The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.
Our service doesn’t entitle us to get offended by Kapaernick’s choices or anybody else’s.
This reasoning is rooted in a premise that is both wrong and dangerous. If kneeling for the anthem and the flag is a direct offense toward the military, that means veterans have a stronger claim to these symbols than Americans in general do. The argument insists that American iconography represents us more than it represents anyone else.
Yet the flag is not a symbol reserved for the military. It is a symbol of the United States of America, and it belongs equally to all citizens, including Americans who kneel during the anthem, or those who wear flag shirts (which is also in violation of the unenforceable flag code), or even those who burn the flag.
.. We are not an elite class of citizen elevated above our neighbors. When we start thinking of ourselves as a warrior caste, removed from the people we defend, we exacerbate the civilian-military divide. We indulge in an entitlement mentality that isn’t healthy, demanding special treatment, such as discounts or restrictions on fireworks that might upset vets with post-traumatic stress disorder. The message is, You’re welcome for my service .
.. We should be able to dislike something without seeing it as a personal affront. We should be able to oppose something without becoming frothy-mouthed and obsessed, as some veterans online have done over Nike’s ads. We should embrace Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer’s insistence that we show compassion for those we don’t agree with, while also acknowledging that everyone is free to boycott and destroy their Nike gear as they see fit.
.. What’s more, believing that we have a special claim to the flag conflicts with the fundamental values of the armed forces, which elevate service over self. Serving is an honor the American people grant us, and it is Americans — in their totality — whom we serve. This does not give us license to appropriate national symbols as our own exclusive banners. Service is a privilege, not a way to purchase greater moral authority.
He’s certainly the only politician to ever be interviewed by GQ, Town & Country, Politico and Ethan Hawke.
His is a candidacy born of the Trump era, testing whether the left can have an equal and opposite reaction to the 2016 presidential election, and whether the best way to achieve that goal is to figure out the memeing of life.
.. O’Rourke is betting that by broadcasting himself on a live stream while campaigning in places he isn’t supposed to show up and saying things he isn’t supposed to say, he can encourage new voters to go to the polls, and even win over some Republicans who may not agree with him on all issues.
“I’m really surprised by how well Trump was able to leverage his popularity and the fact that everybody did know him, and there was this thing they liked about him,” O’Rourke said in an interview.
.. O’Rourke has become the kind of reality-show character that thousands of people watch eat a hamburger (46,000 Facebook views), skateboard through a parking lot (161,000 views), do his laundry (44,000 views) or answer questions at his town halls about, for example, NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. (That one has been seen by tens of millions.)
.. Being on all the time — on TV, on for interviews, on live stream in the car — has helped make him famous. But can it make him a senator?
.. O’Rourke’s campaign is a throwback with a modern twist. He’s driving a pickup truck to every county. He’s knocking on thousands of doors and reciting the same stump speech thousands of times. He’s John McCain on the “Straight Talk Express” circa 2000, only now anyone watching O’Rourke’s live stream can come along for the ride.
.. The sophisticated candidate, while analyzing his own on-the-air technique as carefully as a golf pro studies his swing, should still state frequently that there is no place for . . . ‘public relations gimmicks,’ ”
.. he knew his low name recognition presented a challenge. But it also came with the opportunity to introduce himself however he wanted. By bringing the live stream into the equation, he hoped voters might see a person — a person who burps, swears, listens to music and has a family — and not just a politician.
.. It’s a gimmick but one that does come with some moral high ground: he’s able to say honestly that he doesn’t pal around with admen and has restricted access to political hired guns. And by not accepting money from political action committees or special interests, he can say he’s not being bought off. For years, O’Rourke wasn’t the type of candidate who could get billionaires to throw money his way, so why not, in his words, “turn a necessity into a virtue?”
.. like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used to do, he brags onstage about his small-dollar donations, “33 bucks” to Sanders’s oft-repeated “27 dollars.”
.. He then tried to flee the scene before being arrested.
Ultimately, the charges were dismissed, a fact O’Rourke says probably had a lot to do with him being white.
