The liberal error of conflating nationalism with racism
Liberals were quick to deride President Trump's speech in Poland last week. While many conservatives heard the president deliver a thankfully forceful defense of country, family, faith, and freedom, many on the left heard loud dog whistles to the racist alt-right.
Trump's speech "often resorted to rhetorical conceits typically used by the European and American alt-right," Sarah Wildman wrote at Vox. "For as much as parts of Trump's speech fit comfortably in a larger tradition of presidential rhetoric, these passages are clear allusions to ideas and ideologies with wide currency on the white nationalist right," argued Slate's Jamelle Bouie. "The West is a racial and religious term," wrote The Atlantic's Peter Beinart. "To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white."
It's one thing for liberals to not give Trump the benefit of the doubt on racial issues after his many years of birtherism. But it's quite another for liberals to accept the alt-right's framing of what "Western civilization" means.
In fact, it is a mistake.
The alt-right does indeed define the West more or less solely in racial terms. To much of the alt-right, "Western" might as well mean "white." But obviously, there are tens of millions of people who are indisputably Western who are also not white and/or not Christian. It is true that the West is impossible without the Judeo-Christian tradition. But it is equally true that much that is great about the West is distinct from that Judeo-Christian tradition. And Christianity itself has universalist impulses mandated by the Great Commission.
Only to the hard left and the alt-right are the racist sins of Western societies the West's defining characteristic. Plenty of far-left progressives believe America was never great because of these sins. The alt-right, meanwhile, asserts that only by returning to them — or at least losing our fear of being accused of racism — can we truly be great again.
Each group seems to reinforce the argument being made by the other. But this is a false dichotomy — and certainly not one that mainstream liberals ought to encourage.
Culturally conservative celebrants of the West do differ among ourselves about the extent of Western universalism. Some say it is a civilization based solely on ideas and universally attainable values, with the United States in particular a creedal nation based on certain propositions about human beings and their proper relationship with government. Others of us acknowledge that the West is indeed the product of times, places, peoples, and faiths, that the United States is a concrete country and homeland rather than just an idea (even as we believe the ideas to be of crucial importance). But this does not require ethnic and racial stasis.
What about borders and immigration? Immigrants inevitably change their new countries; those countries, through assimilation, change the immigrants too. It is legitimate to manage the pace of change by controlling immigration so that we can all live together. This is a reasonable and responsible application of nationalist ideas. There's nothing racist about it.
Many liberals believe in good faith that decreasing the appeal of even benign forms of nationalism will prevent the growth of more noxious forms. But this is manifestly not the case.
Denying Western countries civic nationalism will help rather than hinder white nationalism. The failure of responsible political actors to address widely held concerns about borders and sovereignty, as well as the non-assimilation of some immigrant communities, has demonstrably helped more extreme political actors fill the vacuum. Eradicating nationalism altogether — or conflating its every iteration with racism — is not only morally wrong, but counterproductive to boot.
In the United States, minor political parties don't have the same prospect for electoral success, but conflating Americanness with whiteness will yield similarly negative results, especially in our polarized political culture.
Too often, those who seek to shout down alt-right dog whistles sound too much like they are echoing their message: To love your flawed country, you must hate others.