July 9, 2019

Is There a Benign Trumpian Nationalism? (Christopher DeMuth thinks so. I think not.)

It has been called 2019’s “Most Important Intellectual Gathering.” Its purpose is to launch a new initiative that seeks to put something called “national conservatism” at the heart of the American agenda. The mid-July conference features a significant number of leading Trumpists, including a keynote address by Tucker Carlson of Fox News and talks by Chris Buskirk, the editor of American Greatness; Michael Anton, author of the The Flight 93 Election; and national security adviser John Bolton.

Like a short, sharp anchovy hidden in a strawberry ice, one unexpectedly finds on the six-member organizing committee of this conference Christopher DeMuth. Formerly the president of the American Enterprise Institute and now a “distinguished fellow” at the Hudson Institute, DeMuth has long been one of the most thoughtful observers of American government and is the author of innumerable penetrating articles on subjects ranging from regulation to the separation of powers to the role of science in politics.

What is someone as wise as DeMuth doing in this crowd of Trumpian conservative nationalists? Has he become one himself, and if so, what is his argument? In the Claremont Review of Books, DeMuth recently wrote an extended essay — some 8,000 words —under the title Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism. It demands a careful look.

DeMuth begins his Claremont Review essay by taking note of the fact that the social and political forces that underpin the Trump phenomenon mirror those visible in Europe. Trumpism is thus part of a global movement representing forces larger than the personalities at its helm. Here in the United States, as in the Euro-skeptical quadrants of Europe, the insurgents claim that “an international elite, with its own self-serving agenda” has captured government and is “sacrific(ing) the sovereignty of their home nations in ways — from free trade and open immigration to murky treaties and remote bureaucracies — that harm many of their countrymen.”

Following David Goodhart, author of The Road to Somewhere, DeMuth finds it useful to see the United States as divided between the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The Anywheres, DeMuth explains, comprise those “who are cosmopolitan, educated, mobile, and networked.” They tend to be the affluent, progressive, well-educated, knowledge workers. The Somewheres, for their part, “are rooted in particular local communities. Their jobs and weekends, their commitments and friendships and antagonisms, are part and parcel of their families, neighborhoods, clubs, and religions. Many work with their hands and on their feet.”

It is the latter group, ignored by elites, that has now, writes DeMuth, “at last found robust political representation in the nationalist movements.” Elites have been shocked. The establishment sees the Trump voters as “ill-informed populists, xenophobic at best, racist at worst, inflamed by irrational hatred of immigrants, exhibiting authoritarian tendencies.” That, to DeMuth, is a serious mistake. It is not only to misjudge who these people are and what they want, it is also to miss an opportunity for conservatism to redefine itself. In recent decades, DeMuth observes, our tripartite federal system has entered a state of undemocratic disequilibrium. The social and political forces revealed by Trump’s ascent suggest an opportunity for a salutary rebalancing.

The problem DeMuth identifies can be placed under the heading of the rise of the administrative state. Several trends are at work. To begin with, Congress has allowed “its constitutional powers to atrophy,” delegating rule- and regulation-making to the bureaucracies of the executive branch and also watching with “palpable relief” as the courts have stepped in to resolve “contentious issues of sexual autonomy and moral obligation that were previously matters for legislative deliberation.”

Both trends are adverse to democratic decision-making. Bureaucracies are comprised of unelected officials with interests of their own, while the courts, the branch least susceptible to democratic controls, have assumed powers never intended for them. The Anywheres are skilled in the ways of the administrative state and find the outcomes it produces to be congenial to their political outlook and social and economic interests. The Somewheres are left out and left behind. Hence the Trumpian revolt.

To set things right, DeMuth has three big ideas. The first is to breathe life into Congress and make representative government more responsive so that it can live up to its name. Second, he advocates a program of business deregulation that would unshackle markets and provide for economic growth and a widened sphere of prosperity. Finally, he would direct attention to questions of American identity, focusing on what we all have in common as citizens. This he sees as a task less for Congress than for leaders of various kinds, from the U.S. president on down to intellectual activists; it is more about altering the culture than altering the laws.

What does any of this have to do with nationalism?

DeMuth’s emphasis on restoring a sense of American identity is certainly connected to it. To advance this prong of his program he would foster “equal educational opportunity as an instrument of citizenship and social mobility” and promote “freedom of inquiry as an instrument of knowledge and discovery.” He would also sing the virtues of the competitive market economy as “an instrument of prosperity and growth.” The successful nation-state, he writes,

not only asserts but cultivates its sovereignty — and that requires sustaining the allegiance of its citizens and tangibly promoting their interests and well-being. It does not aggravate, but rather respects and builds upon, the parochial loyalties of its constituent tribes of community, locality, and ethnic, racial, and religious identity. It does so both to moderate internal conflict and to pursue objectives that require large-scale cooperation across its entire geography.

Is this shocking stuff that should lead those concerned about a malignant nationalism coming to American shores to set their hair on fire? 

The answer, of course, is no, no, and no. One might quibble with this or that detail of DeMuth’s prescriptions — an earlier wave of deregulation may well have exacerbated the division between the Anywheres and the Somewheres and helped to bring us to our current pass — but in the main what he is proposing is unobjectionable and unexceptionable. Indeed, it is an imaginative and intelligently conceived program that DeMuth’s fellow conservatives — and perhaps even some enlightened liberals, too — could get behind.

