Smart Conservatives Give Nationalism a Good Name, and a Bad One

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Publicity had gone about as well as could be hoped for an intellectual conference. In the days before the Edmund Burke Foundation put on a discussion of “national conservatism” in Washington, it had both been denounced as a front for Trump-loving bigots and criticized by white nationalists for excluding them. These were just the kinds of controversies that help attract reporters and attendees. The attacks also formed a backdrop against which the presenters could explain what they meant, and did not mean, in calling for a conservative nationalism.

But then, the day the conference began, the president tweeted. Trump alluded to four progressive members of Congress, all nonwhite women, saying they should go back to the crime-ridden countries they came from. Never mind that three of them were born in the U.S.

Now a day into the conference, I’ve watched as the miked-up conservative nationalists have made a lot of thoughtful and sensible remarks. But the Trump tweets highlight a problem for their project that they have failed to face.

The speakers are intellectuals who are well aware that nationalism has had an unpleasant odor since World War II. They seek to rehabilitate the concept. Thus Yoram Hazony, the Israeli author of “The Virtue of Nationalism,” took care to lambaste white nationalists for seeing people as “robots that are controlled by our birth and our race and our genes.”

Nationalism, said conference organizer David Brog, the former executive director of Christians United for Israel, is a love of our fellow citizens. Rusty Reno, the editor of the religious-conservative journal First Things, praised nationalism for making us reach beyond clan and kin to look after the well-being of the entire body politic.

Chris DeMuth of the Hudson Institute took a different tack, saying that to oppose nationalism is equivalent to “opposing forces of nature.” John O’Sullivan, an elegant conservative writer who has been making this case for decades, suggested that to object to nationalism because it can take malevolent forms is like objecting to romantic love because it can lead to divorce. That thought leads naturally to the conclusion that nationalism is a sentiment that needs to be channeled in the right direction.

The politics of increased national solidarity the speakers described is appealing. I’ve made the case myself for a benign nationalism. But a question then naturally arises: What relationship does a benign nationalism have to President Trump’s nationalism? He is, after all, the reason we are talking so much about nationalism -- a term he has embraced.

Trump has sometimes spoken of bringing the country together in pursuit of the common good, although he sounds that note less often than previous presidents have. He has also questioned whether a federal judge of Mexican descent could do his job properly given his ancestry, and suggested that Muslims not be allowed to come to the U.S. Now he is -- at best -- telling Americans who detest him to leave the country. “National conservatives” don’t need to denounce all of Trump’s words. But if nationalist sentiments need to be channeled constructively, it is fair to expect them to declare where they stand on his provocations.

Speakers at the nationalist conference had a lot to say about people they think are undermining American nationhood. Hazony called out an academic consensus that allegedly holds that Americans would be better off being governed by Brussels. Social-conservative essayist Mary Eberstadt lamented libertarians who allegedly say “so what?” when confronted with evidence of the toll of opioids on their fellow Americans. Maybe there’s something to those complaints, beneath all the exaggeration.

But there’s someone else who stirs Americans against each other, someone else who regularly subtracts from our love for our fellow citizens, someone else who is giving nationalism a bad name. A nationalism worthy of the name would grapple with its enemies, even if they are more powerful than white-identity groups or nameless academics -- and even if they claim to be nationalists themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.