In Favor of Nationalism

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, a magazine that pointedly distanced itself from Donald Trump in the 2016 election, has written a new book that cogently and compellingly defends nationalism, Trump’s signature issue. In The Case for Nationalism: How it Made Us Powerful, United, and Free, Lowry argues for a revival of nationalism based on liberal values and a shared cultural heritage.

National Review’s famous “Against Trump” issue appeared in December 2015, at a time when Trump’s political views were not well known and concern was warranted. However, Lowry’s assessment of Trump has changed as he has seen how the President has governed. “I’ve been surprised,” Lowry told Vox recently, “how on some really important matters… 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.” Most conservatives have had a similar change of heart, leaving the Never Trump contingent confined mostly to a small group of neocon bitter-enders like Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, and Bill Kristol, who started out by rejecting Trump and have ended up rejecting conservatism in toto.

Trump’s full-throated embrace of nationalism and an “America First” agenda is what set him apart from the other GOP hopefuls in 2016. Lowry writes that he got interested in the topic of nationalism after Trump’s inaugural address in January 2017. “This is not a book about Donald Trump,” Lowry writes, “although it was occasioned by him.”

On foreign policy, Lowry notes, Trump is “considerably more grounded” than his two predecessors. George W. Bush’s Wilsonian inaugural address of 2005 promised to spread freedom everywhere around the world. Obama, who styled himself “a citizen of the world,” predicted that, “as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” Trump, on the other hand, simply declared that, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we will do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” It was the enunciation of a truly conservative foreign policy more in line with the intent of the Founders.

Lowry debunks the notion that America is an abstract idea, as opposed to a flesh and blood nation. “America is a nation,” Lowry writes, “whose sovereignty and borders are dear to it, whose history and culture are an indispensable glue, whose interests guide her actions (or should).”

He takes former President George W. Bush to task over his assertion that, “Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by blood or soil.”

“It is certainly true that ‘blood and soil,’ the rallying cry of ethno-nationalists and the Charlottesville Nazis is deeply inimical to the American project,” Lowry responds. “Yet denying the contribution of geography and land to our identity is willful ignorance.” If anti-nationalists “are so certain that this country doesn’t care about soil,” writes Lowry, “they should propose giving an acre of land in the middle of nowhere back to Mexico as symbolic compensation for the Mexican American war and see how that goes over.” Touché.

Nationalism isn’t new or manufactured, but “quite old and entirely natural.” It isn’t based on hatred, says Lowry, but on love: our affection for home and our own people. Moreover, Lowry argues, nationalism is the foundation of a democratic political order. Nationalism was central to the American project, he writes, fueling the revolution, the ratification of the Constitution, and preservation of the Union.

Much of the animus against nationalism comes from the American ruling class, Lowry notes. In a brilliant chapter titled, “The Treason of the Elites,” Lowry notes that a “broadly cosmopolitan sensibility infuses our elite in government, academia, and business.” This transnational elite, Lowry maintains, “exist in a gigantic bubble removed from the concerns and emotional attachments of the citizenry of nation-states.”

Central to the American nation is the issue of immigration. We started out as a nation of settlers, Lowry writes, not of immigrants or philosophers. “The Founders,” he noted, “weren’t hostile to immigration, but they weren’t starry-eyed about it either. They tended to worry about the effects of unassimilated blocs of immigrants and suggested moderating the numbers admitted and ensuring that they dispersed among the general population and adopted our mores.” Lowry suggests sensible reforms -- that fewer and better skilled immigrants be admitted and that assimilation and English language proficiency be stressed.

He also makes clear that the nationalism he favors is based on American sovereignty and culture, not on race. “An American cultural nationalism is an inclusive nationalism,” he writes. “[W]e shouldn't believe the lie perpetrated by white nationalists that our culture is in any meaningful sense 'white' or the countervailing lie perpetrated by black nationalists that blacks are anything other than fully American.” Indeed, he argues, the end of the slavery and the civil rights movement are achievements of American nationalism.

Though Lowry defends the “basic axioms” of Trump's nationalism he takes great pains to distance himself from Trump's “wild presidential tweets, extreme boastfulness, excoriating attacks on the media, the browbeating of allies ...”, etc. etc. He also parrots the media narrative on Charlottesville, writing that “his initial reluctance to unambiguously denounce the far-right protests” marked “one of the low points in his presidency.”

However, none of this “moderation” wins Lowry any points on the Left.

The book was not even permitted to be advertised in New York University’s student paper in order to shield “people of color on campus” from exposure to the phrase “Nationalism is a good thing.” The word “nationalism” connotes xenophobia and white supremacy, the editor explained, “and printing it in large letters in the back of our paper would have marginalized people of color.”

Carlos Lozada, reviewing the book in the Washington Post, detected hidden racism in Lowry’s call for assimilation, stating that “he looks back with nostalgia to the days when immigrants were overwhelmingly European.”

And, in a particularly noxious review in Foreign Affairs, the publication of the globalist Council on Foreign Relations, Charles King wrote:

“When he uses the term ‘we,’ it almost always refers to white people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, or at least people who are not Native Americans, Latinx, or recent immigrants. That is how Lowry can speak of ‘our dealings with the Indians and Mexicans,’ or the fact that ‘the Indians fought us, to try to stop our advance and to defend their civilization.’”

Let that sink in. The reviewer objects to an American using “our” or “we” to reference American relations with the Indians. What pronouns should he use?

Based on this review, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who specializes in racial grievance, called Lowry’s book “crypto-racist trash.”

The lesson here is that the Left cannot be appeased and that any thoughtful defense of the historic American nation, however nuanced, is simply unacceptable.

“Nationalism shouldn’t be a dirty word, especially in this country,” Lowry writes in the closing paragraph of the book. But to the Left, American nationalism is obscene.

You can follow Nicholas J. Kaster on Twitter.

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