A defense of nationalism
‘Dark,” “divisive,” and “dangerous” were a few of the negative descriptors that critics attached to President Trump’s inaugural address, and those were just the ones that start with “d.” (A few threw in “dystopian” for good measure.) The critics took him this way in part because he depicted the last few decades of American life as a hellscape from which he would shortly deliver us: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the critics also had this reaction because the address had a theme — nationalism — that has itself long been assumed in many quarters to be dark, divisive, and dangerous.
That assumption has never been justified and should now be discarded. Nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force. Since nationalistic sentiments also have wide appeal and durability, it would be wiser to cultivate that kind of nationalism than to attempt to move beyond it.
Fear of nationalism became very widespread, especially in Europe, after the world wars, and it remains a core premise behind the sputtering drive toward further European integration. A few months ago, European Union president Jean-Claude Juncker recalled François Mitterrand’s admonition, “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre,” adding, “This is still true, so we have to fight against nationalism.” Juncker also called borders “the worst invention ever made by politicians.” Any attempt to loosen the bonds of European unity is held to mark the beginning of a descent back into European carnage.
For conservatives to say that a similar attitude took root on the American left may come across as a slander of political opponents. The late Richard Rorty was, however, a member in good standing of the American Left (and still is even posthumously; his warnings about the rise of an American strongman were dusted off after the election), and he said much the same thing. He wrote that the academic Left’s “focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.” He then added, “But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of ‘the politics of difference,’ it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.”
In associating these attitudes with the “academic” Left, Rorty might have understated their prevalence. In 2016, a BBC poll found that 43 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “I see myself more as a global citizen than a citizen of my country.”
Nationalism has a bad odor even among some conservatives. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since nationalism is in tension with two powerful strains of conservatism. Economic conservatism, particularly as influenced by libertarianism, can come to see borders as barriers to free markets. Businessmen with interests abroad, an important part of the conservative coalition, can acclimate to that way of thinking even if they have no philosophical inclinations. Religious conservatism often emphasizes the God-given dignity of all people, which transcends national borders. Thus former president George W. Bush’s declaration, in the context of immigration policy, that “family values do not stop at the Rio Grande river.”
And American conservatives of many kinds, like liberals and libertarians, have been influenced by the notion that America is an “idea” or a “proposition nation.” The expression of this view is itself often a manifestation of patriotism, because it is self-flattering: “Our country, unlike all the world’s ethno-states, is founded on high-minded ideals.”
All of these intellectual currents have fed the view that nationalism is atavistic and sinister, a corruption of conservatism if it has anything to do with it at all. And the plasticity of the term “nationalism” has contributed to its bad reputation in all corners of the political world. Take George Orwell’s influential essay against nationalism. He adopted a capacious definition of the term, one that included Stalinism and excluded a normal devotion to one’s own country. What he meant by nationalism — self-identification with a group or cause, hostility to any criticism of it, and a limitless desire for it to have additional power and prestige — was something like what Edmund Burke had in mind when he spoke of “armed doctrine.” Orwell’s definition remains idiosyncratic, but hostility to nationalism typically rests on similar conceptual muddles. Anti-nationalists blame the world wars on nationalism even though those wars involved multinational empires (in the case of the first) and transnational ideologies (in the case of the second). They strain to devise labored distinctions between a good patriotism and a bad nationalism.
There’s no doubt that there are aggressive and noxious forms of nationalism. John Fonte of the Hudson Institute makes a useful distinction between authoritarian and democratic nationalism. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are examples of the former (although Putin leads a multinational empire with designs for more territorial acquisitions). Democratic nationalism is a category that encompasses Lincoln, Churchill, de Gaulle, Reagan, and Thatcher, all of whom were champions of national sovereignty and solidarity.
The outlines of a benign nationalism are not hard to discern. It includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.
Any worthwhile nationalism has these components, but beyond them the content of a country’s nationalism depends on its particular character. American nationalism has an ideological component, so much of one as to render it exceptional (as in “American exceptionalism”). This is the truth underlying the simplification that America is an idea rather than a nation. In reality, it is a nation with an idea. The first Federalist paper presents America as an example to the world, and even John Quincy Adams’s famous remark about how America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” was immediately followed by: “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” The aspiration that all people enjoy freedom is built into our political DNA.
