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.
Just what are those inner imperatives that rise to support us and challenge us in the journey of the second half of life? Perhaps Jung’s most compelling contribution is the idea of individuation, that is, the lifelong project of becoming more nearly the whole person we were meant to be—what [God] intended, not the parents, or the tribe, or, especially, the easily intimidated or inflated ego.
While revering the mystery of others, our individuation summons each of us to stand in the presence of our own mystery, and become more fully responsible for who we are in this journey we call our life. So often the idea of individuation has been confused with self-indulgence or mere individualism, but what individuation more often asks of us is the surrender of the ego’s agenda of security and emotional reinforcement, in favor of humbling service to the soul’s intent. . . .
The agenda of the first half of life is predominantly . . . framed as “How can I enter this world, separate from my parents, create relationships, career, social identity?” Or put another way: “What does the world ask of me, and what resources can I muster to meet its demands?” But in the second half of life . . . the agenda shifts to reframing our personal experience in the larger order of things, and the questions change. “What does the soul ask of me?” “What does it mean that I am here?” “Who am I apart from my roles, apart from my history?” . . . If the agenda of the first half of life is social, meeting the demands and expectations our milieu asks of us, then the questions of the second half of life are spiritual, addressing the larger issue of meaning.
The psychology of the first half of life is driven by the fantasy of acquisition: gaining ego strength to deal with separation, separating from the overt domination of parents, acquiring a standing in the world. . . . But then the second half of life asks of us, and ultimately demands, relinquishment—relinquishment of identification with property, roles, status, provisional identities—and the embrace of other, inwardly confirmed values.
After he retired, my father cried in my arms and said, “I don’t know who I am now. I don’t know who I am. . . . Pray with me, pray with me.” Here I was a grown-up man, a priest, supposed to be strong for my father. I didn’t know how to do it. I guess I said the appropriate priestly words. But I didn’t know how to guide him into the second half of life, and he was begging for a guide.
The church wasn’t much of a guide in such things. The common sermon was on the evil of abortion. My mom in her 70s would come home and say, “Why does the priest keep telling us the same thing? I can’t have babies anymore!” That’s what happens when the Church doesn’t grow up or support its growing members. We focus on something that’s quantifiable and seemingly clear and has no subtlety to it. It’s mostly black and white thinking, usually about individual body-based sins. We know who the sinners are, and we know who the saints are, and we don’t have to struggle with the mixed blessing that every human being is. We’re all mixed blessings and partly sinners, and we always will be. But this wisdom only comes later, when we’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide us in the second half of life.
These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time. It’s the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah slowly but surely learned to hear (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).
A friend and former CAC Board Member, Susan Rush, has served many years on hospice and palliative care teams. She has also worked closely with Contemplative Outreach, an organization founded by Thomas Keating and others to renew the Christian contemplative tradition by teaching Centering Prayer. She reflects on the gift of this practice, which she says is key to spiritual resilience:
A wise person once said, “Find a spiritual practice and do it as if your life depends on it.” In my case, that practice is Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a prayer of intention, a prayer of consent, a prayer of surrender. It is a prayer that allows us to touch the Divine Ground of our Being, a prayer that helps us see our true self and get a glimpse of the Love that lives within us and in all creation. It is a prayer for living and a prayer for dying.
One comes to the practice of Centering Prayer with only one intention—to consent to God’s presence and action within. Because of that intention, commitment to the contemplative journey through a daily practice of Centering Prayer involves more than just setting aside time to pray; it also means opening ourselves up to a conversion of our will and total transformation.
When we first start Centering most of us are amazed at how busy our minds are. The silence we long for eludes us. We can’t hear God. But as we continue to practice—time and time again letting our thoughts go and returning ever so gently to our intention—we realize that this is all an Ultimate Mystery and requires a graced trust. With committed practice, gradually we are able to embrace the Divine Dwelling within us. There is a knowing, a conviction, that we are with God.
