Column: How conservatism is changing in the Trump era
Decades of intellectual and political activity preceded the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review in 1955. A little less than a decade later, National Review publisher William Rusher helped orchestrate Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination. The following year, 1965, Buckley ran for mayor of New York City and Irving Kristol, then still a member of the anti-Communist left, founded The Public Interest. The year after that, Reagan was elected governor of California. The 1970s saw the proliferation of single-issue interest groups that comprised the New Right. The first Conservative Political Action Conference was held in 1973. In 1977, a year after losing the Republican nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford, Reagan addressed the conference. “The new Republican Party I am speaking about,” he said, “is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat, and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before, but whose interests coincide with those represented by principled Republicanism.” When President Reagan took office in 1981, he could count on 25 years of accumulated conservative thought, argument, rhetoric, policy proposals, and political experience. The movement came first. The voters followed.
Today the situation is reversed. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency of the United States despite the resistance of the conservative intellectual movement and many party activists. While his administration leans heavily on institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, those aspects of his campaign that diverged most significantly from the conservatism of the Beltway remain undefined. Where Trump stands on trade, immigration, entitlements, America First, and the Iraq war is clear enough. Not so clear, however, is whether those stances add up to a coherent worldview, what that worldview is, and what it implies for political action. In the case of President Trump the voters came before the movement. Hence one explanation for the turbulent beginning of his administration is that Trump, unlike Reagan, is unable to draw from years of intellectual work and policy research.
That is beginning to change. The first issue of American Affairs, a quarterly journal of policy and political thought, was feted at a reception in New York City on Tuesday. I found the magazine lively and thought provoking and at times deeply insightful. In their mission statement the editors reject “a misguided and complacent consensus” that too easily dismisses widespread protest against social problems as populist exercises in nostalgia. “But our intellectuals as well as our politicians are subservient to an even more debilitating nostalgia,” the editors say, “which views the ideologies of the last few decades as the only alternatives and their policies as the only solutions. They are nostalgic for a present they think they inhabit, but which has already slipped away.” And this nostalgia led the intellectuals and politicians so far afield that they missed completely the economic crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, and the rise and victory of Donald Trump.
Trump is such a singular figure that he sometimes obscures the larger social, cultural, and political canvas in which he operates. American Affairs got its start as a blog, the Journal of American Greatness, whose objective was to provide, in the words of its most famous contributor, “a sensible, coherent Trumpism.” But one of the virtues of this first issue of American Affairs is that Trump is mentioned only rarely. He is but an epiphenomenon of a much stronger force that is shaking the foundations of the post-Cold War world. It is not Trumpism but this larger concept that needs to be made sensible and coherent. I am speaking of nationalism.
“What binds globalism and identity politics together,” says Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown, “is the judgment that national sovereignty is not the final word on how to order collective life. This judgment against national sovereignty—let us state that matter boldly—was the animating principle of the post-1989 world order, an order that is now collapsing before our eyes.” When the Cold War ended, Mitchell writes, victorious elites in Washington, London, and Brussels began constructing a world where attachments to national identity would be attenuated or even severed. One would belong to a group above the nation—be a “citizen of the world,” an employee of a multinational corporation or NGO, a partisan of Davos, a subject of the E.U.—or to a hyphenated group below it. Capital, goods, and people would flow across borders in search of the highest return. The immense power of the United States would police this new world order and enforce the responsibility of states to protect their citizens.
But there was a price. “The separation of political power from the political community,” writes editor Julius Krein, “naturally follows from this separation of ownership and control” in the global economy.
Increasingly, power is shifted away from individuals elected to represent the political community toward unelected officials qualified to hold the positions responsible for administering the government—that is, providing for consumption. Like all managers, they derive their power from the administrative expertise and credentials that qualify them for office rather than from democratic legitimacy. They are accountable, that is, not to the political community but to the other managers that define their qualifications.
This lack of accountability has been highlighted again and again over the last sixteen years. First 9/11 happened and no one was fired. Then Saddam turned out not to have had WMD and no one was fired. The economy came close to collapse—and the banks were bailed out. Government reform of health care only made the individual market worse. The depression of rural and working-class America was exacerbated by imperialistic environmental and financial regulations, liberal welfare and minimum wage policies, and further global economic integration. “The economic, foreign policy, and technological optimism of previous decades is gone,” writes Krein. “Preserving the status quo has become the sole aspiration—and primarily for the purpose of preserving the class privilege of the current elite, which, even if not admitted, is becoming obvious to voters.”
Only in the last few years have voters around the world rediscovered the nation as a means to combat this affluent, detached, aloof, self-serving global caste. London, Washington, and Paris have been shocked by displays of unanticipated and sometimes crude patriotism, by voters registering their membership in a singular political community sharing a common language, history, and culture. Once thought to be an anachronism or an atavism, nationalism has revealed itself as the avant-garde of international politics in the early twenty-first century. This is the movement that propelled Trump to the White House. This is the movement that the editors and contributors to American Affairs must articulate, refine, and translate into social, cultural, economic, and foreign policies.
What does that look like in practice? Hard to say: This first issue leans more heavily toward the abstract than the concrete. Clyde Prestowitz suggests ways to narrow the trade deficit with China. David P. Goldman calls for a major increase in spending on defense research and development. Adam Adatto Sandel proposes that “workers from a range of industries” be “represented in trade negotiations” and, “if only as a thought experiment,” that representation be reorganized “around profession rather than state or district.” Count me in—so long as we keep the results of that thought experiment to ourselves.
Above all, nationalism means distinguishing between members of a political community and outsiders, and privileging the former over the latter. Such distinctions make many people profoundly uncomfortable. Look at the headlines surrounding the Trump administration’s policies on refugees, travel from failed or terrorist-sponsoring states, and illegal immigration. Witness the recent debate in the pages of National Review over Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry’s qualified defense of nationalism. There are some conservatives who seem to believe that there is no such thing as the American people, only an American idea. But this gets it backward. Without the people, there would be no idea. Americans may come from all over the world, we may profess every religion, but we are bound together not just by our founding documents but by those mystic chords of memory of which Lincoln spoke, by our love of the land, its natural beauty, its inhabitants, its history, by what our people have achieved, what they have lost, what they have endured.
What’s uncomfortable is often necessary. That is the case today. Reducing illegal immigration, reforming legal immigration to prioritize skilled workers and would-be citizens, asserting national prerogatives in trade negotiations, spending on the military and defense research, “betting on ideas” rather than on social insurance, bureaucracy, and rent-seeking, saving the idea of national community through the promulgation of our shared language, literature, art, film, television, music—this is the beginning of a nationalist agenda. But only the beginning.