There is such a thing as a benign—even a salutary—nationalism. Within the framework of a liberal democracy, cultivation and celebration of a common history, traditions, folkways, language, and religion can foster ties of pride and patriotism and bind a people together for common purposes.
But there is also such a thing as malignant nationalism, which easily metastasizes into fascism. Its hallmarks are the celebration of racial unity, the glorification of authoritarianism, and the institutionalization of bigotry. In the 1930s, it took root in two world powers, Germany and Japan. A decade into their nationalist fever, the two nations attacked the liberal democracies of the West, igniting a global conflagration. By the end of the war, some 60 million people were dead and much of civilization lay in ruins. The concept of nationalism, inextricably tied to the most terrible war in human history, elicited revulsion among thinking people around the world. Nationalism, wrote George Orwell in May 1945 just as Germany surrendered, was the “habit of identifying oneself with a single nation, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
Today, three quarters of a century later, the great tide of democracy that was swept in by the Allied victory in World War II has begun to recede from its high-water mark in the first decade of this century. Nationalist and populist movements are renascent in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Major powers like Russia and China are fanning nationalist sentiment and harnessing it for their own ends. Is the resurgence we are witnessing of the benign or the malignant sort? The question arises here in the United States for an obvious reason: the ascent of Donald Trump.
In the White House, one finds a revolving door full of self-proclaimed nationalists who have been advising the President, which includes the now departed Michael Flynn, Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Michael Anton, along with the still-serving and highly influential Stephen Miller and John Bolton. At the grassroots, a bloc of MAGA voters—approximately 35 percent of the American electorate—follows their leader unwaveringly. For his part, Trump’s slogan of “America First,” and his pledge that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” are both perfectly congruent with Orwell’s definition.
Donald Trump has proved amply capable of activating atavistic emotions among his followers, but he is not an orator of note, a war hero, or a thinker, deficiencies that put in doubt his ability to lead anything more ambitious than a cult of his own personality. When expounding a doctrine that has always been inchoate, we have already seen the best he can do, that is, the best he can do when he is not reading fine words written by others for his teleprompter:
You know, they have a word—it’s 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. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.
Into the breach have stepped the intellectuals. If Trump lacks a framework for his policies, they are happy to supply one. One group, comprised largely of conservative Catholics associated with the journal First Things, has produced a manifesto titled “Against the Dead Consensus” that blasts a conservatism that has only “paid lip service to traditional values,” decries “tyrannical liberalism” and its globalist agents, and welcomes the nationalist resurgence:
For those who enjoy the upsides, a borderless world brings intoxicating new liberties. They can go anywhere, work anywhere. They can call themselves “citizens” of the world. But the jet-setters’ vision clashes with the human need for a common life. And it has bred resentments that are only beginning to surface. We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny.
This is puerile. A number of signers of the declaration recently exercised their “intoxicating new liberties” to travel by jet on well-publicized book tours to distant points, including Australia and Chile. “Sail with us on a remarkable journey to the cosmopolitan elegance of Monte Carlo,” is how one conservative-nationalist publication is advertising its fundraising cruise. Apparently, globalism is so insidious that even conservative nationalists “go anywhere” and “work anywhere” these days.
Other more serious efforts are gathering steam. Under the auspices of a new organization called the Edmund Burke Foundation, a group of “nationalist conservative” thinkers is scheduled to assemble in Washington in mid-July with the purpose of bringing together those who grasp that “the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation.” The conference features such speakers as the aforementioned Bolton and Anton, as well as Fox’s Tucker Carlson. It is to be the “kick off for a protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”
Is this the stirring of a malign nationalism or something else? The chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli student of political philosophy, who is the neo-nationalist movement’s leading theoretician. To obtain a glimpse into what nationalist thought consists of today, Hazony’s influential 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is worth an extended look.
Given the horrors of 20th-century history, the case for nationalism carries some heavy burdens. Hazony begins his effort by attempting to lift them away. The idea that nationalism provoked two world wars and the Holocaust, he writes, is a “simplistic narrative, ceaselessly repeated,” with the repetition only serving to highlight the fact that nationalism has been badly mischaracterized and misunderstood. Nationalism, to Hazony, is the “best political order,” a “principled standpoint” rooted in the experience of the ancient Israelites of escaping from Egypt and building a homeland of their own. It regards the world as governed best “when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” It stands in contradistinction to “imperialism,” a political order or system that seeks to unite mankind, “as much as possible, under a single political regime.”
