Since the nomination of Donald Trump, National Review has had a strong internal debate about the role of nationalism and populism in American life — a debate often framed as whether America is a nation or an idea. I contributed to the discussion about a year ago, with a post-mortem analysis of the GOP primaries describing how movement conservatives had missed the re-emergence of America’s folk-populist tradition, Jacksonianism:
Trump’s positions follow the contours not of movement conservatism but of American folk nationalism, often known as Jacksonianism. As Walter Russell Mead, my boss over at The American Interest, has noted, Jacksonians characteristically emphasize anti-elitism and egalitarianism while drawing a sharp distinction between members of the folk group and those outside it. In domestic policy, this translates to tough-on-crime stances and stubborn adherence to traditional views on social issues (and, historically, opposition to civil rights), and to advocacy of government assistance for “deserving” members of the folk group. Looking abroad, they are uninterested in Wilsonian nation-building projects or promoting global order, but if they feel the nation is threatened, they are willing to fight back by whatever means are necessary.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, the discussion broke out again, with Jonah Goldberg responding to an episode of NRO’s The Editors podcast, and some of the eponymous editors (Rich Lowry, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Ian Tuttle, Charles Cooke) picking up the gauntlet.
There has always been a strong tension in our history between the conception of America as devoted to an ideal and as a people, a nation — in a similar if not quite the same sense as some blood-and-soil European countries. Thus Abraham Lincoln, echoing Jefferson, could describe us as “a . . . nation . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But he could also write stirring blood-and-soil appeals, evoking in his First Inaugural “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.”
But in the New World, five factors began to make America different. For one thing, the continent was huge and underpopulated; from the earliest settlements through the “closing of the frontier” in 1891, there was strong demand for immigrants to settle and secure the country. But other underpopulated frontier countries have, despite their apparent self-interest, successfully resisted immigration from different societies before. Americans chose to go a different route.
The struggles of the Protestant Reformation had taught the English to view other Protestant nations — Switzerland, Protestant Germany, Scandinavia — where their leaders had sometimes sought refuge, as a brotherhood. Now, many immigrants from these countries settled among the British colonists; a small step away from a peoplehood of blood. Another step came from, ironically, the intensity of the religious feelings among the different groups of American settlers, especially the Puritans and Jacksonians. They each marked themselves as a people apart so fiercely and so successfully that when they had to cooperate again as the colonies grew, and especially during the struggle for independence, it looked as much like learning to forge one nation out of many as trying to band a bunch of Englishmen together.
A bigger step: Because of their own religious beliefs, the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Catholics in Maryland had let in many of the “wrong” (i.e., Catholic or heterodox) sort of immigrant prior to the Revolution. The door that the Irish would later stream through in droves had already been propped open. Finally, the Declaration of Independence, as Charles C. W. Cooke pointed out on The Editors podcast, laid down a marker for all time which, no matter how often we may stray from it (we are human, we err) is there to remind us that we believe all men are created equal. This is our patrimony; we can never fully reject it without rejecting ourselves.
By the time the colonies became a nation the stage was set for mass immigration — which for obvious reasons strained the tension between America’s sense of being a folk-group (which strongly persisted, particularly in the backcountry) and its universalist ideals.
Contrary to the bromide that America has always been a “nation of immigrants” (in comparison with our supposed modern anti-immigrant sins), this wasn’t a process that was easy. In fact, it was much, much harder then than now. For every stripe of British Protestant, Catholics had been the ur-outsider; by the 1830s and ’40s they were coming by the millions, my ancestors among them, out of starving Ireland and Catholic Germany. In the spring of 1844, nativist mobs burned Catholic churches in Philadelphia, killed dozens, and razed an immigrant neighborhood. Further north, the Archbishop of New York threatened to burn the city to the ground if his own mayor didn’t do a better job of protecting his flock. Two decades later, the largest urban insurrection in American history occurred as Irish immigrants rioted against conscription; several regiments had to be dispatched from the pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg to restore order.
In the spring of 1844, nativist mobs burned Catholic churches in Philadelphia, killed dozens, and razed an immigrant neighborhood.
During the so-called Great Wave of Eastern and Southern European immigration in the late 19th century, the largest movement of people into America until the present day, there was a backlash: The Klan was renewed as an anti-immigrant force, deadly violence was widespread (ranging from mass lynchings to anarchist bombings), and racial and religious discrimination was written into law, including the 1924 act that eventually nailed the “Golden Door” shut (and kept it that way for two generations, despite the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War).
Now, we are in the middle of a third wave of immigration. It has lasted longer and brought more people than any before, and if we are now feeling the tensions in our body politic, we can comfort ourselves that they are not nearly so bad as those in ages past. By historical standards, we’re doing a pretty good job. By the standards we like to hold ourselves to, on the other hand, we are right to be worried. The tension between the two ideals of American life has risen to the surface again, affecting every aspect of our politics and, increasingly, our daily lives.
But if the past has been rougher than is usually remembered, it’s equally vital that we trust a truth on the far side of a complexity: We are a nation of immigrants, and our ability to absorb and integrate 80 million people since 1820 (when records were first kept) has been an achievement without parallel in world history. So successful have we been, indeed, that many nations with no similar history have come to take it as axiomatic that democracy and mass immigration are synonymous, with implications that are being worked out across Europe as we speak.
