Politics & Policy

The Nationalist Fever Will Break, Eventually

Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
When the desired aims are decisively achieved, it breaks, and a new form of politics emerges.

Last week our fearless editor Rich Lowry and departing colleague Jonah Goldberg tried to settle the question of nationalism for the attendees of the National Review Institute Ideas Summit. Lowry defended the American tradition of nationalism, pointing to the accomplishments of Republican nationalists such Lincoln. But, strangely, as the person who wears the “nationalist” label with the least discomfort, I found myself agreeing with Jonah Goldberg. He emphasized the variety of nationalisms and its hard-to-pin-down character.

That is a point that Kevin D. Williamson picked up in his commentary. “As -isms go, nationalism is pretty loosey-goosey,” he observed. Indeed. Historically, nationalist movements tend to be opportunistic when it comes to ideologies. Some pick up on socialism, others on capitalism. Some go communist, and some go democratic, depending on their place in situ. That opportunism is especially found in nationalist movements that are seeking to establish independence or sovereignty from some great power. Their full embrace of capitalism or communism may be a way of heightening polarization with the imperial power they want to eject, or a way of attracting a powerful ally.

But America isn’t trying to establish independence. Nor are most of the European countries where populist nationalism is said to be on the rise.

Williamson writes:

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.

The nationalist overlap with conservatism is stronger than Williamson admits. William F. Buckley also criticized the liberal elites of his day and famously preferred the first names in the phone book to the faculty of Harvard. Conservative projects, even dubious ones, have often been carried forward by nationalist passions. The Iraq War wasn’t so long ago that we’ve forgotten it.

Williamson goes on to speculate that nationalist politics offer an aesthetic that is otherwise missing on the right. Sometimes it is a hyper-patriotic one, or the angular paramilitary style of European street politics. I don’t think conservatism lacks for aesthetics. It is very easy to distinguish a conservative intellectual gathering from a liberal one aesthetically. A surprising number of self-conscious conservatives own things like The Preppy Handbook.

And we often seen the same divisions among nationalists that run through the heart of conservatives. One example: There is a divide between more socially conservative Christians and pro-sexual-revolution secularists. Viktor Orbán, the Polish Law and Justice Party, and Marion Maréchal–Le Pen want to save and restore Europe’s Christian character. But Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen think nationalism is the way to save secularist Europe from compromising with Islam.

In my view, nationalism, like populism, is an eruptive force in Western politics. It is not a comprehensive ideology. I like to say that nationalism is patriotism in an irritated state.

Bonds of national loyalty allow members of a given nation to live together in peace and endeavor to share their law and their resources with each other, though they come from different tribes, classes, religions, or races.

But when a section of those members feel that the common inheritance of their nation is threatened in some way, by war or sedition or a dysfunctional state, it becomes active. Sometimes this irritated state is more like arousal; citizens become interested in pursuing some great national project — an irredentist claim, a conquest, Manifest Destiny — and these powerful but normally quiet loyalties burst forth into a very demanding and exacting political movement. When the aim is decisively achieved, the nationalist fever breaks, and a new form of politics emerges. For reasons of history, some states have a more active nationalist tradition—France, Poland, and Ireland stand out particularly.

Because nationalist politics is this eruptive and opportunistic force, something that comes in to motivate and accomplish collective projects, we have to judge it by the justice of its cause, the ends it pursues, and the means by which it pursues them.

And what I would say unites the nationalist movements of today is a common irritation with a post–Cold War political orthodoxy that absconded into the realm of human rights, or elite consensus, its commitment to the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people. The anger has been aimed at institutions that protect and advance this consensus. And the means of correcting it have been the formation of new political parties, the support of populist candidacies, and so on. It is fundamentally an attempt by democratic peoples to return more questions of governance — and the traditional ones — to democratic adjudication. Even if their champions, particularly in America, have been poor at describing what it is they want, I find the thrust of their anti-elitism sound.

We can see in patterns of income distribution how certain trade and immigration policies or patterns of subsidy and regulation do tend to benefit elites. Or that the government grants $160 billion in subsidies to upskill those who want to go to college but offers little or nothing to support those who don’t. You might notice, if you go to conferences where former administration officials hang out, that nearly all of them work for, own, or consult with major financial institutions, and that their market value is precisely found in their privileged access to information about the decisions of government.

And in fact, while your run-of-the-mill national populist who likes to forward bombastic emails may not have a lot of helpful ideas on economic policy, plenty of conservative and right-leaning figures have been rallying around a set of policy ideas meant to mollify the new nationalists: equalizing the rate of taxation on labor and capital gains, transitioning to a merit-based immigration system, better controlling illegal immigration, making adjustments to trade deals that had more of a rationale in foreign policy but that over time had proved to be domestically unpopular. On top of this, conservatives with a more nationalist bent have picked up on some common and venerable forms of social critique about meritocracy.

Personally, I think America’s liberal elites would be surprised at how easy it would be to mollify the nationalist passions out there, how small the adjustments have to be, how satisfied nationalist constituencies would find themselves if they were offered even tiny gestures of respect. My worry is that even small sacrifices are impossible for people who believe they possess so much merit.

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