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The Return of American Nationalism

John Fonte & John O'Sullivan

Donald Trump’s election is above all else a rebellion of the voters against identity politics enforced by political correctness, and it opens the way to a new politics of moderate levels of immigration, patriotic assimilation, and, in foreign policy, the defense of U.S. sovereignty. In the past few months, Trump put together a winning electoral coalition that stressed the unity and common interests of all Americans across the full spectrum of policy, from immigration to diplomacy.

Because of Trump’s electoral success, this combination of policies rooted in the national interest and patriotism has suddenly begun to sound like common sense. That was not so only yesterday, when political correctness made it hard even to examine such ideas as “multiculturalism.” In February, David Gelernter stated that the “havoc” that political correctness “has wreaked for 40 years [has been made] worse by the flat refusal of most serious Republicans to confront it.” Indeed, he noted, “only Trump has the common sense to mention the elephant in the room. Naturally he is winning.” Defeating political correctness — or, in positive terms, expanding real freedom of speech — made it possible to raise other issues that worried the voters but that a bland bipartisan consensus pushed to the sidelines.

Once that happened, it became clear that the room was simply packed with elephants: multiculturalism, diversity, bilingualism, identity politics, political correctness itself, and much more, extending to the wilder shores of gender politics. All of these were involved in the progressive project of “fundamentally transforming” America. All of them acquired corporate and establishment support almost magically. But the major driver of this project was mass immigration without assimilation. Since the fight over the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013, patriotic and populist opposition to amnesty and to increases in low-skilled immigration has intensified. But Republicans in general, and presidential candidates in particular, were late to the party. Except for Senator Jeff Sessions, who led the fight in Congress, and Donald Trump, who did so in the primaries, professional Republicans at all levels — donors, consultants, candidates, and incumbents — were bullied away from raising the issue, for fear of being thought unrespectable. Even some conservatives felt the same.

And then Trump’s bold grasp of the immigration issue propelled him to the GOP’s presidential nomination. Though other issues are important here, no other single one explains his rise as clearly or as simply. So conservatives had (and have) to deal with it.

In its relatively brief life, American conservatism has been built on three groups: economic conservatives (fiscal restraint, limited government); social conservatives (faith, family values); and national conservatives (immigration, law and order, the social fabric — i.e., national cohesion as well as national security). All of these factions are the grandchildren of the early years of National Review: Hayekian libertarians, Kirkian traditionalists, and Burnhamite nationalists concerned at times with national strategy, at others with combating national decay. All are key to it.

Critics with differing perspectives, including Patrick Buchanan and Matthew Continetti, view the Trump ascendancy as a populist nationalist uprising against traditional conservatism. Others think nationalism is an alien element in American conservatism. We disagree. There are forms of nationalism that are exclusive, aggressive, and undemocratic; but American nationalism is none of those things. In the hard school of experience since Pearl Harbor, America has been strongly nationalist in spirit — and also prudent, open, and appreciative that others love their countries, too. American nationalism fits comfortably alongside economic and traditional conservatism, strengthening this ideological coalition. The democratic nationalism within American conservatism could even be seen as the glue that binds economic, social, and other conservatives together, just as in the old days anti-Communism provided such a bond.

It will be needed in any event. In the coming Trump years, conflicts will accelerate on various questions involving nationalism. Should immigrants be “Americanized” via a process of “patriotic integration,” or integrated into a “multicultural/transnational society”? How should we be governed — by American constitutionalism, or by international law? Should our government be rooted in American sovereignty, or in global governance? And should our policies on language and education be inspired by ideas of national cohesion, or by those of ethnic separatism and/or transnational identity? At the core, these are all serious “regime” questions of self-government. Do the American people have the right to perpetuate their way of life, or not? Do Americans have the right to rule themselves, or will others (e.g., foreign judges) make crucial decisions for them? Conservatives need to think hard — carefully and strategically — about nationalist questions, to seize the moral high ground and frame these issues as vital to democratic self-government.

Mainstream commentators will attempt to marginalize nationalist concerns as backward, alarmist, and xenophobic. We will be told that they represent “unenlightened” policy positions and that they are of interest only to “downscale” voters, not the middle class. Both of these arguments are demonstrably false.

National conservatism, or “one America” conservatism, is idealistic without being naïve or utopian. It reflects the good sense, decency, and aspirations of the American people for self-government, national independence, and the perpetuation of our way of life. To believe, as most Americans do, that the U.S. Constitution is superior to international law, that immigrants — though welcome — should become part of a united national community rather than join an ethnic enclave in a balkanized America, and that our national identity is more important than any ethnic or transnational loyalty is not to take the low road of nationalist selfishness but the moral high ground of democratic self-government in a particular society. In global politics, moreover, these principles enshrine a universal ideal of democratic sovereignty within an independent liberal-democratic nation-state that inspires people in — yes — less happy lands.

Conservatives should reach out to new immigrant voters not from a position of weakness with pandering “comprehensive immigration reform,” but from a position of strength, with this spirit of inclusive patriotism and the promise of equality of opportunity. We should say to the newcomers: “We welcome you first and foremost as Americans. They — progressives, liberals, Democrats — want to put you in a box as part of a victim group. While we welcome you as equal citizens, they patronize you as childlike clients.” This emphasis on the unum, not the pluribus, should prove more attractive to an electorate than the designedly fractious minority–majority coalition on the Democratic side. After all, most people in America want to be Americans, not ambassadors from their family’s past.

Further, national conservatism is embraced by Americans of all classes. According to a Harris survey of over 2,200 eligible voters, U.S. citizens prefer national self-government to “shared sovereignty” or “global rules.” Nor are these views found only among bricklayers and short-order cooks. Harris finds that they are held especially firmly by the college-educated. There is no evidence that the forces of “global governance” are any stronger (or represent a better-educated, more forward-looking, more “enlightened” social base) than the supporters of democratic sovereignty. If anything, the reverse.

Besides, this new patriotic fusionism has now proved itself at the ballot box as Trump outperformed Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George H. W. Bush in the working-class and rural precincts of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio. Why give up on a winning game?

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