Is nationalism really the future of conservatism?

Conservatives once honored those who vanquished genocidal tyrants. Our children won't revere us in that same way for raging against unarmed migrants.

Nationalism is a hot topic right now on the American right. All of the pointy-headed conservatives are penning thoughtful essays on the subject, reflecting on why and how we should love our country. At first glance, this might seem like a strange controversy, since patriotic fervor has always been fairly fashionable among conservatives. It's a burning issue now, though, because some hope to replace the semi-defunct body of thought that we used to call "conservatism" with an energetic and robust nationalism.

Is that realistic or desirable? Many classic conservatives are suspicious, seeing nationalism as a volatile and emotional force, saturated in embittered revanchism. Populists, by contrast, are enthusiastic, viewing nationalism as a powerful elixir that can energize the Republican base for political struggle. Both are probably right to an extent. What will make the difference, it seems, is the content and purpose of this particular strain of nationalism. In what, exactly, does today's political right take pride? For what is it striving? Are there noble goals underlying the struggle and are its means for achieving them prudent and honorable?

The conservatism of my youth certainly had a very different feel from the conversations that dominate political conservatism today. Conservatives made much of self-sacrifice in those days, stressing that freedom isn’t free and honoring the soldiers and USO workers and countless supporters who enabled America and her allies to beat back totalitarian tyrants more than once in the last century. And we took pride in America's dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit, as embodied in the pioneers, railway workers, intrepid lawmen, fearless social reformers, up-from-bootstraps titans of industry, and other less-sung heroes who helped build a great nation.

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The conservatives of that era tended to think of American history as a legacy that had been entrusted to us. Progressives might complain that our accounts were too male-centric, Western-centric, triumphalist, or heteronormative; sometimes they made reasonable points. If we tended to be a bit dismissive of their concerns, though, it was partly because we felt that being American was the true privilege, far more significant than whiteness or maleness or material wealth. Our nation had been richly blessed and had responded by allowing that bounty to flow over onto many of the world's less fortunate people. We believed we could relish our own prosperity and also share it with others.

Times change. No doubt some of the pieties of late-20th-century conservatism seem naïve in retrospect and not all of its fruits were good. Even so, there was a constructive energy, and a measure of nobility, to the conservatism of the day. It's hard to discern similar signs of life in today's right-leaning intellectuals.

We have legions of declinists. Some sigh, with a wistful self-righteousness, that the damage progressives have done to our once-great nation is irreversible. Others will willingly explain how the American experiment was doomed from the beginning or even a few centuries before its founding. Some of these theories are interesting enough if the goal is scholarly discourse. They are continuing a centuries-old intellectual tradition of critiquing modernity itself and interpreting contemporary social ills through that philosophical lens. On the level of political strategy though, this kind of theorizing quickly turns into pie-in-the-sky utopianism, followed closely by stinging despair. America obviously isn't going to become a confessional state in the foreseeable future, nor are we poised to re-embrace the agrarian ideals of Jeffersonians or Catholic distributists. Does it follow that all is lost? Growing numbers of right-wing intellectuals seem prepared to say yes.

On the other side of the field, we find another camp that is brimming with eagerness to continue the fight. These are the "Greatness" conservatives, Donald Trump's self-appointed think tank, which revels in American exceptionalism and Trumpian nationalism. If I say that this group has a vaguely fascist character, I should offer qualifications. They aren't, like the Nazis, wrapped up in racialist ideologies. They don't share Benito Mussolini's obsession with political violence. But they do seem eager to take refuge in an idealized vision of a more authentic America, which nefarious globalists have allegedly stolen from us, and which Trump and his populists are supposedly attempting to restore. That crusading nostalgia, combined with the yearning for a truer and purer America, is what makes us muse briefly on Mussolini's Roman architecture or the backwards-looking triumphalism of Volkisch German thinkers. Even without the bloodthirsty impulses of the 20th century fascists, the Greatness thinkers do seem to share their attraction to myth and fantasy. Who could actually listen to Trump's discourse, and still identify him with the epic hero of the Greatness narrative? Clearly, there is a serious disconnect here with observable reality.

Not all conservatives fit into these two groups. We also have a more genteel brand of populists, with a serious interest in generating policy ideas that are pro-family, pro-worker, and generally geared to help the American middle class. Unlike the Greatness crowd, this group took a fairly realistic view of Trump and his cronies. They also have the constructive energy that the declinists so notably lack. So there's promise here, but even this group raises certain concerns. Is the project of saving the American middle class really sufficient to anchor a full political platform and agenda? With such a relentless focus on a particular group of people, there's a danger of navel-gazing, allowing other important projects and obligations to be sidelined. Even more worrisome, it's just not clear that genteel populism can ever vanquish the cruder and angrier variety in the arm-wrestling match of electoral politics. If the white working class is the core of the Republican base now, doesn't it seem likely that Trumpian figures will continue to dominate the party?

Conservatives haven't entirely run out of ideas. Looking at the bigger picture, though, they do seem demoralized and fragmented. As a group, they no longer stand for much of anything, and individually they seem less inspired, and far more embittered, than the conservatives of the previous generation.

The time has come for some soul-searching. We honored our grandparents for vanquishing genocidal tyrants and settling untrammeled wilderness. Our children won't revere us in that same way for raging against unarmed migrants or going to war with political correctness.

What's really worth living and dying for in today's world? It's something to think about as we turn the page on another year.

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