Exploring the contours of nationalism

John O’Sullivan extends an ongoing National Review Online debate about the nature of nationalism in the age of Trump.

[T]hough the election of Donald Trump is one of the two main reasons why we are all debating nationalism, I don’t think we should focus excessively on what he says about it. The new president is a force of nature and not to be underestimated but not someone I would select to lead a philosophy seminar or a debating team.

Thus, when he disavows “American exceptionalism” as a phrase that makes him uncomfortable because he doesn’t want to humiliate the foreigners who will shortly be losing to America, I don’t think he is saying the same thing as Obama. Obama was telling Americans that, hey, every thinks it’s special — i.e., nobody is, we’re not. Trump was saying: When you intend to shoot a man, it costs nothing to be polite. It was an affirmation of exceptionalism rather than a denial of it.

We are debating nationalism, however, less because Trump says he’s for it than because a number of conservative writers, represented here by Jonah and Ben, responded to his support by declaring that they were against it. Nor were they saying so just because it felt good to contradict the then-candidate (though I imagine it did). Quite the contrary. Several conservatives advanced the argument “If nationalism is Trump’s defense against the accusation of not being a conservative, it’s no defense at all, since nationalism is incompatible with conservatism rather than a strand in it.” …

… Nationalism in this debate, however, is about the attitude that conservatives should take toward their nation and state and, by extension, toward the kind of policies, mainly in international relations, that its government should pursue. Jonah’s leading argument is that nationalism, except in small doses, is a bad thing, and is to be distinguished from its wiser and more principled brother, patriotism. Both are passions, but patriotism is a passion that has been refined and disciplined by liberal ideas — in the U.S., the flag, the Constitution, and the liberties for which they stand. Nationalism, however, is the raw spirit, unrefined and dangerous. Without the right ideas to restrain the passion, nationalism and nationalists will threaten others, wage wars, and produce carnage from a sort of national egoism.

Much of this I can accept. But what is the “passion” under discussion? It is the love of country. It’s a pre-rational sense of fellowship, common destiny, and loyalty that, because of the spread of communications, has expanded from the inhabitants of a village to the citizens of a nation united by, well, several things — a common language, common institutions, the mystic chords of memory, songs, poems, etc. Might this sense of common-fellowship encompass the globe and produce global citizens in time? Possibly. I can’t forecast the future, but for the moment “the largest we” is the nation.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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