Imperialist movements, in Hazony’s idiosyncratic use of the term, tend to travel under the banner of a universal creed. He cites Christian anti-Semitism as the most famous example of the “hatred generated by imperialist or universalist ideologies,” but others have been little better: Islam, Marxism, globalism and liberalism “have proved themselves quite capable of inflaming similarly vicious hatreds against groups that are determined to resist the universal doctrines they propose.”
The dichotomy between imperialism and nationalism is the major theme of Hazony’s book. It is, he writes, “the fault line that has been uncovered at the heart of Western public life.” One stands on one or the other side of it; there is no middle ground: “Either you support, in principle, the ideal of an international government or a regime that imposes its will on subject nations when its officials regard this as necessary; or you believe that nations should be free to set their own course in the absence of such an international government or regime.”
Attempting to make good on the promise of his book’s title, Hazony identifies a number of “virtues of nationalism” that make it superior to “imperialist” political orders. Of these we shall consider the two most important.
“Individual liberties” is the first of these. Independent national states are the locus, according to Hazony, of the tradition of individual rights and freedom. The bonds of mutual loyalty that one finds in independent nation states permit the ruler and the strongest factions to limit their own powers, thereby enabling individual freedom. Only where such mutual loyalty is found can toleration take root. Dissenting voices can be experienced not only as a challenge, but also as “advancing the cause of the nation because they are expressions of free institutions that are the strength and glory of their nation.”
“Disdain for imperial conquest” is the second. Because nation-states exist on a limited scale, Hazony reasons, their rulers “inherit a political tradition that recognizes the boundaries of the nation and its defensive needs as placing natural limits upon its extension, and so tend to disdain the idea of conquering foreign nations.”
Although Nazi Germany is ritually held up as a counter case with respect to both individual freedom and disdain for imperial conquest, this, Hazony argues, is a misreading of the past. Despite the word “national” in the name of the Nazi Party, “Hitler was no advocate of nationalism,” states Hazony bluntly. Hitler’s model for the Third Reich, he maintains, was not the nation-state, “which he saw as an effete contrivance of the English and French,” but rather the First Reich, the Holy Roman Empire. In effect, Hitler was anti-nationalist and pro-empire and Nazi Germany was “an imperial state in every sense.” Germany went to war not for, but against, nationalism, to put an end to “the principle of the national independence and the self-determination of peoples once and for all.” By the same token, the Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of the Jews, was not part of a nationalist project, but something that “could not have been conceived or attempted outside the context of Hitler’s effort to revive and perfect long-standing German aspirations to universal empire.”
In imperial orders as they have appeared across history, one power typically dominates all the others. The ruling class and the armed forces are loyal not to the entire constellation of nations under their dominion but only to “the ruling nation around which the imperial state is constructed.” For this reason, “[a]n imperial state cannot be a free state. It is always a despotic state.” Failing to grasp that imperialism inevitably leads to despotism was a cardinal sin of those “Western liberals” who, in the aftermath of World War II, mistakenly pointed to German nationalism as the fuel that had ignited the global conflagration.
To prevent Germany from rising again and precipitating yet another world war after having already precipitated two, these liberals took the profoundly mistaken step of “dismantl[ing] the system of independent nations that had given Germany the right to make decisions for itself.” In its place, they erected a super-state, the European Union, with the objective of chaining Germany down. This, to Hazony, was a historic blunder, replacing one despotism with another in the heart of Europe. The West European nations, writes Hazony, “had not feared the Germans because of their nationalism, but because of their universalism and imperialism.” Unwittingly, the proponents of European unity were actually doing Germany’s bidding: fulfilling a longstanding aspiration by creating a “renewed ‘German empire.’”
The European Union is one of “two great imperialist projects” on which Hazony trains his fire. The second is the “American empire,” in which nations that do not abide by American interpretations of international law are “coerced into doing so, principally by means of American military might.” The EU in Hazony’s schema is a kind of sub-empire, a “protectorate” of the American empire with the American President playing “the role of the emperor in today’s Europe.” The true nature of these imperial arrangements has been effectively hidden from the public. Europeans, for their part, avert their gaze because they “might not relish the prospect of a renewed German empire,” while Americans look away because they have often “balked at the idea of an ‘American empire.’”
