Among intellectual conservatives there is a much more elevated and defensible call for a renewed sense of national identity, one that is racially inclusive and rooted in American history and patriotism.
For instance, my National Review colleagues Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argued in a widely discussed essay last year that “Nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force. Since nationalistic sentiments also have wide appeal and durability, it would be wiser to cultivate that kind of nationalism than to attempt to move beyond it.”
That strikes me as entirely reasonable. While I’m skeptical about the utility of relying on nationalism as an organizing political idea, I have always believed that a little nationalism is necessary for a country to bind itself together and for citizens to feel that their nation is worth defending.
Without a little nationalist sentiment, it’s difficult to cultivate patriotism or assimilate immigrants into American culture.
While many on the left are eager to blur the distinctions between the benign nationalism of Lowry et al. with the atavistic identity politics of Spencer & Co., there is actually very little overlap between the two camps, except in two aspects. As an analytical matter, the nationalists insist that nationalism is the wave of the future, transforming politics around the globe. And they may be right.
Second, and not unrelatedly, nationalists of all stripes have pinned some of their hopes on the idea that Donald Trump could serve as a useful champion for their particular kind of nationalism.
So here’s what I’m confused about. It seems to me that virtually every understanding of nationalism is rooted in the idea that the nation should be jealously defended from foreign interference, aggression and insult. Even purely symbolic disrespect should quicken the blood of every true nationalist.
It is now an accepted fact that the Russian government attempted to meddle in our elections and is planning on doing so again in 2018 and beyond. Members of the Trump administration, with the notable exception of the president himself, are unequivocally blunt about this. But where is the outrage from the nationalist caucus?
To be fair, National Review has issued stern editorials. But most of the rah-rah nationalists on cable, talk radio and social media have been remarkably blasé about it, more interested in Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds than those of a contemptuous foreign power. For some of the alt-right, the silence is understandable; many of them are simply fanboys (or clients) of Vladimir Putin.
But at least part of this outrage lacuna must be attributable to the distorting effects of partisanship. The Russians didn’t win the 2016 election for Trump, but the whole topic remains politically charged for him, and his refusal to squarely address this issue sends a powerful signal to his own party. So it gets downgraded to a mere technical challenge for the Deep State to handle. And maybe that’s the right course.
But it does pose an interesting question: How powerful can nationalism be if it cannot overpower partisan loyalty?
Writes for National Review Online.