THE CASE FOR NATIONALISM: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free

By Rich Lowry. Broadside Books. 280 pp. $26.99

“You know, they have a word,” President Trump explained at an October 2018 rally in Houston. “It sort of became old-fashioned — it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Use that word! Use that word!”

Rich Lowry is using that word.

Early in 2016, Lowry, the editor of National Review, published an “Against Trump” collection in the conservative magazine, with more than 20 contributors lamenting Trump’s egotism, racial scapegoating, constitutional ignorance and insufficient devotion to conservative values, and with Lowry himself deeming Trump a “poor fit” for the Oval Office. But winning has a way of tempering such concerns, and now Lowry has written a book not only surveying the nationalist impulses in American history, but also urging Republicans to embrace Trump’s worldview and “thoughtfully integrate his nationalism into the party’s orthodoxy.”

“The Case for Nationalism” is not really a Trump book, Lowry writes, though it was, he admits, “occasioned by him.” Lowry says he became interested in the subject after the president’s inaugural address and now wishes to acknowledge the “power and legitimacy” of Trumpian nationalism. And while he makes a worthwhile plea to “recover the sense of America as a nation,” to reach for more unum amid all our pluribus, his brief for nationalism can be vague, facile and inconsistent, built on a selective reading of argument and history. Nowhere are those shortcomings more evident than in his sanitized interpretation of the nationalism emanating from the White House.

It’s not always easy to divine what Trump means by nationalism. “I’m proud of this country, and I call that ‘nationalism,’ ” the president told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Lowry adds some specificity. Trump’s nationalism involves the adoption of immigration and trade policies “with our own interests foremost in mind,” he writes. America should protect itself “with the utmost vigilance” from external threats. And finally, Lowry asserts, “our country, not any other nation or international body or alliance, should always come first.”

Self-interest. Vigilance. Looking out for No. 1. You could almost call it, oh, I don’t know, America First.

More broadly, Lowry defines nationalism as flowing from a people’s “natural devotion to their home and country.” He cites John Stuart Mill’s concept of nationality as a people “united amongst themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others — which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves.” Lowry is disdainful of the notion that America is an idea, one based on those self-evident truths of the Declaration. No, he counters: “America is a nation, whose sovereignty and borders are dear to it, whose history and culture are an indispensable glue, whose interests guide her actions (or should).”

Lowry distances himself from the unsavory aspects of nationalism by defining them away. The role of nationalism in bloody European conflicts? No big deal. “When Europe went off the rails in the early twentieth century, nationalism as such didn’t cause its crash so much as social Darwinism, militarism, and the cult of charismatic leadership,” Lowry writes. Fascism may “appeal to nationalistic sentiment,” he admits, but it is a “distinct phenomenon.” Racism can “infect” nationalism, he acknowledges, but they are not the same thing. He frequently resorts to this slippery formulation, suggesting that because two things are not synonymous, none should dare point out their links. For instance, he writes that nationalism is “not inherently militaristic, undemocratic or racist.” Later he adds that “nationalism, like anything else in this fallen world, is susceptible to corruption and abuse, but it is not intrinsically destructive or hateful.” And Lowry decries as a “smear” the notion that “nationalism inevitably leads to fascism or other forms of authoritarianism.”

Inherently. Intrinsically. Inevitably. Those words seem to add authority to Lowry’s statements but actually leave them hollow. Just because nationalism isn’t always racist or violent or militaristic, that hardly offers license to disregard how it often stokes those sentiments. Lowry prefers his nationalism “healthy,” “well considered,” “legitimate” and “true,” while any other kind is “tainted with malign influences” and therefore not the real thing. He quickly dismisses dissenting views as “nonsense” or “foolish” or “frankly absurd.” Nationalism cannot be bad because Lowry has defined it as good, rendering “The Case for Nationalism” a book-length study in begging the question.

In Lowry’s survey of American nationalism, any notable historical figure who speaks or writes about the American “nation” is immediately deemed a nationalist, and the founding is reinterpreted as a nationalist project in which ideas and ideals mattered far less than the specific “religio-cultural attributes” of those who came here. “Nations aren’t mere intellectual constructs but accretions of history and culture,” he writes, again creating a distinction where none is required. He concludes that the civil-rights movement succeeded because it had “such ready access to our national identity and made such a compelling appeal to it,” sidestepping how the movement had to appeal precisely to the nation’s professed ideals to show the hypocrisy of its practices. And while Lowry defends nationalism as the “opposite” of the quest for dominion over people and territories, he looks back approvingly on America’s westward expansion. “It was a stupendous boon to our nation, to our people, to our interests, to our wealth, and to our power,” he writes, despite some “regrettable” treatment of Native Americans. Lowry stresses that American Indians weren’t “the peace-loving innocents of contemporary popular imagination.”

