Logic & Reason
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Aaron Sibarium just published an article in American Affairs
titled "Our Nationalist Moment
An attempt to put conservatism on firmer intellectual footing in the Age of Trump has led to some strange—and shaky—alliances.
Editor’s Note: This is the second essay in a multi-author series on “Our Nationalist Moment.” The first essay, by William A. Galston, can be found here.
“You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God—and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman.”
Thus thundered Yoram Hazony in remarks delivered at last month’s National Conservatism Conference, of which he was a principal organizer. It wasn’t the first slab of red meat thrown to the crowd—earlier that day Mary Eberstadt had all but blamed Europe’s migration crisis on the sexual revolution—but it may have been the reddest on a pure decibel scale: Attendees whooped and clapped and cheered, and Hazony paused for breath atop his perch in the Ritz Carlton Ballroom, looking slightly punch-drunk. “Between a foreigner and a citizen,” he continued, once folks had quieted down.
Jabs at the post-pronoun Left were so frequent it sometimes felt as though the conference should have been called “social” instead of “national.” A group becomes a nation, First Things’ Rusty Reno declared, when it is united by “shared loves.” Maybe, but after two days of keynotes, plenaries, and panels, one sensed that national conservatism is united mostly by shared hates: big tech, higher ed, opioids, pornography, China, and—everyone seemed at pains to make clear—libertarians, who had supposedly ignored these problems while chasing tax cuts for woke capital.
Just what “nationalism” meant, and why the Right needed to recover it, remained opaque. As Yuval Levin noted in an insightful speech, the term can pick out different things in different contexts, all of which tend to get conflated by conservative discourse. For Levin, nationalist “sentiment” was “a form of patriotism”—love of country—“if maybe with harder edges sometimes.” But for David Brog, patriotism wasn’t “enough”; “we [also] need to love our fellow citizens” within our country, to feel a “deep” connection that motivates mutual sacrifice. The charitable reading of Brog’s statement is that while patriotism implies loyalty to a state, nationalism implies loyalty to a people; the uncharitable and objectively more plausible reading is that patriotism connotes both bonds just fine, but Brog was trying to legitimize the nationalist moniker.
Muddled language can reflect muddled thought, of course—and so it was at this event. The 45-plus speakers all fell into one of three camps, each with its own aims and agenda. In many cases those aims were congruent—a bigger state and fewer immigrants, say—but in some they were not, and barring an unlikely coincidence won’t be anytime soon. The groups are as follows.
Rhetorical Nationalists. That’s how I would characterize Chris DeMuth, Amity Shlaes, Rich Lowry, and John Bolton, who together made up a fairly representative cross-section of the pre-Trump GOP. On substance, 2016 didn’t seem to have changed them. Shlaes extolled enterprise, DeMuth blasted bureaucracy, and Bolton bashed isolationism, which he pegged as untenable in the 21st century. Lowry was the most chastened of the bunch, calling himself a “recovering Never Trumper.” But even he stopped short of impugning establishment conservatism, or of endorsing its populist opponents.
Rhetorically, however, the ball had clearly moved toward Trump. You could support free markets and “forever wars” without getting booed (if without getting much applause either)—provided you justified them in terms of the national interest. “The nationalist claim,” DeMuth remarked, “is that the federal government has. . . .broken trust with large numbers” of Americans by “delegat[ing] lawmaking to. . . .bureaucracies” with “scant regard for [their] interests and values.” This expansion of executive power, and corresponding diminution of Congress, are familiar right-wing boogeymen; movement conservatives have been complaining about them for over half a century.
What Trump has done is shift the rhetorical grounding for these complaints. In June 2016, DeMuth had claimed that the administrative state “weaken[s]. . . .checks and balances,” erodes “limited government,” and opens the door to “executive lawmaking.” Now, three years later, he appears to have ditched constitutionalism for populism. His argument was not that policy delegation threatens liberty by concentrating power in the hands of would-be tyrants; it was that policy delegation takes power away from the people, thus undermining national self-rule.