But Hazony locates a deeper cause for the “blindness” about the liberal empires, which can be found in the very nature of liberalism itself. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government—“modernity’s most famous liberal manifesto”—he argues, is fundamentally flawed, elevating a false individualism, and a fictitious act of consent to an imaginary social contract, above the tangible attachments that “bind human beings into families, tribes, and nations.” With borderlessness exalted by Locke’s liberalism, transnational empires have become so widely accepted as to become invisible, the background to ordinary life. Locke’s “dream world” and “utopian vision” have become “the virtually unquestioned framework for what an educated person needs to know about the political world.”
So thoroughly has the doctrine been inculcated into elites that a veritable army of Lockean liberals has been engaged in a war against dissenters, with the opponents of liberalism, according to Hazony, “vanquished one by one.” Their victories have left a “dogmatic imperialism as the dominant voice within the liberal camp.” Increasingly, the self-proclaimed partisans of liberty have been transformed into their antithesis, becoming “among the most powerful agents fomenting intolerance and hate in the Western world today.”
What are we to make of all this?
Hazony is obviously correct that some measure of national unity is essential if individual freedom is to thrive. A country riven by tribal warfare or factionalism and hatred is not fertile soil for liberty. And Hazony is also correct that, historically, the growth of individual freedom has developed within the protective confines of the nation-state. But if national unity is necessary for liberty, it is hardly sufficient.
To illustrate this, one need neither theorize nor delve into the past; empirical observation of the contemporary record alone tells a convincing story. According to Freedom House’s 2018 global survey, among the 195 independent nation-states of the world, only 45 percent are free. Fifty-five percent are either “not free” or only “partly free.” To be sure, some of the not-free countries are in the grip of what Hazony would call imperialist domination, like the various Communist and Islamic countries on the Freedom House list. But for every truly independent nation-state in which individual freedom thrives, there are three times as many independent nation-states where strongmen rule, democratic institutions are weak or absent, the rule of law is shaky or worse, and civil rights are denied. Interestingly, among the 28 countries that are living under what Hazony calls the “despotism” of the European Union, Freedom House rates every one of them as free. Overall, however, the data considerably darken Hazony’s rose-tinted picture of nation-states as incubators of individual freedom. It is not the nation-state per se that nurtures individual freedom, as Hazony would have it, but only a particular type of nation-state: namely, liberal democracy.
How about “disdain for imperial conquest”? Is that the disposition of the average nation-state, today or in the past?
Hazony devotes an extended segment of his book to the Westphalian treaties of the 17th century that, among other things, established a general recognition of exclusive sovereignty among their signatories, ushering in the modern international system. Hazony traces this order to biblical precepts and calls it “the Protestant Construction of the West,” a collection of independent nation-states all pursuing their own interests, which is his ideal ordering of the world. Indeed, Hazony waxes rhapsodic about its character: the “diverse forms of self-government, religion and culture” it allowed to thrive, the “storm of dormant energies” it unleashed, the “unique dynamism” it brought to the nations of Europe, the “stunning degree” of experimentation in government, economics, theology, and science, and the “significant advances” it produced “in finance, industry, medicine, philosophy, music and art.”
It sounds like an idyll. But did this order of independent national states promote individual liberty and did it disdain conquest? In other words, were Hazony’s supposed virtues of nationalism in evidence? On the evidence offered in his own book, the free and independent nation-states of the era “were constantly resorting to war over territories and trade.” And despite the Westphalian belief in inviolate sovereignty, and the supposed “disdain for imperial conquest,” even as they warred with each other they also avidly engaged in the colonial project of “conquest and subjugation of foreign peoples” across the globe, all the while maintaining “unconscionable racialist arrangements and institutions” on their home territories.
