Will there be a “Part 2”? I’m not sure.
Back in November 2021, a convention was held on “National Conservatism”. Some articles appeared in several publications I follow covering it. The coverage I saw was very short on specifics as to what this movement was about. About a month later, George Will wrote an article critical of the movement. I decided to try to find out more.
I found the website of the organization that held the convention. While the site presents many links to essays and books related to the topic, I found nothing about specific policy proposals or ideologies. I asked a group of online friends (all conservatives) what they knew about this movement – none knew anything about it, few had even heard of it. I started to wonder if this movement was some fringe extremist group. But Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were among the speakers at the convention, and Rich Lowry wrote a book on the topic. These folks are hardly extremists, Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.
What I was able to glean was that National Conservatism was an attempt to bring a certain degree of nationalism into the conservative movement. My immediate (and cynical) reaction was that this was simply an attempt to capitalize (politically) on the nationalist/populist aspects of Trump’s 2016 campaign which had proven effective.
I admit quite freely that I immediately recoiled from the very term “nationalism.” The term instantly brought to mind Nazi Germany. Nationalism has acquired a very bad name over the past century or so.
Finding no specifics online, in frustration I finally bought two books on the topic.
I’m reading both simultaneously – something I do not advise. I will refrain from quoting them directly here as I am certain to get the two confused. I have not finished them, which is why this piece is “Part 1”.
I was forced to go back and evaluate what nationalism is – and, importantly, what it is not.
“1: a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries.
2: a desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own.”
Under Webster’s first definition, nationalism is essentially synonymous with patriotism. Some would argue that “the belief that [their country] is better and more important than other countries” departs from patriotism but I would contend that patriots believe their country is better and more important to them.
Webster’s second definition is where things can go sideways. “A large group” that “share the same” – fill in the blank. Nationalism can get ugly if for example that large group is based not on shared culture but race (for example “white nationalism”).
Nationalism in and of itself does not embrace or reject any particular political ideology or system of government. It is not capitalist, fascist, socialist, communist, republican, or democrat. Hitler appealed to German nationalism certainly, but Gandhi was a nationalist – he wanted India independent from Britain.
The polar opposite of nationalism is imperialism (as Hazony points out). When Churchill and FDR signed the Atlantic Charter in August of 1941, it was a clear statement in support of nationalism. Among the points agreed to was “Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” The fact is, what Hitler attempted was imperialism – a war of conquest with the goal of placing the world under the control of a single empire.
International organizations which assert authority (real or assumed) over sovereign nations (UN, WHO, EU) are examples of imperialism. Nationalists reject this just as Gandhi rejected the authority of the British Empire. Nationalism has nothing to do with racism or hate, it is simply a belief in the sovereignty of one’s country. Nationalism is defined by loyalty – loyalty to one’s country.
None of this is to say that nationalism would demand unquestioned loyalty to any particular government or leader. Mark Twain said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” That to me is a perfect summary of American nationalism. However, any student of history must concede that some forms of nationalism (over the decades) have been perverted into unquestioning obedience to authority. I find no indication that the folks supporting National Conservatism embrace anything remotely close to that.
In the article I mentioned earlier, George Will argues that National Conservatives are “collectivists on the right.” That may be true to some degree but I have yet to find anything specific to support it. The rights of the individual are part of the “shared culture” that is America. Where this criticism is coming from is not clear but I have some suspicions. Will argues that CRT is the enemy of the individual because the individual is not recognized, only groups are, you are either an oppressor or you are oppressed. He seems to criticize National Conservatism base on the same grounds but does not elaborate. I can only assume he means something along the line of you are either loyal to your country or you are not – but that is pure speculation on my part.
Marco Rubio has promoted the idea of industrial policy. Trump implemented trade restrictions and advocated for shoring up our southern border. There have been many calls for a return to immigration policy that supports assimilation. Many traditional conservatives might find such proposals (except for strengthing the southern border) to be government overreach. I must admit that concerning industrial policy and trade restrictions I am quite uncomfortable with government meddling in the economic system – given the government’s lousy track record in such areas. But I have yet to find a National Conservatism proposal that is a direct afront to The Bill of Rights.
As with most things, collectivism is a matter of degrees. All but the most radical among us agree that we need to act as a collective for certain things. We pay taxes to support our military, build roads and bridges, enforce the law, and secure our rights. We agree (generally) to obey the law. We give up a certain amount of individual liberty to preserve ourselves, our country, and our society. The question boils down to how much we give up and what we get in return.
Trump’s nationalism was in essence this:
Secure our borders.
Impose trade restrictions he felt were more favorable to our interests.
Disengage from international agreements he felt were unfavorable to our interests.
Reasonable people can argue whether or not these were good policies. That is not relevant to the point I’m trying to make.
Trump’s intent, very obviously, was to appeal to blue-collar voters by tamping down the foreign competition and to pull back from international agreements the U.S. was paying for disproportionately.
Whether you support Trump or not, and whether you call yourself a Democrat or Republican, the fact is these positions garnered a lot of votes in the 2016 election. Were these the sole reason Trump won in 2016? No, Hillary Clinton helped Trump win immeasurably. Nevertheless, these positions remain popular even with many independents and Democrats. And these positions are unmistakably nationalist.
In a recent podcast, Ryan at Livingwithlibertypodcast.com makes the excellent point that people left and right of center likely agree on 60 to 80% of issues. Where they disagree (sometimes strongly) is what the solutions to those issues should be.
Would 60 to 80% of Americans say they are loyal to the United States and that we should put our interests first? I think so, I think the number is far higher.
As I stated early on, it seems clear that National Conservatism attempts to bring more voters into the conservative tent by embracing a certain degree of nationalism (though I take that view with less cynicism now than I did a few weeks ago). Will it result in a supermajority? No, but that is not the question. The question is will it work, will it win elections?
It’s hard to say without specific policy proposals (if and when I find them, there will be a part 2). My single biggest fear right now is simply the baggage associated with the term “nationalism.” Many, maybe most, will be instantly put off by the mere use of the term. Most will not bother to look into it as I have done. The left will slander the movement as based on racism and hate (surprise – it’s the entirety of their vocabulary now) and as evidence will point to white nationalist groups (this is a fiction of course, but that never stops them).
If however, the movement manages to get beyond the term, there may be some hope. Many mainstream conservatives seem to embrace it to some degree. It will appeal to the above-mentioned blue-collar voters. It may enlarge the tent (I suspect) even though some traditional conservatives may reject it entirely.
I’ll return to this topic in the future as I learn more. Thank you for reading.