A similar shift could be seen on markets. Ever since Cold War conservatism decided to adopt Hayek as its economic czar, the Right’s main critique of central planning has been that it undermines the “spontaneous order” whereby markets coordinate information across diverse actors. Part of what made this critique appealing was the way it squared (or appeared to square) freedom and fraternity—you could pursue your own ends while also serving someone else’s, such that each agent was in effect cooperating with every other, part of a grand, integrated market umma.
But that logic had no limiting principle; it did not stop at, or even recognize, national boundaries or distinctives, making it ill-suited to today’s populist moment.
So rather than defend laissez faire as a source of cosmopolitan freedom, speakers emphasized a free market tradition that accounts for American prosperity, American strength—a tradition whose roots predate (and put to shame) “neoliberalism,” the slur du jour of the conference. Their reasons may have changed, but their views—for better or worse—had not.
Which brings us to the other, less conventional blocs of national conservatism.
Statist Conservatives. Excluding transgender bathrooms, the most common complaint at the conference by far was that conservatives had developed an irrational fear of the state—and an unhealthy love of the rich—despite government being one of the few things conservatives actually control. Among those complainers was J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy; Julius Krein, the editor-in-chief of American Affairs; Oren Cass, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute; and Patrick Deneen, whose sharp critiques of liberalism have generated significant debate on the Right as well as parts of the Left.
“Statist” doesn’t mean “socialist,” obviously. No one was calling for the nationalization of major industries, though Krein came close, asserting that “the invisible hand is no longer just invisible” but “increasingly non-existent.”
Yet on this much, everybody seemed to agree: libertarian economics had been a disaster for the working class. Our labor market “has made it much harder for us to replace ourselves,” J.D. Vance said, because “we made a political choice that freedom to consume pornography was more important than public goods like marriage, freedom, and happiness.” Libertarians know these are problems, he continued, and they know the market caused them. But they’re unwilling to take the logical next step of market regulation, as that would involve picking winners and losers.
Several speeches also highlighted the connection between domestic manufacturing and domestic security. If “Silicon Valley cranks out apps but makes no progress in the realm of atoms,” Cass warned, other countries will begin to overtake us—especially countries that subsidize R&D more aggressively than we do.
Implicit in all this was a premise long resisted by movement conservatism: that it is legitimate, and perhaps even necessary, for government to promote the good at some cost to individual freedom. As Krein’s own journal has argued, “this may mean learning to advise on the use of the administrative state, rather than. . . . counterproductive calls for its abolition.” One use might be reverse IP theft against China; another could be regulating businesses that shut down speech, or, more cynically, punishing businesses that punish conservatives—Disney, Netflix, and Warner Bros, to name just three.
The decision by these and other firms to boycott states with restrictive abortion laws prompted Deneen to praise government as an essential check on corporate power, and as a much-needed boon to struggling families. But “government,” not “nation,” was the operative word. In an ironic twist, Deneen’s speech was primarily about nationalism’s close link with progressivism in the early 20th century, born out of a common centralizing impulse that tended to disrupt local associations and attachments. But the goal of conservatism, Deneen made clear, should be conserving those attachments and the tangible goods they embody—which meant that conservatives should support the nation only insofar as it assisted its constitutive parts, not as an end unto itself.
Furthermore, the goods in question don’t presuppose national unity or sovereignty; in principle you could achieve them without the nation-state, via some pre- or postmodern political form. Granted, nobody went out of their way to disclaim nationalism, and I suspect Cass and Vance do think national identity has some inherent value, their economic emphasis notwithstanding. The point is that they could think otherwise without contradicting themselves. Even immigration restriction, a traditionally “nationalist” aim, doesn’t require a belief in American nationhood over and above its constitutive parts. One could just say that immigration has negative effects on small, sub-national communities for which the American state is responsible, and so citizens may legitimately demand tighter border control from government—whether or not these communities form a transcendent, singular “people.”
