The New Conservative Pyrite

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, July 26, 2019. Pyrite is more commonly known as fool’s gold.

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Related imageFrederick H. Hayek, whose thoughts used to count for something among well-educated conservatives, made short work of nationalism as a guiding principle in politics. “It is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism,” he wrote in “The Constitution of Liberty.”

That point alone ought to have been enough to dim the right’s new enthusiasm for old-style nationalism. It hasn’t.

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned, it’s called a nationalist,” the president said last October. “And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist.”

It says something about the soundness of an idea that its currency owes less to its intrinsic merits than it does to the power of a man who has no ideas. It also says something about the intellectual plasticity of some newly minted national conservatives that they now champion a concept they would have disdained just three years ago.

But let’s give nationalism its due. Much of the world, including the free world, is organized around the concept of the nation-state. Nations — that is, people whose ties involve not merely citizenship but also ancestry, culture, history, language, territory and sometimes religion — can have deeper political cohesion, and inspire greater solidarity and mutual self-sacrifice, than mere states. Nationalism offers protection to “somewhere people” against the political and moral preferences of “anywhere people.” [Eds.’ Note: conservatives are employing the term “cosmopolitans”, first used by Stalin to purge Jews in 1946.]

The problem is, the United States is not “much of the world.” We are a sovereign state, not a nation-state. Unlike, say, Denmark, we have no official language and no state religion. Our identity is oriented toward the future, not the past. We do have birthright citizenship — though that, curiously, is something many of today’s national conservatives want to abolish. Our national borders have changed repeatedly and may change again.

America is the country under whose banner the descendants of slaves give military orders to the descendants of slave owners and stand guard alongside the children of immigrants from Greece and Mexico in places like Panmunjom. It’s where the biological son of a Syrian immigrant created our first trillion-dollar company. It’s where Jews celebrate Christmas by going out for Chinese food.

All this is the essence of America’s exceptionalism. It does not require open borders, rule by U.N. mandarins, obeisance to progressive pieties or any of the other ostensible predations of “globalism” that conservative nationalism claims to oppose.

When it comes to the United States, however, we should recognize nationalism for what it really is: un-American.

On the other hand, conservative nationalism does require the mainstream conservative movement to jettison its best principles. Three in particular stand out.

First, faith in free markets. 

Second, faith in free people.

Finally, faith in the American example. Novus ordo seclorum

I’m not one to conflate nationalism with “white nationalism,” much less with fascism. Nor would I deny that a nationalism moderated by liberalism can serve other countries well. When it comes to the United States, however, we should recognize nationalism for what it really is: un-American. 



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