From what I have sketched of his views thus far, one might conclude that DeMuth stands for a healthy nationalism which could serve to unite us around that which is best in our country. Alas, that is not wholly the case. For if DeMuth has reasonable policy goals, his assessment of whether Donald Trump and the Trumpian movement are suitable vehicles for realizing those goals is wide of the mark.

“Trumpism has an essence,” DeMuth writes, “and that essence is nationalism.” And the nation-state, he observes “has acquired a bad reputation in recent decades … It is widely regarded as an arbitrary inheritance and source of misery — of wars over territory and ancient myths, and of grievances and hatreds among racial and ethnic groups.” But this, he argues, is a “superficial picture.” He points to Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism (which I recently examined in The American Interest), and summarizes its argument.

Hazony, DeMuth writes,

includes a compelling demonstration that the nation-state is less conducive to violence and discord, and more conducive to liberty and progress, than any alternative known to history. … The successful nation-state has been the seedbed of our living institutions of individual liberty and democratic equality — separation of powers, representative assemblies, the universal franchise, due process, the common law. Successful orders of nation-states — decentralized, diversified, and competitive — have fostered historic advances in art, science, commerce, and social well-being (emphasis added).

A great deal of heavy lifting is undertaken in this passage by the repeated word “successful.” It is true, by definition, that successful nation-states have been successful, and so too have been “successful orders of nation-states.” The trouble is that there have been unsuccessful — wildly unsuccessful — nation-states and orders of nation-states, such as those that prevailed both before World War I and World War II. These have been tendentiously excised from the picture drawn in Yoram Hazony’s book, a picture which DeMuth uncritically accepts.

DeMuth glancingly takes note of the worldwide conflagrations resulting from unbounded nationalism, observing that “the uprisings of 1848, in the view of many historians, replaced relatively stable empires and principalities with jerry-built, unstable nations — taking continental Europe to World War I and thence to fascism.” But he draws no conclusions at all from this history. At best — and this is being charitable — nationalism has a checkered history. To argue otherwise, as DeMuth — following Hazony — does, is to succumb to a revisionism that could have tragic consequences if one is led to draw erroneous lessons from the pages of the past.

Which returns us to DeMuth’s strikingly sanguine view of Trumpian nationalism. Citing the president’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, he writes that Trump’s articulation of nationalism follows a “classical formulation” with a “distinguished heritage.” That is all well and good. But fine words read from a teleprompter are one thing, “deeds and consequences” — the measure DeMuth himself suggests is appropriate — are something else.

DeMuth notes that the president’s two “galvanizing issues” are trade and immigration, with both entailing “vivid applications” of Trump’s “nationalist credo.” But DeMuth registers no judgment of Trump’s controversial — and in the case of immigration, willfully inflammatory and cruel — policies in these arenas beyond the anodyne pronouncement that “time will tell their results.”

DeMuth notes approvingly that Trump has made “deconstructing the administrative state” a top priority and “pursued a wide-ranging program of deregulation and regulatory reform.” But even those who share those goals should be discomfited by the rampant corruption in the Trump Cabinet and subcabinet and in the Trump White House itself. Yet about the nepotism, the self-dealing, and the ubiquitous ethics violations that discredit deregulation, making it seem to many Americans more like a racket than sensible reform, DeMuth says not a word.

DeMuth favors breathing new life into a Congress whose constitutional powers have atrophied. But the Trump administration has moved in the opposite direction. Its attempt to exercise unbounded executive power through spurious emergency declarations and simultaneously to place extreme limits on congressional oversight hardly suggests a return to a reinvigorated Congress. Setting aside immigration and foreign trade, it is also difficult to read the populist revolt as a reaction to regulatory overreach by distant and unelected elites. Legislation that spells out in detail the provisions of, say, the Clean Water Act rather than allowing an administrative rule-making process to specify them is not exactly what the Trump base is clamoring for.

When DeMuth notes that a successful nation-state “does not aggravate, but rather respects and builds upon the parochial loyalties of its constituent tribes of community, locality, and ethnic, racial, and religious identity,” one wants to cry out and ask: What about Donald Trump? Has any political leader in modern American history done more to “aggravate” differences among Americans and shown less respect for our “constituent tribes of community, locality, and ethnic, racial, and religious identity”? Yet one finds in DeMuth’s lengthy essay not a hint of recognition that Trump’s brand of nationalism rests not on unity but corrosive divisiveness. Instead, he offers only a generalized, nameless culpability. “[L]ately, we seem to have lost the knack” for drawing on our best traditions and “our shared devotion to pragmatic compromise.” In the wake of the Trump insurrection, DeMuth continues, “we should aim to supplant rebellion with relatively stable political competition and mutual accommodation and a spirit of common destiny. We need a more capacious nationalism.”

To this one can say amen. But along with amen one also has to say that DeMuth, a consistently perspicacious analyst of the American scene, has written an essay that is notably astigmatic. There is a dark and dangerous side to nationalism which is precisely the essence of Trumpism. The many disturbing signposts are visible for all to see. One finds no notice taken of them in DeMuth’s Claremont Review essay. Judging by the thinly veiled nativism of its keynote speaker, Tucker Carlson, and the unswerving loyalty to Donald Trump of a number of its leading speakers, the impending Washington gathering of neo-nationalists promises to be largely devoted to a defense if not a celebration of Trump’s malignant brand of nationalism. That Christopher DeMuth is lending his good name to this effort is, to this longtime admirer, a surprising and disturbing disappointment.

Photo credit: (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times under CC by 2.0)