‘I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty,” William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, famously said in 1961. Every conservative is familiar with this quote, but even Buckley may not have realized that he was channeling the spirit of Oliver Cromwell, the 17th-century English Puritan. “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman,” Cromwell said. Cromwell played a major role in the movement that championed popular sovereignty. Advancing Parliament as the representative of the English nation, his movement curtailed the power of the crown, even going so far as to place King Charles I on trial for treason and behead him. Without Cromwell and the parliamentarians, there might not have been an American revolution.
In his engaging and timely new book, The Case for Nationalism, Rich Lowry, the current editor of National Review, sees a bright line of continuity between Puritan politics in 17th-century England and American nationalism today. The book, Lowry explains, was born of the realization that our most contentious political debates are, on their deepest level, “over how we should regard nationalism and nationalistic attitudes.” American nationalism, despite what its critics allege, is not tawdry and shallow. It is very old, some of its facets predating the establishment of the United States by centuries. Our highest collective ideals are inextricably woven into it, and the greatest achievements of our history would have been unthinkable without it.
While Lowry keeps the focus squarely on American nationalism throughout, one man haunts every page of the book like a ghost — a boisterous orange ghost. “This is not a book about Donald Trump,” Lowry writes, but then quickly concedes that “it was occasioned by him.” If only by implication, therefore, it offers some surprising insights into the Trump phenomenon.
Into, especially, the source of Trump’s appeal. To his critics, Trump is a conjurer who manipulates the darkest impulses of his supporters. For example, when he stated, in January 2016, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” his detractors regarded it as proof that his supporters were under a malevolent spell. Lowry points us in a different direction, leading us to the conclusion that many of Trump’s stances activate what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the mystic chords of memory.” Trump’s positions resonate with special force when he fights against concentrations of unelected and unaccountable power.
Among the gems that Lowry excavates from the national subconscious are the political writings of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost. Milton, we discover, was a passionate supporter of Cromwell, including his decision to execute Charles I, and he was even jailed, briefly, for his efforts to curtail the prerogatives of the king. “At a time when political choices were a matter of life and death,” Lowry writes, “Milton staked all on the parliamentary cause.” England, in Milton’s view, was a “nation chosen before any other” — chosen for a political mission. Before John Locke developed the philosophical foundations of self-government, Milton wrote that Britain “will . . . deserve to be celebrated for endless ages as a soil most congenial to the growth of liberty.”
The author of the greatest epic poem in the English language trusted the judgment of the kind of people who today flock to Trump’s rallies and decry the abuses of power that mar the Russiagate investigation and the impeachment hearings. And his attitudes prefigured — perhaps “shaped” is a better word — theirs. “The power of Kings and Magistrates,” Milton wrote, “is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their birthright.”
Lowry’s defense of popular nationalism invites an immediate comparison to Yoram Hazony’s pathbreaking work, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), the first book to recognize that nationalism is the foundational question of the moment. While Lowry is in perfect agreement with the main lines of Hazony’s thinking, his project differs significantly. Hazony dealt with nationalism as a global phenomenon, but Lowry’s goal is to defend the specific virtues of American nationalism. And, he makes abundantly clear, they are sorely in need of defense. If Trump’s critics cannot recognize the spirit of Milton in the president’s rallies, it’s because generations of students have been taught to regard nationalism as disreputable.
Traditionally, Lowry writes, it is the “poets, novelists, lexicographers, and historians” who have played a central role in “establishing proud, self-governing peoples.” In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the American intellectual class has rejected “a nation-buttressing role and instead embraced a hostility to the American nation as such, to its cultural supports, its traditions, and its history.” Lowry enlists the words of Samuel Huntington to support his argument. The intellectuals, Huntington writes, “began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”
The work of the radical academic historian Howard Zinn typifies elitist anti-nationalism. Zinn, Lowry writes, rendered “the American story as an unremitting tale of greed and oppression, a monstrous scam perpetrated on the masses by a parasitical and self-interested ruling class.” Far from being the repository of what is best in American culture, nationalism in this view is a tool for disguising rapacious power structures based on race, class, and gender exploitation.