One senses not a minor contradiction in Hazony’s argument: In the “order of independent states” that he calls the best regime, the supposed virtues of his preferred nationalist order are absent, and all the vices of evil imperialism are present. Struggling to stuff his theoretical propositions into a historical box in which they do not fit, the only exit from the contradiction Hazony can find is that the Protestant Construction imparted “a form that provided a basis for the eventual remediation of many of its deficiencies.” But of course, one must ask, was it the form of independent nation-state that provided for such “eventual remediation,” or was it the rise and growing acceptance of liberal democratic ideas and institutions? These are not questions Hazony pauses to entertain.
The Westphalian peace aside, Nazism would seem to put Hazony’s vision of a freedom-supporting and largely pacific nationalism to an even more stringent test.
Of course, it is incontrovertible that Hitler, as Hazony argues, had grand imperialist aspirations that included conquest of the world and domination and/or extermination of all non-“Aryan” races, and was therefore not “nationalist” as Hazony defines that term. But the social force that created Nazism, that propelled Hitler to the leadership of the most powerful country in Europe, and that fostered an idea of German world domination was indeed nationalism. “People of the same blood should be in the same REICH. The German people will have no right to engage in a colonial policy until they shall have brought all their children together in the one State”—those are Adolf Hitler’s own words. In denying the obvious, Hazony is proceeding precisely according to the flawed reasoning of what is known as the No True Scotsman fallacy.1 Positing nationalism as “the best political order,” Hazony removes villainous nationalists from his favored category, letting Nazi “nationalism” off the hook while the “imperialist” EU is arraigned as a criminally autocratic regime, fomenting intolerance and spewing hatred.
Today’s EU can indeed be faulted for many things. As George Weigel has summed it up in a judicious survey of democracy’s discontents in National Affairs, its “bureaucracy is often overbearing, impervious to criticism, dismissive of traditional national mores, and hostile to religious conviction in the public square.” But those serious deficiencies are by no means the entire story of European integration. Weigel reminds us that
EU funds have rebuilt much of the infrastructure of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. They have helped to recover and restore much of the cultural patrimony in architecture and art that was severely damaged by six years of war and 45 years of communist neglect and worse. Moreover, transnational institutions like NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have preserved the peace after a century in which Europe was twice on the verge of destroying itself — and taking much of the world with it, had the second round had a different outcome. So “transnational” does not always equal “bad.”
But to Hazony, transnational does always equal bad, an absolute evil that should never be accepted: “We should not let a hairbreadth of our freedom be given over to foreign bodies under any name whatsoever.” To him the EU is a despotism pure and simple and the historic accomplishments of the EU cited by Weigel do not figure into his calculations. In crude fashion, he calls the thinking behind European integration “closer to being a good joke than competent political analysis.” But it was not “Western liberals” alone who understood that Nazi Germany had been infected by the nationalist disease, and it was not those same liberals alone who were the prime movers behind European integration.
It was none other than the most preeminent conservative of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, who in Zurich in September 1946 spoke of the “frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations in their rise to power, which we have seen in this 20th century, and even in our own lifetime, wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.” And it was Churchill who saw a path forward in European integration:
There is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted by the great majority of people in many lands, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe” is how Churchill concluded. The idea that Churchill sought to establish an American or German empire on the continent is ridiculous.
We can only speculate what Europe would look like today if the West had followed Hazony’s retrospective recommendation to allow post-war Germany to have “retained the right to make decisions for itself.” Considering Germany’s habit of igniting devastating world wars, it would have been an unthinkably foolish gamble for statesmen to take in 1945. We do not need to speculate about what Europe would be like if the United States had not spilled blood and treasure to impose the “American world order” that Hazony insouciantly condemns, an effort that aimed not at establishing empire but rescuing Europe from Nazi occupation, ensuring its reconstruction from the devastation of war, and protecting it over decades from the very real prospect of Soviet aggression.
Sounding every bit like a Cold War revisionist historian in the mode of William Appleman Williams, Hazony lambastes the United States for its “hunger to control other nations” and likens American investment in the defense of Europe to a kind of resource curse, akin to Saudi “oil gushing from the ground,” which has had the effect of lulling Europeans into “a condition of perpetual childhood,” a people blithely and blindly “smitten with the love of liberal empire.” It is a reflection of the diseased condition of contemporary conservatism that quite a few American conservatives have uncritically accepted a work with such a pronounced anti-American tenor, so dismissive of America’s historic contribution to the peace of the world, and which denigrates an alliance of liberal democracies as a form of despotism.
