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.
We need an uprising of decency.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
In 1900, there were two great philosophers working side by side at Harvard, William James and Josiah Royce. James was from an eminent Boston family and had all the grace, brilliance and sophistication that his class aspired to. Royce, as the historian Allen Guelzo points out, was the first major American philosopher born west of the Mississippi. His parents were Forty-Niners who moved to California but failed to find gold. He grew up in squalor, was stocky, lonely and probably knew more about despair and the brooding shadows that can come in life.
James and Royce admired and learned from each other, but their philosophies were different, too. James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.
They differed on the individual’s role in society. As David Lamberth of Harvard notes, James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain.
You’re never going to find a cause if you are working in a bland office; you have to go out to where the problems are. Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action.
“The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty.”
In such a community, people submit themselves to their institution, say to a university. They discover how good it is by serving it, and they allow themselves to be formed by it. According to Royce, communities find their voice when they own their own betrayals; evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it.
Royce took his philosophy one more crucial step: Though we have our different communities, underneath there is an absolute unity to life. He believed that all separate individuals and all separate loyalties are mere fragments of a spiritual unity — an Absolute Knower, a moral truth.
That sense of an ultimate unity at the end things, shines back on us, because it means all our diverse loyalties are actually parts of the same loyalty. We all, he wrote, “seek a city out of sight.” This sense of ultimate unity, of human brotherhood and sisterhood, is what is missing in a lot of the current pessimism and divisiveness.
Royce’s philosophy is helpful with the problem we have today. How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, “How happy am I?” Ask, “How loyal am I, and to what?”
But those people who are fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. I’ve begun to recognize a social type, the Amphibians — people who can thrive in radically different environments.
.. But if you grew up in war-torn Syria and wound up at a community college in Ohio, you’re almost bound to be magnetic and original. If you grew up in a Baptist home in Alabama and now are first-generation college at an Ivy League school, your life is propelled by an electric, crosscutting cultural dynamic... They were considered liberals in their Midwestern high school but are considered conservatives in college. They come from a mostly black town and work at a mostly white company.. They are within the circle of the group, but at the edge, where they can most easily communicate with those on the outside... Bridging Capital. Robert Putnam speaks of bonding and bridging capital. One binds people within communities and the other binds different communities together. We need more of both kinds of social capital, but we need bridging capital more... Amphibians spend their lives creating centering syntheses. They understand from experience that the only way you can bring different groups together is by uniting them at a higher level...The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity.