A Crisis for the Right: Conservatism or Nationalist Populism

The 2016 presidential election has created an existential crisis for conservatives and the Republican Party.  Since the 1964 presidential run by conservative champion Senator Barry Goldwater, the GOP has been, albeit to fluctuating degree, the political vehicle of conservative ideas in America.  However, the emergence of Donald Trump and what many have coined "Nationalist Populism" has made tenuous the connections between the party of Abraham Lincoln and the conservative principles of Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan.

Nationalism and populism are now the amorphous terms used to inject meaning into the Trump presidential campaign – terms to distinguish this new movement from the limited-government principles that have been at the heart of the conservative movement over the last half-century.  While American conservatism includes a strong sense of what many confuse for "nationalism" – patriotism and a love of country – it is distinct from the true nationalism peddled by Trump supporters, which is removed from the principles of limited government and individual liberty at the heart of the American way of life.

Conservative author and radio host Mark Levin said in a speech at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that conservatism is not about "nationalism or populism, phrases that have no concrete meaning or constitutional basis."  Conservatism is constructed on a solid set of principles, based on an understanding of human nature and guided by the example of the Founding Fathers.  It is a defense of the principles infused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – the cornerstones of American civilization that make this nation truly exceptional.  These, and not a strained and largely imaginary kinship connection, are what American conservatives purport to "conserve."

The hallmarks of American conservatism, such as the embrace of federalism and commitment to individual liberty, have been shunted for a political philosophy that promises to use the power of government to serve the requirements of specific interest groups.  This power is to be wielded through the executive branch so that frustrated Americans can "get theirs" just like the elite cronies do in Washington, D.C.

Some see this way of thinking as a new, potentially successful way to challenge the American left and Progressive dominance in this country.  However, the failures of nationalism and populism in other countries should serve as a warning to American conservatives tempted to embrace them.  Not only have nationalist movements in Europe and Latin America failed to check the rise of leftism and socialism, but they have led to their own catastrophes and brought destruction to the people supporting them.

World War II's Italy and Nazi Germany are, of course, extreme examples of the power of nationalism turning to full-blown fascism within a society.  The Axis powers valued national identity over the preservation of individual liberty.  The collectivist bent created by an environment encouraging unchecked national identity helped to rally support among the general public for Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.  Nationalism as a standalone ideology rendered the minority, and individuals, defenseless against the powers wielded by the despots in charge.

The Italian fascist Giovanni Gentile once wrote that classical liberalism – the philosophy of the Founding Fathers – "negated the state in the interests of the particular individual; Fascism reaffirms the state as the true reality of the individual … for the Fascist all is in the state and nothing human or spiritual exists, or much less has value, outside the state."  Under the most extreme forms of nationalism, individual and unalienable rights are subsumed by statism and the "collective will" of the "people."  In this way, it becomes closer to the philosophy of the statist, collectivist philosophy of the left.

In the 21st century, far-right movements have again emerged in Europe.  Some parties, such as Greece's Golden Dawn and France's Front National, openly advocate the very policies that led the Axis powers to war, destruction, and their ultimate demise. 

But it is recent Latin American history, not Europe of the 1930s, that provides a closer example to Trump's brand of nationalist populism.  Ironically, given that many of Trump's supporters rail against "importing" third-world values, it is Donald Trump who is bringing echoes of Latin American politics to the United States.

Populism gave Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's late dictator, a mandate to overtake private companies, all because he was said to be doing so in the interests of "the people."  The failing of Hugo Chávez's Venezuela are well known.  The country recently hit the final stage of socialism – it ran out of toilet paper.  In Brazil, under Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's populist rule, a massive wealth redistribution program, which was promoted under the guise of fairness, has resulted in a tumbling GDP and skyrocketing inflation.  Brazil has yet to recover from Lula's reign. 

Evo Morales, a radical leftist who has been Bolivia's so-called populist president for over ten years, has attempted to nationalize several privately owned industries.  In 2006, Morales signed a decree that enabled his government to take over the entirety of the nation's gas industry.  Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina's far-left populist former president, nationalized the country's oil industry.  Though the extra-constitutional move was generally praised by the majority of the population at the time, the policy could not escape the laws of economics.  Shortly thereafter, Argentina entered a recession, and the country's currency rapidly devalued. 

South America has greatly suffered as a result of populist rule.  The supposed "leaders of the people" above have one thing in common: they left their countries in worse shape than when they stepped into office.

There are no checks that can be applied to a populist ruler.  Nationalist populism, without limitations on the size of government and laws to protect individual liberty, enables tyranny to thrive.  It creates a nation of men and not laws, the exact opposite of what America's founders intended for our country.  Rather than help the "working man," the nationalist populist doctrine destroys his opportunities and creates a system of lawlessness in which only the powerful and connected truly thrive.

The path forward for conservatives is to channel the energy of populism into a movement that embraces the limited-government principles of the Founders, which will lead to legitimate reform and a restoration of American institutions.

Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America, explained how Ronald Reagan used the energy of populism for conservative, limited-government means.  A popular uprising against the American elite and bipartisan corruption need not mirror the eventually tyrannical ideologies that have plagued much of the world.

"In the American context, populism without conservative principles has led to expansions of government power as those with legitimate anxiety have their needs met by the security of a government blanket," Needham wrote.  Popular anxiety about the direction of the country and its fall from greatness flows from real problems, both foreign and domestic, that have been largely ignored by the elites of both parties.  But nationalist populism has not solved these problems in other countries; rather, it has made them worse.  In the words of an Argentine journalist, "populism loves the poor so much [that] it multiplies them."

Jacksonian message that attacks crony capitalism and endorses limited government, the power of free enterprise, and the need to return to constitutional restraints could in fact revitalize the Republican Party and lead to legitimate, positive reforms.  However, without the principles that define American conservatism, nationalist populism will take the United States down a path that has ruined so many other countries: the American "shining city upon a hill" will look more like the gaudy but rotted out wasteland of Atlantic City in terminal decline rather than the exceptional country of the last two centuries.  American greatness lies in restoring her institutions and Founding principles, not in the siren song that has destroyed lives in Latin America and Europe.