A debate with National Review editor Rich Lowry.
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
Donald Trump uttered these words during his inaugural address to the nation on January 20, 2017. It was a clear distillation of his nationalist politics, a politics that claims to prioritize American interests above all else.
On the surface, there’s nothing especially controversial about such a claim. The problem, though, is what Trump actually means by “American.” For many people, Trump’s “America First” nationalism is defined by race and rooted in disdain for foreigners. It’s an ethnonationalism anchored by policies like the Muslim ban, the border wall, and family separation. This may not be the only version of American nationalism, but it’s the nationalism we have right now.
Trump’s rise has ignited a lot of discussion around the meaning of nationalism and whether it’s a force for good or ill in American politics. Is nationalism necessarily reactionary and tribal, or can it be more inclusive? Can the notion of “American” be extended to include everyone regardless of race or gender or sexuality, given what nationalism means for a certain segment of the white population?
A new book by Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, argues that nationalism is unambiguously good and likely our only way forward as a country. His book, titled The Case for Nationalism, isn’t exactly a defense of Trumpism, but it is a blanket defense of American nationalism.
Others have already criticized some of Lowry’s historical oversights, such as his insistence on divorcing 20th-century fascism from its obvious nationalistic roots. In this conversation, I wanted to address one of the biggest claims he makes, namely that nationalism can be an antidote to “identity politics.” The notion that nationalism can liberate us from racism or tribalism seems to me deeply misguided, the kind of thinking that will create more problems than it solves.
Our exchange gets contentious at times, but it was ultimately productive. I’m sympathetic to the idea of an inclusive American nationalism — I even believe it’s desirable — yet I’m not sure it’s achievable. And the reality of Trumpism shows how far away we really are from that ideal.
So I reached out to Lowry to discuss his argument, where I think he goes wrong, why nationalism reinforces the very problems he wants to overcome, and why the nationalism we have is so different from the nationalism he imagines.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Tell me what this book is about. What did you want to say?
I wanted to defend nationalism, but I also wanted to make the case that nationalism is a very old phenomenon, a natural phenomenon, something empires and totalitarian regimes have tried and failed to eliminate.
The balance of the book is about American nationalism, and I make the case that nationalism is a central part of our tradition, part of the mainstream in America. You don’t get a revolution without it, you don’t get a Constitution without it, you don’t get victory in war without it.
I think Democrats have largely turned their back on nationalism, which is partly what enabled Trump to pick up the baton.
And how do you define nationalism?
The textbook definition of nationalism is a distinct people united by a common culture, common history, governing a distinct territory. That’s it in a nutshell. There’s often the thought that patriotism should be the word for everything that’s good about national feeling and nationalism’s the word for everything that’s bad. I don’t think that’s justified.
The version of nationalism you champion in the book is very inclusive, very broad. Do you think that Trump’s nationalism, the nationalism that has captured the Republican Party, is in any way inclusive?
When Trump’s on the teleprompter or giving speeches at the UN, I think his nationalism is unassailable. It’s when Trump is out in the wild, in nature, on Twitter, that he runs adrift and the unifying appeal of nationalism is lost.
True nationalism should be a loyalty that’s above sect, above tribe, above race, above partisanship, and something that we can all feel and all be unified behind, and obviously Trump often fails that test.
The latest example I talk about is when he was at war with the city of Baltimore and tweeted that no human being would want to live there. Well, human beings do live in West Baltimore. They’re not just human beings, they’re Americans, and this is the guy who’s the American head of state saying this, so sometimes it’s crude, it’s divisive, and it cuts against what should be the unifying appeal of nationalism.
The thing is, those moments of controlled Trump are so rare, and the careening, vitriolic, xenophobic version of Trump is what we get every day. His “America First” nationalism usually sounds nothing like the nationalism you theorize in this book. Its chief architects are people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who I’m perfectly comfortable calling a white nationalist.
