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Rich Lowry’s Flawed Case for Nationalism
“You know what I am?” U.S. President Donald J. Trump said at a rally in October 2018. “I’m a nationalist.” Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism can be seen as a way of working through, and defending, what the president meant. As the editor of National Review, the prominent conservative magazine, Lowry is an intellectual gatekeeper on the American right. He was one of the speakers at the National Conservatism conference in July 2019, an event that brought together such thinkers as J. D. Vance and Patrick Deneen, with keynotes by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, along with a notorious intervention on the perils of immigration by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax.
Lowry’s central claim is that Americans are, and have been from their country’s founding, a nation and not a community of universal ideas. Although intellectuals and left-wing pundits are openly hostile to expressions of national sentiment, the United States has a unique national tradition that is today obscured by fissiparous identity politics. If Americans reacquaint themselves with their true national heritage, they will be better equipped to overcome dangerous tribalism, protect their borders, and make their country great again. To the degree that the United States has a global role, it should be as “vindicator of the prerogatives of other democratic nation-states”—in other words, a defender of the idea that a world of culturally defined nations is humanity’s state of nature.
Nations have existed since antiquity, Lowry says. The notion that they are relatively recent inventions, put forward by scholars such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, is “nonsense.” Instead, today’s nationalists are the inheritors of an ancient form of social and political organization known to classical Greeks and biblical Jews. They rightly see a language, a discrete culture, and a common historical experience as the best basis for self-governance. Nation-states are the political entities that encase these natural nations.
The United States is not defined by a creed, Lowry insists, but rather by national identity in exactly this sense. Americans have a coherent history and a collective destiny. Their story begins with the English settlers who arrived on the East Coast and runs through the U.S. expansion into Mexican territories and the absorption of the Pacific littoral. The people who preceded the English settlers were either few and far between or benefitted from the arrival of these newcomers. There was “basically no one in California to have a popular will” when white pioneers arrived, Lowry writes, and in any case, people brought into the United States by war and conquest still “got political stability, democracy, the rule of law, and a prosperous economic system.”
The more “underhanded and brutish” episodes in U.S. history, such as the near eradication of Native Americans, were cosmically necessary, since they paved the way for the “stupendous boon” brought by continental expansion. Even slavery was not so much a foundational sin as a regrettable example of anti-nationalism: the slaveholding South, with its emphasis on states’ rights, had to be defeated to allow “national institutions and the enhancement of national authority” to flourish.
Nations, in Lowry’s view, have resisted imperial domination and acted as vehicles for popular representation. The ills that detractors attribute to them, such as racism and fascism, are really better seen as products of militarism, authoritarianism, and “transnational” ideologies such as communism. American universities and the European Union—the latter being “perhaps the greatest threat to self-government in the West”—are examples of places where these cosmopolitan ideologies hold sway.
Why would anyone object to Trump’s embrace of nationalism, Lowry wonders, since it is history’s most powerful force for unity and good governance? Who but misguided internationalists would reject the simple and obvious philosophy that your own people and your own country, much like your family, have a special claim on your affection and loyalty—and therefore come first in your hierarchy of interests? The answer is that none of this is as commonsensical as Lowry claims.
The problem with nationalism, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote, is that it requires too much belief in what isn’t so. Lowry’s claims rest on a maddening evasiveness when it comes to definitions. At times he uses the word “nation” to refer to a social group. At other times the word stands for a sovereign country or for the institutions and practices of a state. This slipperiness allows Lowry to make the strangest arguments, which collapse upon the slightest interrogation. English is a “pillar of our national identity,” he writes. Christmas, not Yom Kippur or Cinco de Mayo, is a “national holiday,” which reveals the Christian inheritance at the heart of American life. But many American citizens are perfectly capable of being multilingual without also feeling seditious. Holidays are national only if a government—a state, not a nation—declares them to be. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day wasn’t a national holiday until it was. Anyone who lives in a school district that recognizes Jewish or Muslim religious holidays, in addition to Christian ones, presumably feels no less American because of that fact.
Many American citizens are perfectly capable of being multilingual without feeling seditious.
Few of Lowry’s statements would pass muster with historians who have been to an archive or tried to write about the past in ways that admit complexity. “Ancient Egypt constituted a unified state, ruling an ethnically homogeneous people with a distinct culture, for thousands of years,” he claims. “The same was true of China, Korea, and Japan.” Sweeping assertions like these are legion, and to any serious thinker they should be an embarrassment. A society might have an identifiable high culture, or a dominant language of trade or governance, or characteristic art forms in particular historical periods. But to claim homogeneity, much less “ethnic” sameness, for millennia is thoughtless sloganeering.
Throughout the book, Lowry’s underlying commitments come frequently into view. They peek out from the middle of a sentence or bubble up from his choice of evidence. Women are almost entirely absent from Lowry’s national past and present. By my count, fewer than a dozen or so women merit a mention in his book: Queen Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc are among them, along with a bevy of current-day intellectuals such as Amy Gutmann and Martha Nussbaum, who are there to be argued against. 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.” Still, he admits that a “healthy nationalism” needs to be inclusive, which is why the great contributions of African Americans should be recognized. He gives the blues and the banjo as examples.
