Nationalism Is America’s Comeback Kid

When it comes to sports, Americans look with admiration on the comeback player of the year. We can’t resist the rediscovery of excellence in a tried and true athlete. And so it was this last year with the rediscovery of an old and excellent concept. The comeback concept of the year has been nationalism (along with its nephew, tariffs). My pick is reinforced by the December 31 column of the otherwise reliable liberal E.J. Dionne, who makes apologies on behalf of nationalism.

Dionne allows that “it’s common,” among liberal elites, “to denounce nationalism, to disdain supposedly mindless, angry populists, and to praise those with an open-minded, cosmopolitan outlook. Note that those involved are praising themselves” (emphasis added).

Dionne’s column repeats the concessions of many an establishment pundit of a point to Trump and his supporters. But this is more than a point they concede—in fact, they surrender the whole match.

Now, with a President Trump, Dionne and his crew admit what the run-down towns of flyover middle America have known for decades: “Globalization married to rapid technological change has been very good to the well-educated folks in metro areas and a disaster for many citizens outside of them. This is now a truism”—having been mugged by the reality of Donald Trump and his ascendancy to president by winning the Midwest and its eastern extension, Pennsylvania—“but it took far too long for [us] economic and policy elites to recognize what was happening.”

Then comes Dionne’s New Year’s resolution: “[C]ritics of Trumpism need to recognize the ways in which globalism undercuts the rights and fortunes of large numbers of democratic citizens.” Trump was right on this key theme, the only one right in both parties.

Moreover, Dionne tries to play down his contrite confession that borders mean something: “there is nothing new (or necessarily indecent [what, this isn’t racism?]) about citizens saying that nations have a right to control their borders and to decide what levels of immigration they want to accept at any given time.”

Now we need Dionne to allow that Trump was right to upset the bipartisan consensus that got us into endless Middle East wars, while dodging the threat from the principal enemy in that region, Iran, and even subsidizing its support of terrorism. The prescient Walter Russell Mead is another commentator who sees how Trump has stirred the old order.

In fact the begrudged praise of nationalism and the nation-state is a way of avoiding Trump’s more winning phrase, “America First.” This has nothing to do with isolationism, imperialism, or fecklessness toward other nations. It is a reiteration of the policy advocated by George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.

Throughout his political career Lincoln emphasized preservation of the Union, most of all during the Civil War—whether it was slave or free. For slavery, to name the most pressing issue, could not be abolished unless the country were one—for we are a country that “demands union, and abhors separation.”

More well-known is the Gettysburg Address, which begins and ends with the reality of the nation born anew: “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . .  this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perhaps Dionne and others have been favorably influenced by the important new book by Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism. (See also American Greatness contributor John Fonte for his review of the book and his own defense of nationalism.)

Hazony points out that the problem of any form of government is whether it can keep people free. Not wealthy, not educated, not powerful—but free. While all these desirable traits are necessary for a good government, a government that provided all of them but did not make or keep us free, would be deficient. The central question of any good nation is how does the nation keep its citizens free?

As is typically the case, we must return to the meaning of freedom in Greek philosophy. The free man (the eleutheros) is not a slave but can act and care for himself. He gives freely from what he owns (whether it be sharing his lunch or his fortune). Ultimately, the free man has a free mind, not one merely unencumbered by ignorance or superstition but one educated in the moral and intellectual virtues. He assumes his duties as a citizen, fighting in its ranks and deliberating in the assembly.

Had Hazony developed his argument in this way, with a focus on understanding freedom more fully, he would not have denounced John Locke, the philosopher behind the Declaration of Independence, as he had. Hazony makes the error, similar to the one made by his graduate school colleague Patrick Deneen, that Locke’s America set forth the path to the self-centered, amoral nihilism we see today. On the contrary, Locke’s Americans are those of the Declaration’s protests against tyranny and for self-government. They respect the “Laws of nature and of nature’s God.” They are the ones demanding such respect still today.

American nationalism respects individual freedom. Contrast the first inaugural addresses of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.

Reagan sees ordinary American citizens as heroic, while FDR demands that Americans obey their president as soldiers do a general; citizens are self-governing in the one view, scarcely more than subjects in the other.

Trump would seem the best possibility of anyone on the political horizon to bind these two warring visions to affirm we are one nation. Trump’s America First nationalism can reconcile leading political elements of domestic and foreign policies. It is not in spite of his reputation as a disrupter, but precisely because Trump is a disrupter that he can redefine the political debate to the enduring benefit of Americans grateful for their freedom.

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.