Indeed, it’s far from clear Deneen would have any principled objection to replacing the nation-state with something else, assuming it governed conservatively and allowed mediating institutions to flourish. And it’s telling that several attendees never defended nationalism in more than instrumentalist terms, if they defended it at all. Their question was not, pace Huntington, “who are we?”; it was “what should we do?”
To which a third and final group responded: “Depends who we are.”
Enter national conservatives, who made up the plurality of speakers at the conference. Like Vance, they were anti-libertarian, and in some cases anti-liberal, disenchanted by the establishment GOP.
But they also made a further claim: For national conservatives, the nation was not merely a central means to local ends, but also, as Reno put it, “an end in itself,” a community that transcends clan or kin. On this view, it is perfectly coherent to speak of an American “people,” an American “culture,” an American heritage, the preservation of which should be a core duty of the American state. Just where does people-hood come from? A shared past, for starters: Andre Archie and David Brog both invoked the “mystic chords of memory” posited by Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural, with Archie going the extra step of saying that “local narratives” must be integrated into national ones. Common mores, too—Anglo-Protestant in America, Gallo-Roman in France. A key assumption here is that, outward appearances aside, there are certain cultural traits that most Americans share. These traits entitle them to national sovereignty, and form the basis for a critique of globalism: It doesn’t just weaken local attachments, as Deneen charged, but infringes on the nation’s right to control its fate and conserve its culture—singular, not plural.
And that means national conservatives face a dilemma their statist counterparts do not: What happens when local and national imperatives conflict? What if, for instance, a large influx of African Catholics would reverse family breakdown and undermine our Anglo-Protestant heritage? If national cohesion only has value insofar as it promotes tangible attachments, this might seem like a worthwhile trade all else being equal. But if the nation is an end in itself, the good of national unity might outweigh the good of social conservatism.
Notice I said “might,” not “will.” No one offered a principle by which to adjudicate such conflicts, or even acknowledged their potential, presumably because national conservatives have bigger fish to fry right now. The cosmopolitan Left is almost as allergic to nationalism as it is to Catholic social teaching, after all, so there’s some logic in an ardent Zionist like Hazony teaming up with somebody like Deneen.
Yet this new fusionism—statist-cum-nationalist, Protestant-cum-Catholic—may have more in common with the old than its cheerleaders are letting on.
Just as free market Hayekians joined forces with religious conservatives to defeat communism, post-liberal reactionaries have allied with nationalists to defeat progressivism, a threat both regard as existential. Assuming that assessment doesn’t change, their alliance could prove more durable than pre-Trump conservatism, because while markets nearly always undermine tradition, the nation-state does not, at least after a period of initial upheaval. And assuming the nation-state has already been established, social conservatism tautologically tends to promote it, yielding a stable equilibrium.
Except that American national culture has never been especially conservative or especially statist—which means the synergy between national and social conservatism will be weaker here than elsewhere. As Tablet’s Aris Russinos notes, the “legal and political philosophy and public discourse of the United States are all deeply intertwined with liberalism, in a way those of. . . .Poland are not. . . .Liberalism can be understood as America’s civic religion. . . .whose precise interpretation is as. . . .bitterly disputed as any divine commandment.” In other words, Demuth, Shlaes, and Lowry may actually have come closest to capturing America’s true identity, or at least a core part of it, when they glossed small-government fusionism with populist patois, even if their substantive agenda was rather conventional.
Thus the most likely outcome of all this might be a conservatism that remains faithful to our civic religion, but interprets it in a less fundamentalist way. We’ll see some industrial policy and perhaps some trust-busting; if we’re lucky, a greater openness to taxing rich people as well. My hunch is that the current distribution of right-wing enthusiasms will produce a less libertarian GOP in the long run—how long and how much less aren’t yet clear. No doubt some will see this as the first step down the road to serfdom, and others the first step toward renewal.
But as for national conservatism’s post-liberal coquetry, I think Josh Hawley put it best: “America is not going to become the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is not going to become America.”