Space does not permit a full response to Hazony’s cartoon version of John Locke’s social contract theory. Suffice it to say, both Locke’s political thought and the larger foundations of liberalism are much richer than the straw version that Hazony holds up to pull apart. The philosopher who wrote that God made “man such a Creature, that, in his own Judgment, it was not good for him to be alone” is not recognizable in Hazony’s caricature of Locke as the prophet of unbridled individualism. One point demands further comment here: Hazony’s suggestion that Lockean liberalism has evolved into a doctrine of intolerance. He complains that “the scope of legitimate disagreements” has been “progressively reduced” while the penalties for dissent have grown “more and more onerous,” and he warns about “[i]ncreasing demands for conformity to a single universal standard in speech and religion.” With great indignation, he declares that liberalism has embraced “the worst features of the medieval Catholic empire upon which it is unwittingly modeled, including a doctrine of infallibility, as well as a taste for the inquisition and the index.”
Like Patrick Deneen in his Why Liberalism Failed?, in drawing this picture of liberal democracy as repressive system, Hazony is borrowing a leaf from the leftist intellectuals pointed to by Jean-Francois Revel in his The Totalitarian Temptation for whom “the faults of free societies are so magnified that freedom appears to mask a totalitarian reality.” The political correctness about which Hazony is complaining is a poisonous disease that needs to be—and can be, and is being—combated. The more important point is that it is enforced not by officialdom, as in the Spain of the inquisition, but almost entirely either by social pressure to conform or by private agents, typically university administrators. The fact of the matter is that no one is compelling Hazony and his neo-nationalist colleagues to adhere “to a single universal standard in speech and religion,” let alone threatening to burn them at the stake. Freedom of speech does not come with a certificate of exemption from criticism, which appears to be Hazony’s underlying complaint.
One of the nationalist principles Hazony emphatically propounds is “non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.” This, of course, leaves open the problem of what to do about genocidal dictators like Hitler, a figure who seems to bedevil Hazony’s analysis at every turn. As is well known, in the course of the 1930s, as Hitler tightened the noose around the Jews of Germany, there was a significant number of Americans who believed passionately in something very much like Hazony’s principle of non-interference. Like Hazony, they regarded themselves as nationalists. Some were admirers of Mussolini and Hitler. Most were proponents of the slogan Trump has resurrected from that era, “America First.” To these America Firsters, Germany’s persecution of the Jews was simply the trouble of a wretched people in a faraway land and of no concern whatsoever to the United States.
Some of Hazony’s nationalist compatriots like Patrick Buchanan insist to this day that American intervention in Europe in World War II was a historic error. Such a stance is evidently an embarrassment to Hazony, who identifies himself as a “Jewish nationalist, a Zionist, all my life.” Confronted with the problem of a Hitler, Hazony jettisons his principle of non-interference and shifts into reverse. In some instances, Hazony avers, independent nation-states “have no choice but to interfere.” Hazony’s rationale for this 180-degree turnabout is that the crimes Hitler committed against his own people “were only a prelude to the attempt to destroy all the neighboring national states and to annex their populations to a universal empire.” But as Suzanne Schneider asked in a pointed review in Foreign Policy, “How is one to know for sure when crimes committed internally are a prelude to those of outward aggression?” The answer, of course, is that one cannot know. But even if one could know, what course of action would Hazony recommend if the internal crimes were not a prelude to aggression, as in the wholesale slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 or if Hitler had confined his genocidal ethnic cleansing to within German borders? Would Hazony, like Buchanan, recommend that the United States remain a bystander under the banner of America First? The return of a 1930s-style isolationism is where Hazony’s principles appear to lead.
Closely related to the problem of ethnic cleansing is the question of the homogeneity of the nation-state. Although Hazony does not include it in his enumeration of virtues, in the course of his argument it emerges that he regards homogeneity as a significant strength for an independent nation-state. The unwelcome “diversity” that one finds in empires or other agglomerations of peoples, he writes, makes them “more difficult to govern, weakening the mutual loyalties that had held it together, dissipating the attention and resources in the effort to suppress internal conflicts and violence that had previously been unknown to it.” For Hazony, what is required for the establishment of a free state is “a majority nation whose cultural dominance” is so “overwhelming” that “resistance appears to be futile.” He approvingly quotes Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th-century father of German nationalism, who warns against “the wild mixing of races and nationalities under one scepter.”
