Following former President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, American conservatives reopened a debate long considered closed. On the question of whether American conservatism was a nationalist movement, the answer had presumably been answered long ago: it was not. William F. Buckley, Jr. summarized the conservative approach to the subject when he declared, “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.”
Nationalism, according to conservatives, especially the blood-and-soil variety of nationalism, was for Europeans. American conservatives, according to their own narrative, believe in ideas. To the extent that conservatives were nationalists, it was of the creedal, civic variety, theoretically open to anyone. But most thought it was better to just avoid that term altogether.
Mr. Trump’s open embrace of the nationalist label caused many conservatives to revisit this subject. Whether out of genuine conviction, or to be better aligned with the Zeitgeist, many conservatives have since concluded that nationalism and conservatism are perfectly compatible, provided nationalism is sufficiently housebroken.
In the first weeks of the Trump Administration, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry published a defense of nationalism in National Review, arguing that “nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force.” Lowry subsequently published a book expanding on that theme. Yoram Hazony’s book, The Case for Nationalism, was widely embraced across the American center-right. Whatever their faults, so-called national conservatives have become some of the more interesting and energetic thinkers on the right. In an age of polarization and disunity, the national conservatives call for harmony and camaraderie. They want Americans, despite their disagreements, to feel like a family, ultimately on the same side and focused on each other’s best interests. Yes, we belong to different races, ethnicities, religions, regions, and political parties, but at the end of the day we are all Americans. That shared identity should mean something.
Despite their insistence that this new conservative nationalism is not xenophobic or illiberal, not all conservatives have celebrated the mainstream right’s acceptance of the label. Kim R. Holmes of the Heritage Foundation, for example, leveled a reasonable critique of the new conservative nationalism. He noted that, although the specific principles and policies that thinkers like Lowry and Hazony promote are unobjectionable, they are seeking to revive a term that justifiably carries a lot of baggage, and they are doing so when more anodyne terms like “patriotism” will work just fine.
Written in his characteristic calm, erudite style, Samuel Goldman’s new book, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, provides reasons to doubt the viability of any meaningful variety of nationalism in the contemporary U.S. It is especially notable as one of the more formidable critiques of the “new nationalists.” Goldman’s challenge to the new nationalists differs from their other conservative critics. Rather than call them out for their lack of faith in American exceptionalism, as Holmes did, Goldman suggests, though does not say outright, that today’s so-called nationalists are insufficiently serious and committed to their supposed ideal. They want to accomplish a cultural sea change with cheery slogans. Unfortunately, creating a new age characterized by a collective sense of identity and purpose among Americans will not be an easy task. It may therefore not be worth attempting at all.
The primary voices of the new nationalism have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that their goals and methods are “benign.” Yet it is for this reason that they will likely fail. According to Goldman, “Like a world without countries, a benign, unchallenging nationalism that does not involve genuine moral and political dilemmas is an object of wishful thinking.”
Goldman notes that Americans have sought unity through various means throughout the nation’s history. Colonial New Englanders created a unified identity founded on the shared belief in a covenant between God and the Puritan founders. Their variety of Christian republicanism assumed a high level of religious and cultural homogeneity—this is one reason New England Puritans were so often disliked by Americans that did not share their views.
The Puritan influence on American political thought was deep and long-lasting, but their vision of a righteous Christian republic will not be realized in the 21st century. The Puritan political culture was built on genuine religious feelings, and makes no sense in their absence. In one of the book’s many understatements, Goldman pointed out that “there seems little prospect of a Calvinist revival.”
When the possibility of an America united by a shared sacred covenant based on very specific Protestant ideals became impossible, a new variety of forward-thinking civic nationalism took its place. Americans, via immigration, assimilation, and amalgamation, could create a new identity based on their shared belief in foundational principles, especially the Declaration of Independence. This approach similarly faltered when Americans failed to fully incorporate large parts of the population as equal members of the national community—especially African Americans after the Civil War and Reconstruction.
America seemed to reach an admirable level of national unity in the middle of the 20th century. The old ethnic divisions between whites had mostly disappeared, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic bigotries had significantly faded, and the Civil Rights Movement’s victories suggested African Americans would soon achieve real equality. It is understandable that today’s nationalists admire that period, and want to see its best elements revived.