If we stay faithful to the practice, our false self begins to be dismantled and we live more and more from our center, from that Divine Ground of Being, from our true self. We are transformed. As the beloved Thomas Keating, who spent his life conceptualizing and teaching this prayer form, wrote, “By consenting to God’s creation, to our basic goodness as human beings, and to letting go of what we love in this world, we are brought to the final surrender, which is to allow the false self to die and the true self to emerge. The true self might be described as our participation in the divine life manifesting in our uniqueness.” . . . 
I once heard a patient say that her dying process was an “ego-ectomy.” The contemplative life through the practice of Centering Prayer can be an ego-ectomy, too. We come closer to our dying every day of our living, so let us live our lives to the fullest, for God’s sake. Let us do our spiritual practice as if our lives depended on it—because they do. Let us welcome our ego-ectomy through the dismantling of the false self now—in life—in order to experience each day as a sacred gift.
The Trump administration insisted it didn’t have a policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It said that it was merely following the law. And it said “Congress alone can fix” the mess.]
It just admitted that all that was nonsense — and that it badly overplayed its hand.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who on Sunday and Monday insisted that this wasn’t an actual policy and that the administration’s hands are tied, will now have to untie them as the White House will reverse the supposedly nonexistent policy.
.. It’s at once an admission that the politics of the issue had gotten out of hand and that the administration’s arguments were completely dishonest. Virtually everything it said about the policy is tossed aside with this executive action. It’s the political equivalent of waving the white flag and the legal equivalent of confessing to making false statements. Rather than letting Congress rebuke it, the White House is rebuking itself and trying to save some face.
.. But that’s the opposite of the approach the administration had said was demanded by the situation for the past several days.
Here’s a sampling:
- “Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.” — Nielsen
- “It’s not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we’re sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.” — Nielsen
- “The only [other] option is to not enforce the law at all.” — Nielsen
- “I don’t want children taken away from parents. And when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. Now we don’t have to prosecute them, but then we’re not prosecuting them for coming in illegally.” — Trump
- “You can’t do it through an executive order.” — Trump
And not only did the administration say it was bound by man’s law to do what it was doing; it said it was also bound by God’s law.
.. And it makes clear that, from Day One, this was a political gambit to force an immigration bill through. It didn’t work.
Everyone’s talking about the civil war in the Republican Party. It seems more like a surrender to us. The great bulk of elected Republicans have surrendered to the forces of Donald J. Trump. And they didn’t even put up much of a fight. Has a hostile takeover of a historic institution ever been accomplished with less resistance? The flag of surrender went up before many blows were even landed.
.. What I find so shocking is not so much the capitulation but the terms of the surrender. Or, rather, I should say the term — singular — of surrender, because there seems to be only one requirement expected of Republicans: Lavish praise on Donald Trump no matter what he does or says. Or at the very least, never, ever criticize him. Policy is an afterthought.
.. A reporter for Politico recently asked John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, for his views on a potential bipartisan compromise extending cost-sharing payments under Obamacare. “I’m with the president,” Cornyn told Seung Min Kim. When she asked him where, exactly, Trump is on the plan, Cornyn threw his hands in the air. So Cornyn doesn’t know what Trump’s position is — but he knows that he shares it.
.. The Trump agenda begins and ends with personal loyalty to Trump — not to the Trump agenda, but to the Trump personality.
.. Sasse likes to point out he is the third most conservative senator by voting record. I’m not sure how he reached that figure, but it seems plausible given that the American Conservative Union gave him a 100 percent conservative score in both 2015 and in 2016.
..But, remember, Sasse is the RINO squish traitor.
..Ah, quoth the Bannonite mobs, but he’s thwarting Trump’s agenda! Conservatism is a dead creed. What matters now is the new nationalism and supporting our president’s pursuit of coveted wins. Nothing else matters. Well, according to FiveThirtyEight, Sasse has voted with Trump 90.2 percent of the time. He supported the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, admittedly with reservations. But if Sasse had his way, the president would have had more than one big win by now.