Besides, if America hadn’t conquered the continent, “we would have been a significant, but not a world-historical, nation. Size matters. The Swiss have ideals. Does anyone give a damn?”

When invoking other intellectuals, Lowry sifts through their work, citing whatever suits his larger point. For example, he notes approvingly that Jill Lepore laments how in recent decades historians’ hatred for nationalism has made them reluctant to write about America as a nation, an argument she makes in her 2019 book, “This America: The Case for the Nation.” But Lowry, who says he finds little “practical distinction” between patriotism and nationalism, does not leave space to quote the distinction Lepore makes in her book. “Nationalists pretend their aims are instead protection and unity and that their motivation is patriotism,” she writes. “This is a lie. Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred.”

Lowry sanitizes Trump’s variant of nationalism by deciding that the bad stuff doesn’t count. “There isn’t anything inherently nationalistic about wild presidential tweets, extreme boastfulness, excoriating attacks on the media, the browbeating of allies or even protectionism or populism,” he writes, adding, “Nor was there anything nationalistic about his initial reluctance to unambiguously denounce the far-right protests in Charlottesville, one of the low points of his presidency.”

Except that those excoriating attacks on the news media as the enemy of the people and on political opponents as traitors are inseparable from Trump’s interpretation of who belongs in the American nation — a message amplified on that wild Twitter feed. Except that when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, he described the move to take down Confederate statues with precisely the sort of nationalist terminology that Lowry employs. “You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” the president complained. If this was a low point of Trump’s presidency, it was one suffused with Trump’s vision of nationalism. Sure, Lowry prefers to cite Trump’s more considered speeches at the United Nations or on foreign trips — but which Trump is truly governing?

Lowry pines for a united and patriotic America, and it’s hard to disagree with that end. He worries that the country is too divided over individual and group recognition to embrace a truly national identity. But if unity is your overriding concern, why promote a vision of the nation so heavy on exclusion?

Lowry trashes intellectuals on the left and corporate and political leaders holding anti-nationalist views as not just misguided or wrong, but as treasonous. On substantive matters of policy, he appears most animated by the cause of restricting immigration to America. “Few topics in our public life are so heavily encrusted with clichés and saccharine myth,” he scoffs, minimizing the popular association of the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” with openness to migrants. (Lowry, who lovingly recounts national lore surrounding, say, Old Glory, seems rather selective on the mythologizing he finds appropriate.) Even though he acknowledges that by the third generation, immigrants have largely shed their ancestral language, Lowry is terrified that some Latin American immigrants might remain skilled in two languages. (¡Dios mío!) He looks back with nostalgia to the days when immigrants were overwhelmingly European, and regards with suspicion an “imbalanced” time when more hail from Latin America, on the grounds that the former assimilated more easily.

Yet, it is possible to speak both English and Spanish and still embrace American values, and if Lowry wants to find Americans who understand U.S. history and institutions, he should talk to any immigrant who has recently passed the U.S. citizenship exam. The accretion of history and culture that Lowry so praises doesn’t need to stop; indeed, the whole point of America is that it is ongoing.

The irony of defending and intellectualizing Trump’s nationalism is that, despite what the president may say about nationalism in rallies and interviews, he appears to care little for the American nation as a whole, governing with his base in mind. Trump is more of a self-serving populist, preaching anti-elitism, anti-pluralism and exclusion. If he is a nationalist, then he is one who conflates himself with the nation, and his supporters — and only his supporters — with “the people.” In this environment, equating nationalism with patriotism does not ease the mind but troubles it.

“The Case for Nationalism” seems part of a larger effort on the right to create an after-the-fact framework for Trumpism, to contort the president’s utterances and impulses into a coherent worldview that can outlast him — a sort of rescue mission for the conservative movement. It is a dicey endeavor, both politically and intellectually. It risks turning conservatism into an ever more exclusionary and yet malleable concept, with limited appeal and even more limited principles. And it puts a movement in service of a man, one whose particular vision of the nation may have little use for the niceties and distinctions raised in this book.

Sure, Rich Lowry has ideals. Does President Trump give a damn?

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