Important as these ideas are, American nationalism is not merely about them. This fact can be seen easily enough from our patriotic fanfare. A flyover or July Fourth fireworks display is not creedal. Neither is a Memorial Day parade, or laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. John Philip Sousa marches aren’t statements of ideals. Surely, the revulsion that most people feel when protesters burn an American flag is based on the belief not that the protesters are symbolically destroying an idea, but rather that they are disrespecting the nation to which they owe respect and fealty.
Indeed, the vast majority of expressions of American patriotism — the flag, the national anthem, statues, shrines and coinage honoring national heroes, military parades, ceremonies for those fallen in the nation’s wars — are replicated in every other country of the world. This is all the stuff of nationalism, both abroad and here at home.
It is worth noting, as well, that none of these expressions of love of country and anger at its opposite reflects ethnocentrism, either. Discussions of nationalism frequently pose the alternatives of an obsession with blood and soil (nationalism!) and an exclusive focus on political ideals (patriotism!). The actual practice of American patriots has avoided both.
For conservatives, the sensible and moderate form that nationalism has taken in America should have particular appeal. Conservatism is grounded in a respect for what is local, particular, and traditional. And most nations are historical accretions, as the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who has written powerfully in defense of nationalism, notes:
A nation-state is a form of customary order, the byproduct of human neighborliness, shaped by an “invisible hand” from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts, and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory.
The emphasis on “neighborliness” is appropriate. People aren’t just atomistic individuals bouncing around in a free market; they are members of communities with attachments to faith, family, and civic associations that give their lives meaning. The nation is a community writ large, and it is natural for people to love it — to revere its civic rituals, history, landscape, music, art, literature, heroes, and war dead.
“Cosmopolitanism gives us one country, and it is good,” G. K. Chesterton wrote. “Nationalism gives us a hundred countries, and every one of them is the best. Cosmopolitanism offers a positive, patriotism a chorus of superlatives. Patriotism begins the praise of the world at the nearest thing, instead of beginning it at the most distant.” He continued, in a charming touch, “Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.”
No one, no matter how cosmopolitan, is truly a citizen of the world. The “international community” doesn’t give out citizenship, or even green cards. We are citizens of particular nations where we live and are enmeshed in relationships of reciprocal obligation. No nation opens itself to all people of the world willy-nilly; every nation privileges people born within it (and those foreigners it decides to welcome). Every nation worth its salt takes special care to protect its own citizens and soldiers. No nation is going to care more than France if a French citizen is taken hostage somewhere in the Middle East.
The nation also makes democracy possible. Without the nation, and people bound together by a common home, language, and sense of shared identity and interests, there is no real polity. There is a reason that the European Union, a collection of disparate nations with disparate interests and traditions, has a democracy deficit and always will.
Nationalist sentiments are natural and can’t be beaten out of people if you try. It would be a strange and etiolated conservatism that lacked any foundation in them. And at its best, post–World War II conservatism has been highly protective of the prerogatives of the nation.
Conservatives have been suspicious of the United Nations and any “global test” that might constrain the sovereign power of the United States to act in international affairs. Nothing so engenders conservative opposition to an international agreement as any hint that it might impinge on American sovereignty. This suspicion has been the source of the fierce resistance, for instance, to the Law of the Sea Treaty. In reaction to the possibility that the International Criminal Court might gain jurisdiction over American citizens, the George W. Bush administration — under the leadership of John Bolton — secured bilateral agreements with 104 countries that they would not extradite U.S. citizens to the court.
The premise of conservative foreign policy has always been the national interest, or as the Sharon Statement put it, “American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?” This view is compatible with a commitment to human rights, as during the Cold War and George W. Bush’s war on terror (although Bush at times veered into a thoroughgoing Wilsonian universalism at odds with the conservative tradition). The driving rationale of conservative foreign policy, though, has always been protecting our citizens and advancing the country’s interests. Fundamentally, we buttress the liberal world order not because it is good for the world (it is) but because it is good for us. We cooperate with other countries to advance joint interests, not to serve a “world community.”
