Conservative reformers redefining American nationalism in the age of Trump

Donald Trump and Yuval Levin.
Donald Trump and conservative intellectual Yuval Levin. (Getty Images/Wikipedia)

I was one of the many journalists working — in the days before the Nov. 8 election — on a piece about what would happen to the Republican Party after Donald Trump lost.

During a conversation with one leading conservative intellectual, Yuval Levin, I was taken aback when he used the term “nationalism” in a positive way.

“The challenge of articulating a constructive nationalism is absolutely essential now to how the right comes back,” Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, told me in late October.

I recoiled. The word’s negative connotations are obvious. But my surprise that Levin would endorse any form of nationalism was the result of my not paying attention.

Levin had written over the summer that the Brexit vote in the U.K. suggested “that globalism is not the future and nationalism is not the past.” Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review, who also writes for Slate, and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat called over the summer for the right to move toward a “pan-ethnic nationalism.” And Salam has been writing about a need to revive a form of American nationalism for the last few years.

Yet still, I remarked to Levin, why use a term weighed down by an association with nativism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism? Especially since Trump’s candidacy attracted support from explicitly racist figures such as David Duke, as well as the slightly more nebulous but still menacing alt-right movement, nationalism seemed like a highly problematic label. In the current moment, many people hear the term and automatically think “white nationalism.”

In addition, nationalism is generally a reaction against globalism, a word often used by radical fringe figures and groups who traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracies. Trump himself in mid-October was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League when he said his campaign was a threat to the “global power structure” and that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”

When I asked Salam about these concerns, he replied in his unflappable style: “The idea that [nationalism] should be a dirty word is just a little strange.”

After the election, I checked back with Salam and Levin to see if Trump’s win — and the rally of a small group of neo-Nazis, in downtown D.C. during which they cheered the new president-elect — had changed their view. It hadn’t.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of nationalism,” Salam said. “It’s more, ‘What form does it take?’”

Levin acknowledged that after the Republican victory, the issue for the right now isn’t how to “come back,” but how it “understands and defines itself.” “Constructive nationalism,” he says, will be the key.

Levin, in his column on the Brexit vote this past summer, wrote that, “Dismissing the growing desire for and force of nationalism as pure bigotry or revanchism or xenophobia is neither rational nor fair — indeed, such careless dismissal often itself sounds little different from blind bigotry.”

“That a fervent national spirit can (like other fervent political passions) invite and incite resentment, exclusion, and hate is beyond question. But it need not be the equivalent of any of these, and it is up to political leaders and political cultures to draw crucial distinctions,” he said.

Levin and Salam want to move the Republican Party and the conservative movement in a direction that appeals to working-class people of all races, ethnicities and religions. They agree that Trump’s election has greatly complicated that project, but they believe the word “nationalism” is an unavoidable and important term that captures the direction in which they want to go.


So what do these and other figures on the right mean when they say “nationalism”?

Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said the campaign defined the term “globalist” negatively as “an economic and political ideology which puts allegiance to international institutions ahead of the nation-state; seeks the unrestricted movement of goods, labor and people across borders; and rejects the principle that the citizens of a country are entitled to preference for jobs and other economic considerations as a virtue of their citizenship.”

Levin’s description of nationalism in his Brexit column was the mirror image of that definition. He defined it as “a distinctly American rejection of political cosmopolitanism — one that would take seriously the notion of ‘the American idea,’ but would also take seriously the reality of the American nation, which is not an idea but an actual living society full of actual human beings who deserve to have leaders who put their needs, interests, and preferences first.”

The key phrase is that Levin believes Americans “deserve to have leaders who put their needs, interests, and preferences first.”

I’d seen this sort of language used at Breitbart News, the right-wing site that Trump senior adviser Stephen Bannon used to run. In late October, the site published a piece criticizing House Speaker Paul Ryan, saying that both he and Hillary Clinton “view being American as an intellectual ‘idea’ rather than a national identity.”

This sounded a lot like the kind of language used by white nationalists, who talk of a national identity that belongs to whites of European descent.

But unlike Breitbart, which served as a media arm of Trump’s campaign, Levin was a consistent critic and opponent of Trump’s. And he is an ally, friend and adviser to Ryan.

