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” would President Trump—standing, perhaps, in front of an array of soldiers—complain that we once again had become “the suckers of the world”? And what would our gentle new nationalists say? Something more than “Harrumph!” or “What’s in it for us?” or “That’s all good and fine in theory, but we’re practical men”?

Even idealists must balance the books. What I take for pettiness could be taken by others as husbandry, carefulness in the small things. But that would be the virtue of a modest government and a modest people, not one simultaneously high on rage and hungry for greatness. Yes, it is good that the nation is powerful. It is more powerful that the nation is good—which it often is. (Saepe fidelis, if not quite semper.) And if “good for me” is not a synonym for “good,” then neither is “good for us.” The us-ness of the nationalistic “us” does not change that moral calculus, does not make virtue out of vice, even in a working politician, whether he calls himself a pragmatist, a nationalist, or a populist.

Trump once explained his politics this way: “My whole life, I take and take—greedy. Now, I will be greedy for the United States, and I will take for the United States. I am going to be so greedy.” On relations with the world: “First of all, I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much.” These sentences were met with applause, and that applause is closer to a working definition of American nationalism as it actually exists out there in the great American wild circa 2016 than anything else I have heard.