Donald Trump’s success in the GOP primary and general election has highlighted an emerging political dynamic that has long been bubbling under the surface but lacked the prominent spokesman necessary to fundamentally change the conversation. This emerging dynamic is nationalism vs. globalism, and it is not just a phenomenon confined to Trump’s America. It is reflected in the Brexit vote and the resonance of nationalist politicians in Europe like France’s Marine Le Pen. Trump’s success is part of a broader uprising in the Western World against our global elite masters.
This emerging dynamic clearly caught the defenders of the reigning paradigm, both left and right, off guard, and they have struggled with how to respond. I recently asked whether CPAC (which is currently underway in the nation’s capital), as a representative of orthodox movement conservatism, was prepared to grapple with this new reality. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who picked up on this tension. David Cowen discusses it here in an article at The American Conservative. Even Ryan Lizza of the liberal Ney Yorker picked up on the conflict, which is saying a lot since liberals notoriously lack nuance when it comes to understanding distinctions on the right.
The subject was discussed in a CPAC panel that included Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Bannon’s comments were apparently well received by Trump supporters as they have been making the rounds on social media.
“We’re a nation with an economy — not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”
“They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed — adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”
But this obvious tension between mainstream conservatism and Trumpian nationalism raises a question. Why is modern conservatism in tension with nationalism in the first place? The organized right plays on patriotism and the left often portrays the right as a bunch of hyper-patriotic flag waving yahoos. Nationalism would seem to be a natural fit with conservatism. If fact, if there should be any tension on the right, American history suggests it should be in the opposite direction, between regionalism vs. nationalism. I seem to recall from history class that we fought a little war over that matter.
The conflict exists because modern mainstream conservatism is functionally globalist and in many ways is explicitly globalist. The average mainstream conservative voter does not necessarily conceive of himself as a globalist, but the philosophical underpinnings of Establishment approved conservatism is undeniably globalist/universalist and much of the conservative leadership is self-consciously globalist in orientation. For confirmation just check out the Twitter feed of Evan McMullin or Bill Kristol or Eric Garland or any of the other prominent NeverTrumpers who still can’t let it go.
The underlying universalism of what passes for modern conservatism is why supposed conservative spokesmen babble incessantly about “principles” and “values” and abstractions like “liberty” and “freedom” and “democracy,” but don’t seem to be too concerned about the plight of the working class Red voters in Flyover Country who are suffering from the excesses of globalization.
For the globo cons America is not a real blood and soil nation like all others, but a universalist “idea” nation. This conceptualization underlies mainstream conservatism’s historic reluctance to embrace restrictionist immigration policies even though current immigration trends spell demographic doom for the GOP and conservative policies. It also underlies their conceit that the U.S. is somehow uniquely responsible for the security and stability of the entire world.
As I mentioned above, modern conservatism embraces a pretense of patriotism that could be mistaken for nationalism, but it’s not true patriotism when you scratch below the surface. It’s not, “I love my country because it is mine.” It’s, “I love America because she is ‘exceptional’ or ‘essential’ or ‘indispensable.’” The thought of America acting like just another “normal” country frightens the conservative Pooh-Bahs. Their nationalism, such as it is, is less a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their nation and their fellow citizens and more a desire for their country to lead the “free” world, maintain some abstract world order and smite the intransigent holdouts.
The problem for modern conservatism is that this is not conservatism in any meaningful philosophical sense. It’s closer to Jacobinism. What exactly is modern conservatism attempting to conserve or has it conserved? Certainly not the Republic established by the Framers or even the Republic of 1950s America or Reagan’s 1980’s America for that matter. Conservatism is not an ideological attachment to abstractions. It is a desire to conserve something, like a particular place and its people. There are potential excesses of nationalism, but at this moment a renewed and rightly understood nationalism is the necessary corrective to the reigning globalist paradigm that threatens to turn the U.S. into just another third world administrative unit in the grand global economy.