It doesn't have to be our nation or our world. We can have both.
The conflict between globalism and nationalism is often cast as a one-or-the-other dilemma. This is particularly true in Republican politics today.
Much to the horror of mainstream conservatives, the so-called "alt-right" is on an unprecedented upswing. It used to be that the nationalistic reactionaries of the alt-right weren't a particularly big political problem for the GOP establishment. They lacked the countrywide power of communication and mobilization that has afforded so much publicity and power today, not to mention the high-octane celebrity of an outsider presidential nominee to rally around. But now, established conservative Republicans — let's call them the Paul Ryan wing of the party — are groping for a way to not just understand that fiercely nationalist movement, but to push back against its framing of the choices facing America.
Consider Paul Ryan's primary race against businessman (and alt-right posterboy) Paul Nehlen in Wisconsin. (For the record, Ryan crushed Nehlen 84 percent to 16 percent.) Nehlen called the speaker of the House of Representatives a "soulless, globalist snake," a guy who "gives away U.S. sovereignty" and "brings foreign workers to our shores" instead of putting "America first." Such ferocious sloganeering underscores and amplifies the alt-right's basic anti-globalist tenets. The alt-right is convinced America faces a basic, all-or-nothing choice: nationalism or globalism. Choose globalism, they believe, and you can say goodbye to our national identity; globalism — as it has already begun to do — will erase our nation as a distinct and independent entity.
The Ryan wing of the party clearly does not get this.
"Look, I hate to even give such comments currency by even talking about them," Ryan recently told Wisconsin radio host Charlie Skyes, trying to account for where his Trump-inspired primary rival was coming from. "This is not the U.S. Constitution. This is not the U.S. Bill of Rights. Let's just be really clear about this." Ryan (correctly) avowed that Nehlen's "dark, grim, indefensible comments are going to be clearly rejected and repudiated" by a majority of voters in his district. But he also admitted he had "a hard time seeing the thinking behind" them.
Now, the alt-right hasn't quite put its finger on what Ryanites really believe, either. Because what conservative Republicans in the Buckley-Ryan tradition stand for is less like globalism only and more like nationalism and globalism. We can have both!
It was the Cold War that first made this clear. Right-wing critics of the patriotic internationalist vision of William F. Buckley and his allies saw deep and insidious costs to the U.S. defining itself as the great all-or-nothing adversary of worldwide communism. Beyond the evident risks and burdens, they saw the Cold War as one more step down the road that changed the U.S. from a national republic to a global quasi-empire, one whose unaccountable, cosmopolitan regime would inevitably infect every aspect of life here at home, not just in the far-flung imperium.
Fatally, that change wouldn't defeat the progressive left, but rather give it untrammeled power in the homeland. After all, it was Woodrow Wilson who first proposed that American nationalism demanded globalism — a doctrine designed to fundamentally transform America into an all-but-anti-nationalist country, a proving ground and laboratory for the global regime envisioned by the post-Wilsonian progressive elite.
To be sure, for Buckley and Co., there was a risk that elements of the left could push such an agenda. But there was a certainty that neither radical globalism nor reactionary nationalism were acceptable doctrines — because neither squared with the dual identity that has always been in America's cultural and political DNA. For traditional mainstream conservatives, American exceptionalism is defined as much by our nationality as by our unique and indispensable role in the world — however its contours and character may be colored over time.
The Ryan wing of the GOP has lost a lot of initiative and momentum. But its members should welcome a debate with the alt-right on whether we must choose between our nation and our world. In our practical experience, the intuitive option to prudently reconcile the two has long trumped the politics of self-enclosure. That's one reality conservatives will remain on popular ground striving to conserve.