There has been a great deal of huffing and puffing over the change Donald Trump has allegedly wrought upon the Republican Party, with headlines such as “Trump Replaces Reagan GOP” and articles claiming the party is now somehow “nationalist” rather than “conservative.”
In order to see whether or not this is true, we need to define our terms.
“Nationalism” is actually of fairly recent coinage. It was first created by the Prussian historian Fichte as a reaction to Napoleon’s bid to unite all of Europe under the banner of the universalism of the French Revolution. Germany as a political concept did not exist at the time, and German-speaking central Europe was divided among over 300 political entities, some as small as single cities, which had been helpless against the Napoleonic onslaught.
The concept which led to the coinage of Nationalismus was the idea that Germans formed a sort of meta-community, one based upon Blut und Boden, common blood and soil, and that from this organic “nation” there should arise a common state uniting and incorporating all Germans in their Germanness.
This intellectual ferment of 19th century Germany bequeathed the twin ideologies which did so much to make the 20th century as bloody as it was. Most of us have been concerned primarily with countering one of those ideologies, socialism (especially in its most virulent form, communism), over the last 70 years or so.
It is time to address the other poisoned flower, that of nationalism.
Contrary to the apparent ideas of people such as Ann Coulter on what has come to be called the “alt-right,” there is no American “nation” in the Fichtean sense. It is, I think, this fact that led no less a personage on the American right than the late William F. Buckley to remark:
I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there isn’t a bone of nationalism in my body.
Patriotism is simple love of one’s country and its institutions. As Jonah Goldberg has recently pointed out, American patriotism has often been the antidote to any sense of American nationalism.
American patriotism, far from such nativist nonsense as exalting the “nation,” instead embraces the concept of limited government which flowed from the enduring American Constitution. The Constitution itself arose from and was erected upon the civil society, which had come into existence as the former thirteen English colonies, a civil society, which — from the very beginning — was remarkably diverse. It incorporated people not only from the British Isles but from several German states, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Spain and, yes, Africa (Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American War of Independence, appears to have been of mixed Black, Native American, and English parentage). Not for nothing does the roster of the heroes of that war include such names as Lafayette, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Casimir Pulaski, and Michael Kovats de Fabriczy.
As for culture, all sorts and flavors of Christianity already existed in the colonies (a prime reason for many people coming here was the search for freedom from the religious oppression of Europe) as did Judaism (among those legendary names was also that of Haym Solomon).
Thus, the greatness of America is precisely that there is no American “nation.” Put another way, the “one nation, under G-d” to which we pledge allegiance is one formed of people from every nation on Earth. Emma Lazarus’ “huddled masses,” who should have in common that they are all yearning to breathe free, and are all willing to live under a civil society with the Biblical moral code which makes such freedom possible.
There’s no room in that vision for an American nationalism. America is exceptional in that it excludes this in order to welcome the immigrant.
The tension, then, is between those of us who despair of the current system and want (as some have said) to “burn the system down,” and those of us who, on the contrary, want to make the traditional America of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution work as it was intended. It is between those of us who have always known that America is great, and those who, in the name of the fictitious American “nation,” want to “make America great” according to some other vision.
In that traditional America of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, I have a home; in a nationalist America I don’t have one.
Despite the overblown and frequently unfortunate rhetoric of the election campaign, Mr. Trump appears to be appointing people to his cabinet who are very much part of the traditional, constitutional America. Yet it remains for the rest of us not to relax our vigilance, and to see that they make progress in removing the various totalitarian accretions of executive overreach and restoring the traditional America of constitutional checks and balances. In other words, it remains for us to resist the temptations of populist nationalism, and to preserve the GOP as the party of principled conservatism, the bulwark against the ideological bequests of the 19th century and their malign effects.