.. Losing a seat to the Democrats is worse for the pro-life cause than appeasing the Trump White House — or at least a reasonable person could come to that conclusion.
.. They also talk about wanting to get things done and the importance of fulfilling the Trump “agenda.” But they reserve their purest passion and most sustained vitriol not for people who don’t vote with Trump, but for people who do vote with Trump but who also refuse to remain silent.
.. Why? Well, in the president’s case, the answer is obvious: his own Brobdingnagian yet astoundingly fragile ego. Because Trump cares so little about policy, he can forgive policy differences quite easily. What he can’t forgive is anyone even hinting that the emperor’s new clothes are, at best, invisible to the naked eye.
.. I’ll give Steve Bannon credit. He understood this from the get-go. He understood that criticizing Trump for the Access Hollywood tape was the kind of disloyalty Trump cares about. But criticizing a tax-reform proposal? He won’t care, at least not if it’s couched in compliments.
.. The Breitbart folks are quick to point out that they criticized Trump when he seemed to be capitulating on DACA — “Amnesty Don” and all that. This was at Bannon’s direction of course. But Bannon & Co. never, ever criticize the man himself. When Trump is doing wrong, it’s because the “Globalists” or the “Establishment” are giving the king bad information and whispering treason in his ear.
.. THE NEW SNOWFLAKE CAUCUS
It really is amazing. The people most likely to mock “snowflakes” and ask if you’ve been “triggered” have the most Pavlovian responses to criticism of Trump. They can’t seem to handle hearing anyone pointing out Trump’s personal, ideological, political, or managerial failings.
.. Ted Cruz is right that the Republicans have work to do. But who has taken his eye off the ball more than anyone else in Washington? Hint: It’s not Jeff Flake, it’s not Bob Corker, and it’s not Ben Sasse. It’s most emphatically not Mitch McConnell, who gave Trump his biggest win — Justice Gorsuch — and who is doing yeoman’s work to get conservatives on the lower courts.
.. It’s the guy who’d rather fight Gold Star families and rant about the NFL. It’s the guy who talks about revoking licenses for the press and talks about Confederate generals as “our heritage.” But just as there’s no reasoning with Dad when he gets into the Dewar’s, there’s no talking Trump out of his Twitter when he gets into one of his “moods.”
.. the culture-war spats and nasty personal fights are to a very real extent Trump’s true agenda, or at least it’s what people who love the Trump Show love about the Trump Show.
.. “But he fights!” can be a principle for everyone — for people without principles and also for those of us who have them.
he framed the challenge of unifying the GOP not in terms of an accommodation between Trump and himself but between Trump and the legends of Republicanism past: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Trump, he said, must be “Lincoln and Reaganesque.” And since the GOP can’t abandon its patron saints, it is Trump who must alter his views.
.. Last week, when Ryan referred to the GOP as the party “of Jack Kemp,” he was saying Trump must adhere to the party’s tradition of anti-racism.
.. Ryan was signaling that Trump must end his demonization of vulnerable minority groups. He must stop calling undocumented Mexican immigrants criminals. He must stop encouraging his supporters to assault African American protesters. He must stop calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
.. But in today’s press conference, Ryan’s anti-racism language was strikingly absent.
.. He didn’t talk about treating all Americans equally and with respect. Especially given Ryan’s reference to the issue of abortion, which he mentioned twice, the Speaker could be signaling that if Trump offers robust assurances that he will appoint conservatives to the bench, that will constitute unity enough. Kemp-style inclusion be damned.
.. He’s an ambitious Republican politician who saw what happened to Marco Rubio, another up-and-coming darling of the GOP elite who incurred the wrath of the nationalist right. And so, in his press conference today, by abandoning the rhetorical framework he outlined last week, Ryan began the process of surrender.