Are We Really Talking about Nationalism?

In a speech delivered last week in New York City, former president George W. Bush fiercely attacked American nationalists as narrow-minded nativists. Among the memorable phrases in his oration were these:

  • “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, and forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” he lamented.
  • “Bigotry seems emboldened, our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” he said. “There are some signs that support for democracy itself has waned, especially for the young.”

Although it is possible to claim that, like his friend John McCain, the former president was only attacking “spurious nationalism,” clearly his invectives against “nativism” and his call for “global engagement” suggest that his target was indeed traditional national identity. The U.S. as conceived by Bush and many other Never-Trumpers exists for a global mission, to teach their version of democracy and human rights to the rest of the world. The U.S. should be viewed as a gathering space for this missionary work. And our mission requires that American leaders come clean about our past sins, as President Bush tried to do in July 2003, on a trip to Senegal, when he “deplored” America’s role in practicing slavery. Although Republicans excoriated Obama for his servile conduct toward other countries, they conveniently forgot this groveling gesture by the last Republican president before Trump. Not surprisingly Bush doesn’t balance his attacks on the bigoted Right with critical references to the Antifa or to the anti-white Left. One has the impression that like the militant French Republican René Renoult, he recognizes no enemies on the Left.

Time to buy old US gold coins

There is an interesting argument that is at least implicit in Bush’s remarks. The states that formed the Union were once thought to have the makings of a traditional nation, and John Jay points this out in Federalist Two when he pleads for a unified national government. According to Jay, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” But that was in 1787 and this is now. We are currently a country that embraces people from all over the world and because of our economic and military resources, we are a global power. We also view ourselves, in our saner moments, as a nation state that must protect its territorial sovereignty. In this sui generis situation Americans look for bonds of unity in a deeply divided country. While the Left pushes multiculturalism and antiracism as the ties that should bind, the populist Right has found its alternative in American nationalism. This has set off a heated dispute about the nature of this nationalism; and former president Bush has weighed in by more or less espousing the Left’s position.

The legal scholar F. M. Buckley has tried to respond in a column to Bush’s charges, by offering his opinions on what it is “to be American.” Buckley seconds Bush in going after white nationalists and then “cultural nationalists,” although his column never makes clear how this second group differs from the first. Are Americans who insist on the use of the English language or on the historical specificity of American constitutional traditions the same as white nationalists? But all of this may be an aside. Buckley is in a hurry to unveil his own conception of American nationalism, which is creedal and propositional. He quotes Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said in 1858 that what makes us American is “allegiance to a creed.” This creed is about liberty and equality, but also about fraternity, which Buckley insists that “right-wing Republicans” have been unwilling to concede. Fraternity means the acceptance of a caring welfare state, which represents nationalism as understood by the framers of the New Deal and John F. Kennedy.

As a European historian, I am puzzled equally by how Buckley and the white nationalists define their nationalism. Nationalist movements became politically significant in the nineteenth century among peoples who were striving to become nation states while fighting against occupying powers. Italians, Germans, and Poles created nationalist movements, and integral to these efforts was reviving interest in ethnic and linguistic identities going back into the past. All authentic nationalism is cultural and linguistic, whether we’re talking about Latvians or Jews trying to reclaim an ancient homeland in the Middle East. Please note that I’m neither praising nor denigrating nationalism, but underscoring its indissoluble relation to cultural identity.

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