The United States thus poses a special challenge to the nationalist idea, for ours is a land where there has long been just such “wild mixing of races and nationalities.” Rooted in the involuntary influx of the slave trade and the voluntary influx of immigration, our diversity in the 19th century brought us the bloody strife of a civil war, but in the 20th century it contributed to our remarkable success. Yet diversity is disquieting to Hazony and his fellow neo-nationalists; it is regarded not a strength but a weakness. Many of America’s nationalist conservatives, it emerges on inspection, harbor a pronounced strand of nativism.
To Tucker Carlson, a keynote speaker at the Washington conference, immigration is something that “makes our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.” Michael Anton warns that “a republic that opens its doors to immigrants must choose carefully whom and how many to accept.” He cautions darkly against “ongoing mass immigration that. . . .‘fundamentally transforms’ one American community after the next.” He inveighs against “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” As for Stephen Bannon, at a rightist rally in France, he was the most explicit. He told the crowd, “Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.” The racialist tenor of such alarums is as transparent as Donald Trump’s comments about the “very fine people” among the white supremacists carrying tiki torches as they marched in Charlottesville.
In the statement announcing the Washington gathering, nationalist political theories grounded in race are specifically disavowed. But race, in many contexts, is intrinsic to the nationalist idea, as, for example, in homogeneous Japan, or in China, where the majority Han are today brutally suppressing the minority Uighurs, putting millions into “re-education” camps to suppress their Muslim faith. In Central Europe a similar dynamic is at work in a far milder form. Illiberal governments like those of Poland and Hungary are both striving to make ethnic and religious homogeneity central to their country’s national identity, seriously discomfiting minority groups within their populations. To Hazony, the illiberal drift and the ethnocentrism are just fine. Indeed, he singles out Poland and Hungary—along with unnamed anti-liberal forces in a number of other countries—for praise as “holdouts against universal liberalism.” All they desire is “to defend their own unique cause and perspective.” For “wishing to chart an independent course that is their own” they will soon “be hated as the Jews have been hated.”
This is a repugnant amalgamation of past horrors with present ugliness in the service of a whitewash. In Hungary, Jews were indeed hated; during World War II, Hungary’s Arrow Cross and Nazi forces operating in concert murdered some 568,000 of them. Today, Hungary’s avowedly illiberal government under Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has been engaged in incursions against tolerance and a free press and has conducted a thinly veiled anti-Semitic campaign using the Jewish financier George Soros as a bogeyman. Hazony takes Orban’s side, hailing Hungary as one of a number of “dissident” nations gamely standing up to the autocracy that is the European Union.
The Poland that Hazony is praising for holding out against universal liberalism has equally bloody hands from World War II, and evidently also a continuing guilty collective conscience. That is precisely why its ruling Law and Justice Party recently passed a law, subsequently repealed in the face of a global outcry, criminalizing references to the extensive Polish complicity in the mass murder of Jews during and after World War II. What Hazony calls the Polish’s government’s “unique cause and perspective” is, in pertinent part, nothing more than a sub-branch of Holocaust denial. “I cannot defend all of the particular movements that will arise from [the] desire for national freedom,” Hazony disingenuously writes, even as he praises Poland and Hungary for their resistance to the EU and declines to criticize any aspect of their behavior, save for the insipid pronouncement that “we will not be enamored with what every nation does with [its] freedom.”
