The Corner

Politics & Policy

Nationalism vs. Statism

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)

I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin’s essay on FDR and American nationalism, and not just for the kind words he had for me. He makes several points that are often lost on even very politically literate commentators. For instance, Kevin notes:

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.

There’s a widespread belief that “America First” (let’s call it “America First 1.0” since Trump has changed its connotation) was purely a phenomenon of American conservatism. I remember Franklin Foer writing in the New York Times in 2004 that George Will’s criticism of the Iraq War was “hardly surprising” given conservatism’s history of isolationism.

I never understood what conservatives these people were talking about. Taft hated the U.N. but he was a strong supporter of NATO. Barry Goldwater was no dove. He wanted rollback, not containment. William F. Buckley? Sure, he was a supporter of America First as a teenager, but he abandoned all that as a grown-up. Reagan? Please.

There were surely isolationists among the “Old Right” (though don’t get me started on what a misnomer that term often is). And among post-WWII conservatives, there were a few, the most famous being Patrick Buchanan. But Kevin is correct that “right-wing” isolationism is far more a phenomenon of a libertarian lineage stretching back to Randolph Bourne’s rallying cry that “war is the health of the state.” But even here, it depends what you mean by “isolationist.” The libertarians are for free trade (you can look it up). And let’s be fair to the libertarians: They have a point about how war, figurative and literal, tends to fuel the growth of government.

Meanwhile there is a rich history of isolationism — married to statism — among American progressives. Charles Beard, Joseph Kennedy, both Robert La Follettes, the socialist Norman Thomas, Bernard Baruch, William Fulbright, etc. were at times either outright isolationists or sufficiently passionate “non-interventionists” to blur the distinction between the terms.

Economic isolationism is a powerful form of statism because it empowers the government to prohibit trade and curtail economic liberty. So it should be no wonder that statists are often seduced by it. Right now, President Trump is tweeting about how tariffs are great, while at the same time pushing for billions of subsidies for the producers harmed by it. Protectionism — picking economic winners and losers — is inseparable from statism and that doesn’t change if you slap the word “nationalist” on it.

Which brings me to my second point, but I’ll put that in a separate post.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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