.. Take his most viral moment of the campaign so far: his support for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. “Reasonable people can disagree” on the issue, he said in a town hall, but he personally finds the peaceful protests aiming to “point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now” to be in line with the nonviolent movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Rosa Parks, and in that way “can think of nothing more American.”
.. it also gives ammunition for one of his opponents’ favorite attacks: that O’Rourke is an out-of-touch liberal, more Hollywood than Houston (“Most Texans stand for the flag, but Hollywood liberals are so excited that Beto is siding with NFL players protesting the national anthem that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it,” Cruz tweeted. “That means all of us can now win Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!”). And as for the NFL video? Well, Cruz made a rough cut of it and has started showing that at his own rallies as a way to rile up his base.
.. It can be easy, then, to imagine how Cruz will take advantage of O’Rourke’s live stream. His team has already pieced together a 30-second video of O’Rourke leting curse words fly on the trail. They could highlight every time he doesn’t know the answer to a question at a town hall to paint him as unprepared, or, as they’ve done already, use the NFL video to say he doesn’t support veterans. Tracking your opponent has long been part of political tradecraft, and in this case, O’Rourke could be broadcasting his own opposition research.
.. “He interviewed me that whole time, and all he used was that f—ing line about dead armadillos?”
.. sometimes he’ll talk for 45 minutes, and the takeaway will be a quote about roadkill, much to his annoyance.
In Trump’s America people are understandably experiencing news fatigue. There are torrents of it on multiple streams. There is outrage after outrage. It is often overwhelming.
That’s the plan, I suspect. Trump is operating on the Doctrine of Inundation. He floods the airwaves until you simply give up because you feel like you’re drowning.
.. I remember the episode that first revealed to me the darkness at Trump’s core, and I am renewed.
.. On an April night nearly 30 years ago, a young investment banker was beaten and raped when she went for a jog in Central Park. The attack left her in a coma
.. After being questioned for hours, the defendants gave false confessions that conflicted with one another, and those confessions were captured on video. As The New York Times pointed out in 2002: “The defendants in the jogger case were put on camera after they had been in custody, in some cases, for as long as 28 hours.”
.. “When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours. Under duress, we falsely confessed.”
.. A few days after the attack, long before the teenagers would go on trial, Donald Trump bought full-page ads in New York newspapers — you may think of this as a precursor to his present-day tweets to a mass audience — under a giant, all-caps headline that read: “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”
.. After serving up to 13 years in prison, the boys were proven right: Another man confessed to the crime and his DNA matched that at the scene of the crime.
.. The boys, then men, had their convictions overturned, were freed, and eventually reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the city over their wrongful convictions.
How did Trump respond after having called for them to be put to death? In true Trump fashion, he refused to apologize or show any contrition whatsoever.
.. In a 2014 opinion essay in The Daily News, Trump wrote that the settlement was a “disgrace” and that “settling doesn’t mean innocence.” He continued his assertion that the men were guilty, urging his readers: “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
.. “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
“Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
.. That to me is the thing with this man: He wants to hate. When Trump feels what he believes is a righteous indignation, his default position is hatred. Anyone who draws his ire, anyone whom he feels attacked by or offended by, anyone who has the nerve to stand up for himself or herselfand tell him he’s wrong, he wants to hate, and does so.
.. This hateful spirit envelopes him, consumes him and animates him.
He hates women who dare to stand up to him and push back against him, so he attacks them, not just on the issues but on the validity of their very womanhood.
.. He hates black people who dare to stand up — or kneel — for their dignity and against oppressive authority, so he attacks protesting professional athletes, Black Lives Matter and President Barack Obama himself as dangerous and divisive, unpatriotic and un-American.
.. He hates immigrants so he has set a tone of intolerance, boasted of building his wall (that Mexico will never pay for), swollen the ranks of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and attacks some as criminals and animals.
He hates Muslims, so he moves to institute his travel ban and attacks their religion with the incendiary comment that “I think Islam hates us.”
.. He always disguises his hatred, often as a veneration and defense of his base, the flag, law enforcement or the military. He hijacks their valor to advance his personal hatred.
.. So I remember that. I center that. I hear “I want to hate” every time I hear him speak.