Politics & Policy

Divided We Fall

From left: Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib hold a news conference on Capitol Hill, July 15, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
The fight between Trump and ‘the squad’ shows how nationalists have their work cut out for them.

The Democratic infighting last week pitted two kinds of power against each other. On one side, Nancy Pelosi and the leadership of the Democratic caucus wielded the traditional political power that comes with office, seniority, patronage, and long-term alliances. On the other side was “the squad” of four first-term congresswomen: Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. They came to battle armed with the informal power of social media, which is indirectly a kind of power over the traditional media.

The astonishing thing is that “the squad” was putting up a real fight. Pelosi’s strategy for retaking Congress with moderate candidates and simple bread-and-butter politicking clearly worked in 2018. The ultra-progressives mostly lost that year. And yet, with a great deal of sympathy from elite media, “the squad” has been able to push unpopular causes such as impeachment back into the news cycle when Pelosi clearly would rather let the next election play out.

And because this is the dynamic — traditional political power pitted against social-media power — the president of the United States, coming fresh out of a gathering of his social-media courtesans at the White House, decided to weigh in with a tweet storm, in which he wrote:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

With this intervention, Trump interrupted what had become an entertaining food fight. The story of the Democratic infighting dropped away, replaced by a media-generated countdown of how many milliseconds until Republicans denounced the president for racism. And then that was followed up by a debate about whether the comments above amount to white supremacy or white nationalism. One amusing example was Yoni Appelbaum’s contention that Donald Trump should go back and fix the notoriously corrupt politics of Queens.

This controversy happens as a number of intellectuals, journalists, and activists are gathering in Washington to discuss and elaborate on the rise of “national conservatism.” And I can’t help but think we need it more than ever.

My contention is that nationalist politics will be an eruptive force in the life of Western democracies. These movements and politics emerge when the normal sense of national loyalty — the peace that exists between neighbors living under a shared law in a shared territory — becomes disturbed or agitated. War or irredentist claims can bring out extreme forms of nationalism. We have “national conservatism” because the irritants are serious, but not so extreme. America has undergone or is undergoing several trends that bring nationalist passions to the surface of politics: rapid urbanization, mass immigration, and some social dislocation that is related to economic globalization.

The projects that nationalism would take on in this environment might include promoting respect for America’s endangered traditions, providing a vision for an American nation that includes and assimilates the last great wave of immigration, a vision that restores democratic accountability in politics on issues of trade and citizenship. That is, a conservative nationalism would seek to help all Americans, of new and old stock, to feel at home in their country and with each other.

What we have instead in the contretemps between Trump and “the squad” is continuing polarization and mutual alienation. Three of the four congresswomen whom Trump criticized were born in the United States; they have no other “place from which they came.” The other is a refugee who has every legal right to demonstrate her immoral lack of gratitude for the country that adopted her and elected her to federal office. A president who had a nationalist’s sense of purpose would enjoy the privilege his office affords, of claiming to be the elected leader of all Americans, regardless of color, creed, or party affiliation.

There is so much work to be done if we want to hand on a decent country and healthy political culture to our posterity. Those thought leaders in Washington have an example this week of how difficult the task ahead will be.

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