Levin acknowledged that “it is not some unfortunate coincidence that the human face of nationalism in politics tends to be obnoxious — it is a warning we should take seriously.”

“What all this argues for, then, is a class of leaders who give the national impulse its due but also see its limits and its dark edges and can distinguish and curtail them,” Levin wrote.

And Salam, himself the 36-year-old son of Bangladeshi immigrants, said that his vision of nationalism “is the opposite of racial nationalism. It’s, ‘Let’s forge a common culture and create a sense of solidarity across these groups.’”

“It’s basically a language for solidarity,” he said. “What is it that binds people together?”

Salam told me before the election that while he’d like to see a “somewhat more populist party” that still attracts people with “conventional values,” he also thinks Republicans have to put a lot of energy into winning over racial minorities.

Republicans must “make it clear that a vote for the GOP is not an anti-black vote. That is something people really struggle with,” he said.

“You might believe voter ID is a legitimate issue,” he said. “I don’t think that’s crazy, but this is an issue that’s been weaponized against Republicans,” he said. And some efforts to implement voter ID laws, Salam added — such as in Pennsylvania and Texas — “did not look like people were making an honest and sincere attempt to address the integrity issue.”

Here are some of the policies these pundits back: prioritize high-skilled immigration and slow overall rates of legal immigration; increase take-home pay for the working class and lower-income households through payroll tax cuts, tax reform or a larger earned income tax credit.

Salam and Douthat even argued this past summer that the GOP should abandon its long-standing policy of seeking tax cuts for taxpayers making more than $250,000. Levin would go along with that deviation from Republican orthodoxy, provided the party frames its positions as putting American interests first — on issues such as trade and foreign policy — and makes certain that voters understand it that way.

“Rhetoric matters a lot. It’s how we understand ourselves, and it sets a frame for policy,” said Levin. He wants the GOP to be “a party much more attuned to the challenges people face.”

Salam believes immigration is the most important issue on which conservatives can show working-class people of all races and backgrounds that they’re fighting for them.

Salam would like to see immigration policy changed to prioritize the recruitment of higher-skilled, higher-wage earning immigrants. He rejects the charge that such a view is driven by racism.

One little-recognized problem with mass immigration, Salam believes, is that it makes earlier immigrants less likely to join the broader national culture, because their communities are continually replenished by newcomers from the home country.

And he argues that the labor environment is far less welcoming now to low-skilled workers than it was in prior waves of immigration. This results in the importing of individuals and families that out of necessity will rely on public assistance and public resources, from food stamps to hospital emergency rooms to public schools.

“If we accept that we have a collective responsibility for the well-being of every member of our society, as I think we should, it makes sense to select immigrants who have at least a fighting chance of making it,” Salam wrote in 2014.

“The biggest challenge we face in the United States, in my view, is a lack of togetherness,” he wrote. And slowing immigration is one way to help re-create what he calls “melting-pot nationalism.”

Even before the election, Salam proposed that a Republican case for restricting immigration based on protecting immigrants already here, and attacking employers exploiting illegal labor, might appeal to more-assimilated immigrants. He cited polling showing Clinton’s lead over Trump among U.S.-born Hispanics was far smaller than among those who were foreign-born. The same difference existed between Hispanics who primarily spoke English as opposed to those who were bilingual or who primarily spoke Spanish.

And while Trump did lose Hispanic voters by a wide margin, exit polls indicate he was supported by 29 percent of those voters, slightly better than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. That came as a shock to those who thought Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric would result in a big win for Democrats in that growing demographic.


Trump’s election, obviously, has thrown a curveball at conservative reformists, who are still grappling with how they should adapt and respond.

Levin wrote, a week after the election, that the conservative movement will undoubtedly be “heavily influenced” by the anti-establishment sentiment animating the GOP electorate, but he cautioned that conservatism “needs to act as a check on the party’s populism.”

But in his Brexit column over the summer, Levin best expressed the concern about what Trump might do to the conservative-reform movement.

“Trump thus stands to do irreparable harm to the cause that some of his most serious and well-meaning supporters want to champion and to the party that is the only plausible political vehicle for a constructive counter-cosmopolitanism in American politics,” Levin wrote. “He threatens to render them all, like him, ridiculous.”

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