Meanwhile, in America, we have a somewhat different problem. The Baby Boomers were often the children or grandchildren of immigrants but were born during the end of the 1924-65 period when there was almost no legal immigration to the United States. That means on the one hand they’ve inherited a rich memory of the possibilities that America offers immigrants and immigrants offer America; on the other, until recently, they had no living memory of the problems that mass immigration could cause in American society when it brings American idealism and Jacksonian nationalism into conflict. Furthermore, because one of the defining heroic moments of their childhood was the Civil Rights movement, and because that was opposed on ethno-nationalist grounds, they have a tendency to view Jacksonian nationalism tout court with suspicion.
So given our history, why not just be done with nationalism entirely? This is the intuition of the “woke” Left, which tends to be more aware of this history than does the center — and to see it as of a piece with America’s (much worse) history of discrimination and violence against African Americans.
The center-left and center-right don’t perceive America as irredeemably broken in the same way the far Left does. But they do tend to believe that the “universal solvent” of American idealism has broken down past bigotries, and the virtues of the ideas-based country have conquered the demons of its populist side.
There are three big problems with such an approach. The first is the prosaic but important observation, obvious after 2016, that many of their fellow citizens simply do not agree that nationalism should be buried. In a democracy, that raw fact matters.
Secondly, and more important: Jacksonian instincts have been a powerful force for good, as well as evil, throughout American history. Jackson’s channeling of backcountry egalitarianism led to universal white male suffrage — and that in turn was the basis and animating spirit for truly universal suffrage. Whatever the seventh president might have thought of them, he’s the grandfather of the 15th and 19th Amendments. Jacksonian might has sustained and protected America’s ideals through the Revolution, Civil War, two World Wars, and the Cold War. Nor is this just a question of providing a raw mass of men; leadership, too, has come from Jacksonian ranks. (The most Jacksonian figure of the Civil War was arguably not Robert E. Lee, the Virginia Cavalier, but the unassuming, hard-fighting Ulysses S. Grant.) And the sense of community with fellow-citizens that Jacksonian nationhood imbues in people has been at the heart of many of the ways by which we take care of one another, from the New Deal (the Democrats used to remember this back when they won elections) to the Burkean interstitial institutions Republicans would like to see greater reliance on.
Immigrants themselves are looking to join the folk group, not to abolish it.
Finally, the evidence of both history and our present moment strongly shows that immigrants themselves are looking to join the folk group, not to abolish it.
In every wave of immigration, vastly more people return home than popular legend acknowledges — as many as half of all Italians in the early 20th century, for instance. Those who stay do so because they love America — both her ideals and her people. Often, they fall in love with a quite literal person: Intermarriage rates are currently the highest they’ve ever been, and on closer inspection this appears to be driven by intermarriage between and among our two largest immigrant groups (Hispanics and Asians) and “native-born” Americans. My Italian-Irish grandparents would be proud. As John Judis highlighted after the 2014 election, this assimilation is starting to seep into the political realm, too, as second-generation half-Hispanic immigrants vote more and more like the general population, just as other immigrant groups throughout history have done. Despite elite left-wing rhetoric saying it’s a dirty word and elite right-wing worries that it’s stopped, assimilation is happening beneath our noses.
The vast bulk of immigrants don’t want to join an ideological commune but a living breathing community — and are in fact doing so. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel an attraction to American ideals, just that in real life, it’s a mix. Think of the soldiers of the Greatest Generation or of this one, immigrant and seventh-generation Americans, fighting both for ideals and out of fellowship with the citizens beside them.
We cannot, in other words, square the circle simply by abolishing nationalism. Nor can it be something we put in a glass box marked, “Break only in case of war.” We need it in our daily lives — but we need to make sure that it’s the right kind. Ditto idealism. There’s a kind of American nationalism that wraps each citizen in a love of, say, the First Amendment because it’s our First Amendment, just as the flag is our flag and the land is our land. This is a much surer guarantee of our liberties — of our ideals — than relying only on those who’ve read Milton and Mill and been convinced by them. There’s a kind of idealism, too, that while it seeks to treat all men as brothers, recognizes the primacy of those men who are our brothers here, whether immigrant or native-born, black, white, or Hispanic, and is careful not to put more stress on our system than it can bear in the name of ideals. Then there’s a nationalism that is insular to the point of denying the Constitution — of defending President Trump’s call to “open up the libel laws,” for instance. And there’s an idealism that is suicidal in its insistence upon itself. The former sorts of idealism and nationalism are plainly preferable, and compatible with one another; the latter are inferior and incompatible — and unfortunately, lately we’ve been getting too much of them.
The goal of ideological conservatives in the Age of Trump should be to figure out how to bind the nation’s id and superego back together again. America needs both nationalism and idealism to prosper. Most people cannot live on ideals alone, while an excessive nationalism cuts us off from our patrimony, and so is self-defeating. Our hybrid elective-hereditary peoplehood sustains and upholds our ideals. Our ideals bind our people together, serve as the passport to Americanness, and justify the whole enterprise.
Unsurprisingly, balancing all this is very tricky, and historically and at present has led to some of our bitterest political quarrels. But we have to try. That struggle is part of what it is, and always has been, to be American.
— Nicholas M. Gallagher is a contributing writer at The American Interest.