Are We Really Talking about Nationalism?

In a speech delivered last week in New York City, former president George W. Bush fiercely attacked American nationalists as narrow-minded nativists. Among the memorable phrases in his oration were these:

  • “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, and forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” he lamented.
  • “Bigotry seems emboldened, our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” he said. “There are some signs that support for democracy itself has waned, especially for the young.”

Although it is possible to claim that, like his friend John McCain, the former president was only attacking “spurious nationalism,” clearly his invectives against “nativism” and his call for “global engagement” suggest that his target was indeed traditional national identity. The U.S. as conceived by Bush and many other Never-Trumpers exists for a global mission, to teach their version of democracy and human rights to the rest of the world. The U.S. should be viewed as a gathering space for this missionary work. And our mission requires that American leaders come clean about our past sins, as President Bush tried to do in July 2003, on a trip to Senegal, when he “deplored” America’s role in practicing slavery. Although Republicans excoriated Obama for his servile conduct toward other countries, they conveniently forgot this groveling gesture by the last Republican president before Trump. Not surprisingly Bush doesn’t balance his attacks on the bigoted Right with critical references to the Antifa or to the anti-white Left. One has the impression that like the militant French Republican René Renoult, he recognizes no enemies on the Left.

There is an interesting argument that is at least implicit in Bush’s remarks. The states that formed the Union were once thought to have the makings of a traditional nation, and John Jay points this out in Federalist Two when he pleads for a unified national government. According to Jay, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” But that was in 1787 and this is now. We are currently a country that embraces people from all over the world and because of our economic and military resources, we are a global power. We also view ourselves, in our saner moments, as a nation state that must protect its territorial sovereignty. In this sui generis situation Americans look for bonds of unity in a deeply divided country. While the Left pushes multiculturalism and antiracism as the ties that should bind, the populist Right has found its alternative in American nationalism. This has set off a heated dispute about the nature of this nationalism; and former president Bush has weighed in by more or less espousing the Left’s position.   

The legal scholar F. M. Buckley has tried to respond in a column to Bush’s charges, by offering his opinions on what it is “to be American.” Buckley seconds Bush in going after white nationalists and then “cultural nationalists,” although his column never makes clear how this second group differs from the first. Are Americans who insist on the use of the English language or on the historical specificity of American constitutional traditions the same as white nationalists? But all of this may be an aside. Buckley is in a hurry to unveil his own conception of American nationalism, which is creedal and propositional. He quotes Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said in 1858 that what makes us American is “allegiance to a creed.” This creed is about liberty and equality, but also about fraternity, which Buckley insists that “right-wing Republicans” have been unwilling to concede. Fraternity means the acceptance of a caring welfare state, which represents nationalism as understood by the framers of the New Deal and John F. Kennedy.

As a European historian, I am puzzled equally by how Buckley and the white nationalists define their nationalism. Nationalist movements became politically significant in the nineteenth century among peoples who were striving to become nation states while fighting against occupying powers. Italians, Germans, and Poles created nationalist movements, and integral to these efforts was reviving interest in ethnic and linguistic identities going back into the past. All authentic nationalism is cultural and linguistic, whether we’re talking about Latvians or Jews trying to reclaim an ancient homeland in the Middle East. Please note that I’m neither praising nor denigrating nationalism, but underscoring its indissoluble relation to cultural identity.

White nationalists are not really nationalists since they are engaged in a globalist enterprise. They are reaching beyond traditional nation states and seek to unify all peoples of a certain race, partly by demonizing other races. But propositionalists like Buckley and the neoconservative journalists are likewise involved in a global pursuit. They are not content to live in a politically diverse world among different cultures. They seek to win adherents to their political religion supposedly predicated on universal propositions. The validity of what they believe requires that it be put into practice universally, since their propositions are intended for all of humanity. This rights-based globalism is nothing new. It was practiced by the Jacobins during the French Revolution and later, and more devastatingly, by the Bolsheviks.

 I see no reason to make our country fit a nationalist box that no longer corresponds to our situation. The U.S. is ethnically too diverse (whether or not that’s a good thing I’ll leave for another day) to fit the European concept of an ethnically unified state. And there is no way that we’re going to become an ethnically less homogeneous country than we are right now. But we can feel patriotic about our country and display gratitude and loyalty to what is best in our traditions. That said, I wouldn’t reduce that loyalty to a creedal formulation that looks like it’s been extracted from the ranting of a French Revolutionary. In any case, nationalism is not the only glue that has held political societies together. One can feel loyal to a monarch or to one’s fellow-citizens; and one can develop affection for a country owing to one’s rootedness in a particular place. In any case, as Edmund Burke pointed out, sentiments are essential to feeling that one belongs to one country rather than to another. My father’s family loved this country because it gave them refuge from the Nazis. I doubt they or their friends ever thought about Buckley’s propositions or cared about whether those abstractions could be traced back to statement that Lincoln made in 1858.

I would also observe that nationalism in Western Europe has undergone a change for the better in the last hundred years. Nationalists, even the ones who call themselves identitarians, in France Germany, Austria, and Italy, no longer view other European nations as their enemies. They now regard them as fellow-Europeans fighting for the same cultural traditions, often against the influx of alien Muslims whom they fear are wreaking havoc on their societies. Gone are the days when French and German nationalists treated each other as enemies rather as neighbors and fellow-Europeans.

 An afterthought: I am aware that certain friends of mine use the term “nationalism” to refer an immigration policy that denies entry to potentially dangerous Muslim minorities and/or restricts military involvements to vital national interests. Although I’m not against such prudent guidelines, I would question whether advocating them necessarily makes one a “nationalist.” 

If you experience technical problems, please write to