The problem with mid-20th century nostalgia, however, is that the period’s apparent national solidarity resulted from specific circumstances and policies no sensible Americans would like to reproduce. The national unity America enjoyed in that era was largely the result of the shared trauma of World War II. The Cold War, along with the perceived threat of nuclear annihilation, provided a new reason for Americans to achieve and maintain a baseline of national cohesion. Both of those developments united the country, yes, but no reasonable person would like to repeat them—those conservatives trying to force a new cold war with China or Russia, even if it leads to greater unity, are not reasonable.
Furthermore, although the U.S. successfully squelched its older ethnic divides, it was not an easy process. Millions of German Americans did not give up their ancestral language, culture, and identity just because they were persuaded that Anglo-American norms were superior. They were ruthlessly suppressed in the early 20th century, especially during World War I. Are today’s national conservatives willing to be similarly ruthless to force new immigrants to assimilate? Does anyone really think they should be?
Is American Nationalism Possible?
Unlike their critics on the left, Goldman did not attack today’s conservative nationalists with the typical charge of racism and intolerance. In fact, he explicitly stated that we as a nation should be able to talk about policies like immigration limits dispassionately and with an open mind. However, he made it clear that the preconditions for the kind of unity the new nationalists want to see do not presently exist, and that creating those conditions will be difficult.
It would be hard for anyone watching the racial controversies that swept the U.S. in 2020 to plausibly claim that recent immigrants are to blame for the nation’s divisions, or that an immigration moratorium would make them go away.
Thus, Goldman suggests the real problem for the new conservative nationalists. They insist that they are the good kind of nationalists, the benign nationalists who are not xenophobic, intolerant, expansionist, or even particularly ideological. However, in going so far out of their way to demonstrate that they are not threatening to any contemporary progressive values, they limit their own ability to be effective.
If concepts like solidarity and shared culture are to have any meaning, they will require sacrifice on the part of many ordinary Americans. It will also require directly challenging certain liberal precepts.
This point was driven home in an awkward debate between Rich Lowry and Sean Illing of Vox about Lowry’s book on nationalism. Lowry spent much of the debate on his back foot, defending himself against the claim that his nationalism is racist or otherwise exclusionary. Few would criticize Lowry for taking such a position. Yet a nationalism that insists that it is completely safe and harmless, one that threatens no liberal values, is not going to forge a new strong national identity.
Goldman also made an important point about the relevance of immigration policy to the question of national unity. Immigration is a signature issue of the new conservative nationalism. Most nationalists argue that today’s national disunity results, at least in part, from the high level of immigration (legal and illegal) that has occurred since the 1960s. Goldman did not directly claim that this view is wrong. However, immigration restriction is not a panacea. According to Goldman: “The enduring race problem, much more than renewed immigration, undermined the old understanding of assimilation.” It would be hard for anyone watching the racial controversies that swept the U.S. in 2020 to plausibly claim that recent immigrants are to blame for the nation’s divisions, or that an immigration moratorium would make them go away.
Real national unity of the sort nationalists would like to see may be attainable, but it would come at a cost. It would require more than minor adjustments to trade and immigration policy. It would certainly require more than enthusiastic flag-waving and meaningless talk about Americans as a kind of extended family. Are today’s national conservatives willing to dig in their heels and promote the kind of hardline agenda necessary to forge a new national consensus? Everything we have seen from them suggests they are not. Nor is it obvious that the benefits of such a program would outweigh the costs—or even work it all.
After explaining why the nationalists’ goals will be harder to achieve than they often acknowledge, Goldman suggested conservatives should aim for more limited, realistic objectives. In place of a “monolithic understanding of national unity,” Americans should think smaller, forming more limited cohesive communities, establishing “a variety of overlapping and sometimes contending groups that reflect and cultivate different conceptions of identity, responsibility, and purpose.”
Goldman unfortunately provides few insights into how these more realistic communities can be fostered, acknowledging that answering that question “goes beyond the analytic purpose” of his book. His more modest recommendation may also be unrealistic, however. At least the nationalists, in theory, could use the national state to shape and enforce cultural norms, an option denied to smaller forms of community.
After Nationalism is an important contribution to a necessary debate. Although I often disagree with their ideas, today’s conservative nationalists are considering important questions. I wish them well in their endeavors, and hope they come up with realistic and humane solutions to the problems they examine. For that reason, I recommend they read Goldman’s book. Addressing his critiques, if they can, will greatly strengthen their position.