Lowry’s orientations are also on display in his proposal for how to revive American nationalism: better breeding. In Lowry’s view, “racial and ethnic intermarriage” will ultimately “break down tribal group loyalties.” But the examples he adduces are census data showing that over time some Hispanic respondents stop identifying as “Some Other Race” and start identifying as “White.” In other words, cross-racial marriage will in due course produce more white people. Lowry’s other proposals ensure that only the right admixtures take place: U.S. immigration policy is “imbalanced” because there are too many newcomers “from Latin America.” He looks back fondly on a time when there were more “Germans, Italians, Russians, Poles, Canadians, and British,” who more readily married each other and enabled quicker assimilation. At no point does he entertain the idea that a United States could possibly exist without dominant roles for the English language, Christianity, and whiteness. Such a country, Lowry seems to believe, just wouldn’t be America.
History offers an outlook on life and a method for living it, not a catechism.
But the United States, like any other country, does not have a single identity or history, at least not of the unproblematic kind that Lowry has in mind. What does have such a history is American nationalism. It is a line of thinking and a political program that includes John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Andrew Johnson, all of whom saw themselves as the inheritors of the American founding and considered white supremacy the natural order of American society. It runs through post-Reconstruction historians who forged a narrative of white-to-white reconciliation after the Civil War. It encompasses writers such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, who in the early twentieth century worried about the rising tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe and its effects on what they viewed as the Christian, northern European essence of American identity. It winds through George Wallace’s inaugural address as governor of Alabama in 1963, with its evocations of the Anglo-Saxon legacy and the foundational right not to be forced to amalgamate into “a mongrel unit of one.” It flows into William F. Buckley, Jr.,’s 1965 debate with James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union. (The great danger of black empowerment, Buckley said, was that it could end up promoting “less the advancement of the Negro than the regression of the white people.”) It slides directly into the Republican Party’s “long Southern strategy,” as the political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields have called it: the successful uniting of evangelicals, antifeminists, and non-college-educated whites into a hard bloc of cultural and racial grievance. And it threads through the essays in such outlets as Lowry’s own National Review, American Greatness, and The Claremont Review of Books, which published Michael Anton’s influential 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election.” Embracing Trump, Anton wrote, is the last chance to stop “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” and restore “what used to be the core of the American nation.” Any use of “American nationalism” as a phrase entails an acknowledgment of this genealogy.
There may be a case for the nation that avoids Lowry’s historical pratfalls. One might argue, like the political scientist Yael Tamir, that an open, capacious nationalism could buttress social solidarity and provide a bulwark against an overweening state. Like the historian Eric P. Kaufmann, one could hold that state policy should take account of the cultural distance between potential immigrants and local majorities—not as a matter of justice but as a practical matter of avoiding a wall-building backlash. As another historian, Jill Lepore, has written, one could imagine a “new Americanism” that emphasizes the country’s roots in “a revolutionary, generous, and deeply moral commitment to human equality and dignity.”
Yet for any defense of American nationalism to work along these lines, it would have to give up certain things, including the idea that liberty is somehow less American if you call it la libertad. It would have to put away folktale versions of U.S. history and engage deeply with the legacies of exclusion, racial hierarchy, and violence. It would also have to throw out the belief that gradations of human potential come prepackaged in races and ethnicities. In other words, it would have to toss overboard the very things that have defined a specifically American strain of nationalism from the anti-Catholic Know Nothings of the 1840s to Trumpism today.
Social solidarity may be important for social action. Fellow-feeling, mutual reciprocity, and trust improve the workings of institutions, reduce uncertainty, and facilitate cooperation. But there is nothing special about solidarity that comes wrapped in a national flag, other than that it is the version that modern governments have come to insist matters most. This is the contradiction lying at the heart of the defense of nationalism offered by Lowry and other anti-big-state conservatives. The social form that they are most eager to defend as natural and ancient took a large, modern state to manufacture: a language standardized by state-approved grammarians, an origin story taught in publicly funded schools, a set of symbols protected by law against defilement, and a reverential song that comes with its own required body position. As in so many other areas of conservative thought under Trumpism, what purports to be rugged individualism and spontaneous community is in fact the product of astonishingly intrusive governance.
Lowry is eager to make the case for American exceptionalism, but his book is ample evidence against it. His nationalism is essentially that of every other contemporary demagogue—Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, and Donald J. Trump—repackaged as radical truth-telling. There are legitimate debates to be had among liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and democratic socialists on everything from tax rates to immigration policy to foreign relations. But they are overshadowed by the political right’s resurrection of a tendentious, organicist view of history reminiscent of Italian and German philosophers of the 1920s and 1930s: semi-factual, over-confident, mythologized, and utterly self-serving.
The Case for Nationalism is an exemplar of America’s original identity politics: white, male, and Anglo-Saxon, with the occasional black jazzman making his contribution and with women kept safely offstage. More than anything, it is proof of a settler society’s ability to produce its own ethnonational chauvinism. Those who worry that the world is spinning out of their control often come up with schemes for corralling us all back into one melodrama with a single set of heroes. But history offers an outlook on life and a method for living it, not a catechism.
More stories, from different perspectives, make you smarter about the people you claim as your metaphorical ancestors. Statements about historical truth should rest on the best available evidence, not on the degree to which they justify your own position atop the historical heap. It is, after all, an empirical question whether a deep affinity for one’s own “civilization” is very important at all to a country’s well-being. Multiethnic armies win wars. Multilingual societies make great art. Places that have a well-honed appreciation for the absurdity of overwrought nationalism—Holland, say, or Austin, Texas—still have public order, reliable government, and generally happy people. Common values come out of lived experience—of doing horrible things and heroic ones, of being a bewildered newcomer, of imagining ourselves as not always and forever the boss. These also happen to be the habits of mind that enable democracy, accountable government, and the self-criticism necessary for creating a more perfect union—unpedigreed, incorrigible, and confident enough not to worry about being great.