Nationalism and Its Discontents

By Antle, W. James,, III | The American Conservative, September/October 2019 | Go to article overview

Nationalism and Its Discontents


Antle, W. James,, III, The American Conservative


July's National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., was dedicated to "an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national," claims the Niskanen Center's Will Wilkinson in The New York Times. "The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America's unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character," he continues. "This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism's disloyal contempt for the United States of America."

Acknowledging that conference organizer Yoram Hazony is sharply critical of sovereigntyshredding supranational organizations in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, my friend Stephanie Slade nevertheless declares in Reason that "the true object of the nationalists' ire is much closer to home: They cannot abide individual Americans making social and economic choices they do not like." That, warns the Times 's Bret Stephens in a Hayek-heavy column, will lead us down a new road to serfdom. "Conservatives used to oppose identity politics for being hostile to individual freedom," he writes. "Nationalism is the superimposition of one form of identity politics over various others."

"I'm not one to conflate nationalism with 'white nationalism,' much less with fascism," Stephens generously allows. "Nor would I deny that a nationalism moderated by liberalism can serve other countries well. When it comes to the United States, however, we should recognize nationalism for what it really is: un-American."

Longtime readers of this magazine are used to over-the-top denunciations of "unpatriotic conservatives" who hate America as it really is. Sixteen years ago, that meant opposing America's wars, even when ill conceived and manifestly detrimental to the national interest. Now merely suggesting that patriotism form the backdrop of American politics is unpatriotic conservatism.

There is of course considerable overlap between the two debates. Fervent advocates of the Iraq war on the Right disproportionately consisted of those who saw America as an idea that would find its fulfilment in spreading "freedom" and "democracy" throughout the Middle East. The relatively small band of conservatives standing against that folly tended to think nations- whether Iraq or our own-were the product of more than ideology and good intentions.

But the dividing lines aren't exactly the same. John Bolton, a leading war hawk in the last two Republican administrations who is currently doing his best as national security adviser to ensure that Donald Trump's foreign policy legacy resembles George W. Bush's, delivered a keynote address at Hazony's conference. Writing in these pages, Paul Gottfried avers, "With due respect to TAC editor Jim Antle, with whom I've often agreed in the past, I just don't see how Trump and his electoral base can stay in power by appealing to a 'new nationalism.'"

Perhaps not, especially if Trump fails to deliver on the key campaign promises that differentiate him from more conventional Republicans and his administration is associated less with draining the swamp than flooding the zone with chaotic tweets. But Trump's nationalism and populism are core elements, if not necessarily the sole explanations, of how he got to the White House in the first place. The 2020 election could go a long way toward deciding whether future conservatives will follow his example.

N either Trump nor Bush are men of ideas, yet the last two Republican presidents nevertheless sit on opposite ends of the spectrum in one of the most important debates in modern American conservatism. The Bush-era Right was, in the intellectual realm, post-national and increasingly abstract. Trump pushed back on the excesses of this neconservative revision of movement conservatism during the campaign, if less consistently or effectively once in office.

But the truth of the matter is that the neoconservatives needed nationalism too. Throughout the 1990s, organizations like the Project for a New American Century agitated for regime change in Iraq. …

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