What I’d like to know is why do you think Trump’s toxic nationalism is so effective?
Well, I disagree with your characterization of Stephen Miller, but I think Trump instinctively believes in our country first and our interests first. Now, he can be crude and exaggerated on the stump. He says crazy things like, “We’re going to take Iraq’s oil,” that are never going to be fulfilled.
But the broader idea of putting our people first, our country first, is very popular. No one else says it in such stark terms. I think a lot of Republican voters felt we’d gotten away from this in part because of George W. Bush’s over-idealistic foreign policy, so that’s a big part of it.
Would you admit that Trump’s nationalism is basically an ethnonationalism?
No, I think he’s crude and divisive, but I don’t think he’s a racist. I think a Republican Party that’s more nationalistic and populist, not necessarily Trumpist, but more in that direction than it was in 2004 when Mitt Romney ran, has more potential to jump racial lines than stereotypical Republicanism. I think it has the potential appeal to a certain kind of African American working-class, middle-class male, Latino male, if it isn’t expressed so clumsily the way Trump expresses it.
I’m curious how many working-class or middle-class African Americans you’ve actually spoken to, because Trump’s nationalism is not being received that way. As it happens, racists feel extremely represented by Trump. And we have pretty convincing data that racial resentment wasn’t the only driver but certainly a key driver of Trump voters, even when controlling for other factors.
Now, you may argue that that’s pure projection and not a reflection of Trump’s signaling, but the idea that all of these people are mistaken about Trump’s message seems … implausible.
I’m skeptical because a crucial leg of Trump’s support was from voters who voted for Obama twice and then went over to Trump. In that big essay in the Atlantic by Adam Serwer, I believe he just sort of says, “Well, they were always bigoted,” but were they bigoted when they voted for the first African American president? That doesn’t make sense to me, and I think it’s much too crude and simplistic a rendering of what’s going on.
I have to say, it’s strange that you were so staunchly anti-Trump a few years ago, even publishing an entire collection of essays trashing his worldview, and now you write in this book that Republicans should “thoughtfully integrate his nationalism into the party’s orthodoxy.”
A couple of things. We ran our “Against Trump” issue in December 2015 prior to the Iowa caucuses. We desperately wanted to defeat him. We thought there were 16 better alternatives. But fast-forward to today, he’s now the president, and we’ve seen how he’s governed and I’ve been surprised in two ways.
I’ve been surprised how on some really important matters of substance to conservatives of long-standing, he’s been a rock, like on pro-life stuff, on conscience rights, on judges. That was one of the deep concerns we had about him but he’s basically delivered.
My other surprise is I thought he would attempt to tone it down in terms of his personal conduct once he took office, but he absolutely hasn’t. The office has made no impression on him whatsoever. The huge downside is that he doesn’t respect the separation of powers in our government, he doesn’t think constitutionally, and says and does things no president should do or say. And I and my colleagues call him out on that.
But at the end of the day, we’re asked to either favor Trump or root for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Mayor Pete, who oppose us on basically everything. So it’s a pretty simple calculation.
Let’s forget about Trump for a second. The big question here and in the book is about how pliable American nationalism can be, and I think there’s a contradiction in your book that shows what we’re up against. You write: “Our rituals and holidays reflect the dominant culture. Christmas is a national holiday; Yom Kippur is not. And they reflect our national identity. Independence Day is a holiday; Cinco de Mayo is not.”
You’re right about all that. But that’s sort of the point: The cultural foundations of America, as you note repeatedly in the book, are mostly white and mostly Christian. And for many millions of people, Americanness is bound up with these ethnic and religious markers.
So how does that square with the desire for a truly inclusive nationalism?
Well, it’s a great question. There is this cultural core that is important, but I think it’s also organic and open. One of the critical bases is the English language, which immigrants have come here for centuries and learned. It’s not as though it’s impossible for people to do. People all over the world who don’t even live here speak the English language.
