A Blinkered Case for Nationalism | American Interest

If we are fortunate, one way or another, through impeachment or the ballot box, the Trump era will soon draw to an end. What will fill the enormous void left by the departure of the mega-miscreant Donald Trump? Unsurprisingly, a sick body politic is vulnerable to yet more disease.

Lately, on the political right there has been an outbreak of nationalism, which typically presents in one of two conditions: benign and malign. A prime specimen of the latter is Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, which I dissected at length in these pages. Now, from Rich Lowry, longtime editor of the flagship conservative publication National Review, we have another sample ready for laboratory analysis, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. The “Us” in the subtitle refers to the United States, and in his book Lowry unabashedly proclaims that “I’m an American nationalist.” In which category does Lowry’s strain of nationalism fall, healthy or cancerous?

Some dark suspicions that it is of the diseased sort are immediately aroused by Lowry’s opening acknowledgment that he owes his own awakening as a nationalist to the person of Donald Trump. It was Trump, Lowry writes, who had the genius to “put the debate over nationalism at the top of the national agenda.” What is more, “[w]hen abstracted from his combative rhetorical style and more idiosyncratic policy enthusiasms (e.g. taking Iraq’s oil), the rudiments of Trump’s nationalism should be hard to oppose—or would be in a more rational time than the one we live in.”

Nationalism, of course, is not without its severe critics, and Lowry is at pains to debunk the widespread notion that nationalism is a “dirty word.” He thus seeks to answer various “anti-nationalists” who regard nationalism as nothing more than tribalism or equate it with white supremacy. To all such voices, Lowry says, essentially, relax, calm down, nationalism is a healthy force, synonymous with nothing other than patriotism.

After answering critics, Lowry also offers a positive case that revolves around the proposition that American nationalism “in particular is not to be feared.” Whatever ills have in the past infected Europe, America is inoculated by its heritage, the Anglo-American tradition and the Scottish Enlightenment, which brought us “profound respect for the individual and the rule of law and is woven into the fabric of our country.” Far from shunning nationalism, Republicans and Democrats alike would do well to embrace it.

Promoting nationalism, for Lowry, entails advancing a number of specific policies. Important among them is limiting immigration: “it is in the nation’s interest to have fewer and better-skilled immigrants coming here. Such a change would promote the economic prospects of Americans and the assimilation of immigrants, both important goals for national health.”

Lowry would also step in to the educational arena to combat what he sees as the fissiparous ideology of identity politics, which not only divides Americans instead of uniting us, but also embraces “a hostility to the American nation as such, to its cultural supports, its traditions, and its history.”

Above all, Lowry would advance what he calls “cultural nationalism,” which entails promoting all of the things that bring us together as one people, from the English language to our national holidays to our reverence for our Constitution and flag to our civic rites and common traditions and history.

What are we to make of Lowry’s case?

As a columnist, Lowry had established himself as a conservative realist, an analyst of current affairs who strives to see things as they are, with vision unclouded by passions of the moment or any measure of ideological glaucoma. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he was an ardent NeverTrumper who gave over an entire issue of National Review to a collection of withering essays on Trump’s unfitness for public office.

With Trump’s election, however, Lowry has had a change of heart and has become, if not a fervent Trumpist, at least a NeverNeverTrumper, someone on the lookout for silver linings in Trump’s unusual presidency, an occasional apologist for some of Trump’s behavior, and a consistent if relatively gentle scourge of the President’s #NeverTrump critics. Though his book for the most part eschews the politics of the moment, it is nonetheless to some degree of a piece with this recent pro-Trump tilt. It is also an irksome muddle.

Thus, on the one hand, at one juncture in his book Lowry tells us that nationalism is not connected to aggression, racism, and fascism, which arise not from any one specific ideological outlook but are simply “endemic to the human condition.” Underpinning most critiques of nationalism, he writes, “is the mistaken assumption that the rumble of Prussian jackboots can be heard underneath it, leading inexorably to fascism and Nazi Germany.” Following Hazony, Lowry excludes Nazism from the nationalist ambit. Nazism may have “exploited nationalist tropes,” he writes, “but [it] was also something completely different—a totalitarian ideology based on biological racism.” We must reject the “smear” which holds that nationalism is the “inevitable progenitor of war and anti-Semitism.” Pointing to Nazism, Lowry states point blank that “the idea that this cracked worldview had anything important in common with run-of-the-mill nationalism . . . is frankly absurd” (emphasis added).

But at the same time, at another juncture in his book, Lowry rotates 180 degrees and writes that “extreme” nationalism or nationalism based upon “unquenchable grievance” is positively “dangerous.” He also tells us that the nationalisms of the first half of the 20th century were tainted with “malign influences,” and the immediate cause of World War I was “Serb nationalism.” At yet another juncture, he writes that it is impossible “to deny the role of nationalism and the nation-state in the modern era’s conflagrations.” In the final analysis, he concedes that “nationalism has more and less desirable forms,” and that some of those forms “deserve all the obloquy heaped on them.”