In actual fact, what every nation does with its freedom cannot be a matter of indifference to Europe and the rest of the world. Marc Plattner, editor of the Journal of Democracy, makes a critical point: “The fact that contemporary liberal democracies do not fear that force will be used against them by their fellow liberal democracies makes possible a previously unprecedented degree of integration among them.”2 The inverse corollary is that if one or more of the EU member states uses its “freedom” to cease being a liberal democracy—in other words, uses its freedom to cease being free—the future of integration is the least of what is at stake. We are enjoying one of the longest bloodless intervals (with the peripheral case of the Balkan wars aside) in Europe’s endless history of slaughter. That is not the result of happenstance and it is certainly not an accomplishment of nationalists pushing their particularistic agendas. Credit goes overwhelmingly to European integration and the “universal liberalism” that Hazony, dispensing with all essential moral and political distinctions, lumps together with Marxism and Nazism as a potentially “genocidal” ideology that fuels “the desire for imperial conquest.” This is egregious. An outlook that regards liberalism, Nazism, and Communism as equally aggressive movements, equally capable of generating intolerance and spewing hatred, is both detached from historical reality and morally reprehensible.3
The statement announcing the Washington conference of conservative nationalists calls for the “revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing” (emphasis added). This is an unsubtle assertion that attachment to the ideas adumbrated in our sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is insufficient to unite Americans in a common polity. It is a truism that America is not just an idea but also a place. But Hazony writes disparagingly that “a love of the founding documents” and of “the ‘American creed’ that they supposedly contain” (emphasis added) is now regularly invoked “as a substitute for an attachment to the American nation itself.” In other words, the fact that the United States is “supposedly” a creedal nation, founded on a belief in liberty and self-government, is less significant to our cohesion than our ties of blood and soil. When Hazony insists that the United States “is still a nation like all others,” that is precisely what he has in mind.
As I noted at the outset, in the framework of a liberal democracy, celebration of a common history, traditions, folkways, language, and religion can help to foster ties of loyalty and patriotism and bind a people together. But the philosopher Roger Scruton is surely right that “we must distinguish national loyalty, which is the sine qua non of consensual government in the modern world, from nationalism, which is a belligerent ideology that looks for a source of government higher than the routines of settlement and neighborhood.” One does not need Hazony’s highly elaborate yet rickety superstructure to defend national loyalty, be it of the American or Israeli or any other liberal-democratic kind. But America’s neo-nationalists are after something else. Those willing to give an intellectual thug like Tucker Carlson a premier platform and appear on a dais beside him are, if not trying to ride the populist-nationalist wave, at the very least giving intellectual respectability to its unsavory side. By no means all but more than a few of the featured speakers at the Washington gathering are avid Trump supporters who wrap themselves in lofty words about the revival of our unique national traditions, while traducing those very traditions.
For all the high-sounding talk about how nationalism can “bind a people together and bring about their flourishing,” they say not a word about the cruelty, the misogyny, the race-baiting, the overpowering moral stench emanating from the White House. When they are not busy applauding, they remain scrupulously silent in the face of policies that wrench children from their parents’ arms at the border and thrust them into cages, that deport the spouses of men and women serving in our armed forces, that demonize refugees and immigrants. They ignore the words that encourage police brutality, mock the disabled, spread falsehoods about American Muslims cheering by the thousands the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. They wink and nod at the nepotism, the corruption, the self-dealing, the incitement of violence, the incessant and compulsive lying, the open invitation to foreign powers to intervene in U.S. elections. On the mentality of the nationalist, Orwell is pertinent yet again: “There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it.”
Even if it is not yet metastatic, a malignant form of nationalism is being injected into the American body politic. A set of profoundly illiberal ideas is being propounded at a moment when the fragility of liberal democracy has been exposed. We are drawing to the end of a low, dishonest decade, in which the odor of the 1930s has been filling the air. One can never know in advance what events await us, but we have arrived at a juncture in which another terrible chapter of history might well get written. This is not the hour in which intellectuals should be tossing matches into the kindling. Yet so they are. It is astonishing that Hazony’s contention that liberalism promotes “vicious hatred” while nationalism tends to be benign—a bizarre inversion of the historical record—has gained currency in some quarters of the Right. The neo-nationalists who are providing an intellectual cover for Trumpism and aspiring authoritarians around the world need to be mercilessly defeated on the battlefield of ideas as if September 1, 1939 were approaching.
1No Scotsman would sprinkle cinnamon in his porridge.
Sir William Wallace sprinkled cinnamon in his porridge.
Sir William Wallace is not a true Scotsman.
No nationalist would engage in conquest and genocide.
Hitler engaged in conquest and genocide.
Hitler is not a true nationalist.
2Democracy Without Borders: Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), p. 110.
3See, for example, pages 11, 191, and 229 in The Virtue of Nationalism.