The point is that we have a history and a foundation, but anyone can come here and embrace those traditions. We’re still a melting pot, but a melting pot that has to have some coherence. Things obviously evolve over time, and that’s healthy and good as long as the core isn’t lost.
There’s the nationalism we want and the nationalism we have, and I’m not sure you acknowledge how wide the gap is. To this point about cultural flexibility, in the book you distinguish racism from nationalism by arguing that racism is about perceived biological qualities whereas nationalism is about culture and religion.
But you can’t separate these things. White nationalists aren’t defending white people merely for biological reasons. They see white people, they see Western civilization, they see America as a distinct and inviolable culture. The defense of culture and race, in other words, is one and the same.
All I can say is that they’re completely wrong. It’s not a white culture. It’s absorbed all sorts of influences over time, and it’s open to everyone.
In college, I became friends with a guy who was an Indian immigrant, I think he was brought here from India when he was 3 or 4 by his parents, and learned English by watching TV. And we joked that he knew more American cultural references than I did. So the idea that there’s anything important about our culture that is not accessible to people of all backgrounds and races is just a lie that I totally reject.
And it’s true that the settlers and founders imagined this as a country for white people, but there’s also a seed of a broader idea there from the beginning. The founders, in their worst moments, weren’t neo-Nazis the way the marchers in Charlottesville were, for example.
So white nationalists are telling a lie about our country.
I think we agree about most of that. What I’m getting at is that the reality of how nationalism actually works, what it means to people who embrace the label, and whether it’s possible to overcome that. Yeah, in principle, nationalism can have many, many faces. But it says something about the nature of nationalism that its most frequent and forceful manifestations are often reactionary, often tribal, and yes, often racist.
I think American nationalism is different, which is a major theme in my book. It’s always been more open, it’s always been rooted in individual liberty, and it’s always been a key aspect of our identity from the beginning. I don’t think nationalism is truly tribal unless you have the perspective of a so-called citizen of the world, because nationalism, as I said earlier, it’s an affiliation or a loyalty that’s above tribe and sect.
I take you to be saying that, yes, all of these divisions are real — race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. — and that the only way we can transcend these divisions is to subsume them under a broader national identity? Is that fair?
Yeah, that’s fair.
Then the question is, who gets to decide what that national identity is? Who gets to decide what an “American” looks like?
You use words like “us” and “our people” as though that solves the problem of defining Americanness in the minds of Americans, but I don’t think it does. In any case, do you really believe that a national identity is capable of subsuming all the differences I mentioned above without destroying the distinctions?
So to the question of who decides, I’d say that no one decides. No one really decided to make English the dominant language in America. The culture did it. It’s not official law, it’s just a fact. Thanksgiving is a federal holiday that the government recognizes, but it was a festival and a holiday before we had a nation-state.
The beauty of our system is that it allows for different groups to preserve their differences, to preserve their different values and histories. The only question that matters is, do they respect our founding? Do they have an attachment to the flag? Do they speak the language? Because this is what makes you an American.
We’re just about out of time, so let me ask you this: Is there a future version of America — in which Christianity is not the dominant religion, in which white people aren’t the majority, and in which English is not the primary language — that still aligns with your nationalist vision?
Yeah, some demographic change is baked in the cake and we’re already seeing it. So I don’t think national identity is about being white. The English language is more fundamental, and I think getting from here to the point where there’s another dominant language would be a very rocky road. I expect that to remain a molten core of our national culture and a big part of our national identity.
But the country is going to become less white and less Christian. And when I talk about Christianity, I’m really talking about these cultural tropes that we’ve inherited from Christianity and the Bible, like the idea that we’re a chosen people or the idea of a covenant. The Constitution is a kind of covenant and I think it’s a non-negotiable foundation for our sovereignty and national identity.
So to me, whether we still have a Constitution or not is much more important to the question of whether we’re still an American nation than, say, the racial make-up of the country.
Author: Sean Illing