The contradictions here are blatant. From Lowry’s own words we see that nationalism is not always synonymous with patriotism; rather, in a number of cases that he himself cites, nationalism and despotism often coincide. This tangle cannot be resolved by creating a category called “run-of-the-mill” nationalism and then excluding from it every bit of nationalism’s terrible past.

That said, the argument for nationalism should not necessarily rise or fall on that terrible past. Although Lowry does not seem to recognize it, erasing chapters of nationalism’s history via redefinition is wholly unnecessary to the case for a distinctively American and liberal brand of nationalism. Lowry makes precisely that case and it is the strongest part of his book.

Here, Lowry is arguing for a nationalism that is “inclusive.” We should not believe, he writes, “the lie perpetrated by white nationalists that our culture is in any meaningful sense ‘white’ or the countervailing lie perpetrated by black nationalists that blacks are anything other than fully American.” Never mind that black nationalists of the sort Lowry is invoking in this parallel are a rarity these days, while white nationalism has become a vibrant force. Lowry is on target in defending an American nationalism that is based upon a “capacious and merciful self-understanding.”

In this Lowry is advocating a nationalism that “isn’t based on hatred, [but] instead on love: our affection for home and our own people. It is caught up in culture, in the language, manners, and rituals that set off any given country from another.” This kind of benign or even salutary nationalism, Lowry demonstrates, has been under assault by elites, primarily on the Left, who have been engaged in the relentless deconstruction of the idea of American unity and the American nation. Here Lowry has in mind a variety of figures, preeminent among them the late and hugely influential left-wing historian Howard Zinn, who presented our country’s past as “an unremitting tale of greed and oppression, a monstrous scam perpetrated on the masses by a parasitical and self-interested ruling class.”

But even as he effectively attacks the left, Lowry is not blind to the dark side of American nationalism’s history. He both recognizes and applauds the fact that our self-image has changed over time, noting that we have come to reject a blinkered, racially one-sided vision of America led by an ascendant Anglo-Protestant elite. In its stead is a “cosmopolitanism” that has “contributed to a more open and just society.” That shift was “healthy,” Lowry maintains, even though it gave way “to something more extreme, namely, to an opposition to the unity of the American people as such and the very basis of the American nation.”

If Lowry’s defense of American nationalism, properly conceived, is the strongest, most persuasive, part of his book, the weakest is his treatment of Donald Trump.

The essence of Trump’s nationalist campaign themes, in Lowry’s summation, consisted of a number of “amazingly simple” propositions: immigration and trade policies need to be conceived “with our own interests foremost in mind”; foreign threats need to be guarded against with the “utmost vigilance,” hence the Muslim ban and the pledge, in Trump’s words,  to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS; secure borders are a sine qua non of sovereignty, which demands the erection of “a big beautiful wall”; and finally, the most important element of all to Lowry: “our country, not any other nation or international body or alliance, should always come first.”

But whether any of these positions, apart from the erection of a border wall, is distinctively nationalistic in any meaningful way is questionable.

The fact of the matter is that almost all presidents at all times have sought to guard against foreign threats with the “utmost vigilance.” And almost all presidents at all times have attempted to put the national interest first. How they have defined the national interest is where significant differences among them have arisen. What is more, instead of being a nationalist in this respect, Trump might be an exception to the general rule: He is a President who, far from seeking to promote the national interest, has often sought to put his own political and personal interests ahead of those of the nation. Witness his machinations in Ukraine; witness the self-enriching selection (now aborted) of his own resort in Florida to hold the G-7 conference; witness the unprecedented nepotism in his White House.

Lowry criticizes Trump for “wild presidential tweets, extreme boastfulness, excoriating attacks on the media [and] the browbeating of allies.” But, curiously, apart from calling Trump’s handling of Charlottesville a low point in his presidency, he says not another word about Trump’s contribution to the ugly nationalism of racism and xenophobia that the President has promoted.

An immigration policy such as Trump’s that is based upon the demonization of immigrants and refugees, that labels Mexicans rapists and murderers, that vilifies Somali refugees, that would ban adherents of an entire faith from entering the country, has nothing in common with the assimilation-promoting policy that Lowry says he has in mind. Far from contributing to the restoration of a healthy American nationalism or uniting the country, Trump has further poisoned the concept, divided us into warring tribes, and brought shame on the nation that Lowry, rightfully, would have us laud. In hailing Trump for having “eloquently expressed nationalism,” Lowry the aspiring realist commits a cardinal intellectual sin: he willfully and (I suspect) disingenuously shuts his eyes to the malignancy that is directly in front of us all.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is an opinion columnist for USA Today and a contributing editor at The American Interest.

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