“You know, they have a word,” said Donald Trump at one of his rallies last year, “it’s sort of became old-fashioned—it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”
The word is being used. Nationalism of a certain “old-fashioned” and nasty sort is making a comeback here in the United States and around the world. Inextricably associated with the most destructive war in human history, it has long been looked at askance by thinking people who remember the bloodshed it unleashed. But now, in an era in which liberal democracies and the very idea of liberal democracy are under assault, the taboo surrounding nationalism is being stripped away.
Starting Sunday, Washington will be home to a three-day gathering for those “who understand that the past and future of conservatism,” according to the conference website, “are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation.” Many of the country’s most prominent conservative intellectuals will be taking part. Their aim, they declare, “is to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base,” including “an extensive support network across the country.” The Trump administration is sending John Bolton, a principal implementer of its America-First foreign-policy, to be one of the keynote speakers.
This all could be unobjectionable. There is, after all, a healthy form of nationalism. In the framework of a liberal democracy, cultivation and celebration of a common history, traditions, folkways, language, and religion can foster ties of pride and patriotism and join a people together for common purposes.
But that, unfortunately, is not what the impending conference is all about. For there is another form of nationalism that demonizes immigrants, glorifies authoritarianism, and favors the institutionalization of bigotry. Judging by the featured speakers at the Washington conference, many of them avid Trump supporters, this more malignant brand of nationalism is what is on offer.
Along with Bolton, giving one of the keynote addresses is none other than Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who regularly dabbles in nationalism’s unwholesome side.
Authoritarianism? “You’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country, it means killing people,” said Carlson, speaking to Fox & Friends about Trump’s meeting with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un.
Demonization? To Carlson immigration is something that “makes our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.” Or as he said on another occasion, “I actually hate litter which is why I’m so against illegal immigration.”
Bigotry? This is the same Tucker Carlson who has called Iraqis: “semiliterate primitive monkeys.”
In this ugliness, Carlson is not alone. Another featured speaker, Michael Anton, formerly of the Trump administration’s national security council and author of the notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay, warns that “a republic that opens its doors to immigrants must choose carefully whom and how many to accept.” He cautions darkly against “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” The racialist tenor of such statements is as transparent as Donald Trump’s comments about the “very fine people” among the white supremacists carrying tiki torches as they marched in Charlottesville.
According to Yoram Hazony, the Israeli-American student of political philosophy who is the principal organizer of the conference, liberal principles, “have brought us to a dead end.” He lumps “universal liberalism” together with Marxism and Nazism as a potentially “genocidal” ideology that fuels “the desire for imperial conquest.” In liberalism’s stead, he is a proponent of what he calls “conservative democracy.” He favors a tradition in which, among other things, the state “upholds and honors the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation.” In other words, in the American context, he would bid farewell to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Hazony opposes liberal democracy root and branch and also the very idea of a pluralistic society. “The overwhelming dominance of a single cohesive nationality,” he writes, “is in fact the only basis for domestic peace within a free state.” He approvingly quotes Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th-century father of German nationalism, who warns against “the wild mixing of races and nationalities under one scepter.”
But the United States is a land where there has long been just such “wild mixing of races and nationalities.” The nationalist idea, inevitably bound up with ethnic, racial, and religious homogeneity, sits poorly in a polyglot nation founded on the universal principle that “all men are created equal.” Ties of blood and soil are not the basis of American greatness.
It is unsurprising, in light of these views, to find Hazony bestowing praise on various “holdouts” from “universalism liberalism” where ties of blood and soil are the national principle: these include Viktor Urban’s avowedly illiberal Hungary, Poland under the Law and Justice Party, as well as unspecified forces in France and the Netherlands. With respect to these latter two countries, Hazony is oddly coy, not mentioning by name the far-right political parties he has in mind: They are, evidently, by process of elimination, the National Rally party (formerly the National Front) in France led by Marine Le Pen and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands led by Geert Wilders.
The program of the Washington gathering contains lofty words about “the revival of our unique national traditions.” But for all the high-sounding talk about how nationalism can “bind a people together and bring about their flourishing,” many of the conference participants unswervingly support a president who has been shredding the fabric of American society, issuing pronouncements that stir fear and hatred, and pursuing policies that wrench children from their parents’ arms at the border and thrust them into cages, that deport the spouses of men and women serving in our armed forces, that demonize refugees and immigrants.
Traducing the traditions on which America was built, the conservatives gathering in Washington to honor Tucker Carlson with a platform are constructing an intellectual framework for Trump and Trumpism and, indeed, for illiberal governments and movements around the world, while lending respectability to nationalism’s poisonous side. With many eminent conservative thinkers on the conference roster, American conservatism’s downward slide continues unarrested.
This article is adapted from “The Neo-Nationalist Danger,” which was published in The American Interest on June 21, 2019.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA TODAY, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.