But the anti-nationalism of the American elite is by no means an exclusively left-wing phenomenon. The Cold War created a transnational sensibility that depicted traditional American nationalism as parochial and anachronistic. It also created an American business elite that is deeply invested in global markets. Among some right-wing intellectuals, it has become fashionable to think of America as a disembodied idea, more of a commitment to free markets and open borders than to the welfare of one specific group of people, the American nation.
Thus, no sooner had anti-nationalism incubated in our universities than it had spread into the K–12 educational system as well as corporate America. The speed of the change is jarring to those of us who grew up in environments in which American nationalism was reflexive and unquestioned. Today, when the Left routinely depicts nationalist tenets as a cynical cover for bigotry and greed, who among the elite stands up to reaffirm them for the next generation? Trump, for his part, is extraordinarily talented at identifying issues on which the elite “consensus” (policed by the press, Hollywood, and the identity-politics commissars of corporate America) is wildly out of synch with popular attitudes.
His defense of the flag is the most obvious case in point. When Trump picked a fight with the National Football League (NFL) over some of its players’ kneeling during the national anthem, he knew that the flag has a special status in the hearts of most Americans — as a symbol not of our race and class resentments but of our shared commitment to rise above them.
Typical of Trump, he has never expressed with eloquence the meaning of the flag. But today’s nationalists do not seek a second Milton: They long for a spirited defense of the flag’s honor. The attacks that Trump launched against the NFL thus functioned like a Rorschach test. In the rudeness of his attacks, anti-nationalists saw confirmation of Trump’s supposed bigotry. The flag’s defenders, by contrast, saw a rough but long-overdue defense of something inherently noble.
Lowry reminds us just how deep the American reverence for the flag runs. Symbolizing the union of the states and the personal freedoms that the union safeguards, it played a starring role in one of our defining conflicts. During the Civil War, he writes, “northerners sometimes referred to the conflict as the ‘War Against the Flag,’” a reference to the firing by the Confederate forces on the flag at Fort Sumter. Lowry’s understanding of the flag as a symbol of the highest ideals of the American nation recently received tacit support from none other than James McPherson, a Princeton professor and the leading historian of the Civil War. In December, McPherson joined with four other prominent historians to critique the 1619 Project of the New York Times Magazine. The project contends that the racism on which slavery was based is a defining element of the American experience, one that shaped our institutions and the most significant events in our history.
In a long interview about his critique of the Project, McPherson discussed, among other topics, the motivation of American soldiers who fought for the North in the Civil War. “The initial motivation,” McPherson explained, “was revenge for the attack on the flag.” Over time, “that broadened into an idea . . . of taking revenge against what they were increasingly calling ‘the Slave Power.’” In other words, to a significant portion of Americans the flag represented not just the unity of the nation but its aspiration to ensure liberty and justice for all, regardless of race. In the intervening 160 years, that portion has only increased. Today it undoubtedly encompasses the vast majority of Americans.
When we debate the flag and what it symbolizes, Lowry argues, we are discussing the nature of citizenship. “The criterion for citizenship in the United States is not attachment to a set of ideas but birth within our borders,” he writes. “This standard . . . speaks to a deep belief in the specialness of the land such that it confers extraordinary privileges to those born here.” Privileges, but also obligations — in the form of responsible citizenship.
The doctrines of the anti-nationalists delegitimize laws passed by a free citizenry and celebrate efforts to transfer power to a managerial elite catechized in progressive dogmas. This attack on citizenship will never have the results that its architects intend. Consider, for example, the status of African Americans, the group that has sacrificed more than any other to exercise in full the rights of citizenship. Only a few short decades after the defeat of Jim Crow, the Left is now advocating open borders and sanctuary cities, notions that erase the distinction between citizen and foreigner and thereby sap citizenship of its value. Oddly, the champions of these ideas market their positions as friendly to “people of color.” How long before African Americans reject this scam and vote accordingly?
Anti-nationalists, Lowry’s book leads us to conclude, are guilty of the intellectual shallowness and political opportunism that they routinely ascribe to nationalists. Trump may have read neither Milton nor McPherson, but he nevertheless has a knack for forcing our intellectual elite into untenable positions. This is so because his ideas spring from an electorate that, to paraphrase Cromwell, knows what it fights for and loves what it knows.
This article appears as “Nationalism’s Virtues” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.