Domestically, since the 1960s and 1970s, what the late social scientist Samuel Huntington called a “denationalized” elite in this country has waged war on the nation and its common culture. Conservatives have fought back on issues such as bilingual education, the downgrading of traditional U.S. history in curricula, racial preferences, the elevation of subnational groups, and mass immigration — anything that has been part of the multiculturalist onslaught on national solidarity.
The appeal to national pride has also been important to conservative politics, and has tended to be most pronounced precisely when conservatism has been politically successful, as during the Reagan years. It remains a sentiment that differentiates Left and Right. Research into public opinion typically finds that patriotic sentiments — e.g., “I often feel proud to be an American” — are more widespread among conservatives than liberals. In sum, there’s a reason that Irving Kristol said the three pillars of conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.
But the spread of post-nationalist attitudes on the right combined with events and trends — such as the end of the Cold War, the expansion of global trade, a wave of immigration, and the professionalization of the military — to render mainstream American conservatism less able to make this kind of appeal and less interested in doing so. Conservatism became less nationalist in a kind of response to declining national cohesion. (We should note, by the way, that our friend and colleague John O’Sullivan has been persuasive and prescient in pushing back against the trends, writing in these pages and elsewhere about the importance of nationalism.)
This same decline in cohesion made many Americans yearn for a politics that provided a sense of solidarity. This was particularly the case for many white voters without college degrees, who have seen their relative social and economic standing decline and their patriotism devalued. Traditional conservatives did not appeal to them. Donald Trump’s call to make their country great again did.
What to make of President Trump’s nationalism in particular? The most generous understanding of what he represents — and it can be well hidden beneath his bluster and bullying — is an enriched understanding of what it means to be American. During the campaign, Trump policy director Stephen Miller introduced him at events with speeches that were notably communitarian in emphasis. For Trump, we are more than just consumers, the way libertarians tend to view us. We are also workers, and can’t be abstracted from the economic and social health of our communities. CEOs aren’t just profit maximizers, as economic theory says; they are citizens with obligations to their countrymen. Trump’s view of immigration is of a piece with this nationalism — we have the sovereign right to decide who comes here and who doesn’t, and policy should be crafted to serve the interests of U.S. citizens.
If Trump has pointed the GOP back to a more secure and realistic grounding in nationalism, his version is lacking in important respects. The country’s founding ideals, history, and institutions barely enter into his worldview. Too often he seems to want to make America great without appreciating what makes it exceptional. He’s not a limited-government conservative, nor does he appear to be a religious man. His obsessions with making Mexico pay for the border wall and with taking Iraq’s oil strongly smell of nationalist predation. Trump makes gestures toward an inclusive nationalism, but they can get lost in the combative haze created by his truculent persona and aren’t as convincing as they would be if his nationalism were softened and elevated by traditional invocations of our civic creed. To the extent that Trump’s nationalism does not include Americans of all races and religions, it betrays the goal of true national unity. His views on trade, meanwhile, rightly take the national interest as the goal of economic policy but then systematically misidentify the means to advance it.
The elements of American nationalism that Trump scants are moderating influences on it. They push in the direction of decentralization and localism rather than an all-powerful central government. They appropriately situate loyalty to the nation within a set of concentric circles of concern starting with the family and ending with the globe.
As with many things related to Trump, though, he offers an important lesson at the same time that he is a flawed vessel. Conservatives should reject the atomism inherent in libertarianism and the Wilsonian millenarianism that characterized the George W. Bush administration at the zenith of its ambitions. We should instead favor a broad-minded nationalism that takes account of the nation’s idealism and rationally calculates its economic and foreign-policy interests.
Nationalism should be tempered by a modesty about the power of government, lest an aggrandizing state wedded to a swollen nationalism run out of control; by religion, which keeps the nation from becoming the first allegiance; and by a respect for other nations that undergirds a cooperative international order. Nationalism is a lot like self-interest. A political philosophy that denies its claims is utopian at best and tyrannical at worst, but it has to be enlightened. The first step to conservatives’ advancing such an enlightened nationalism is to acknowledge how important it is to our worldview to begin with.