“You know what I am?” then-President Donald Trump asked his supporters at a 2018 rally. “I’m a nationalist, okay? Nationalist,” he continued. “Use that word, use that word.” His audience didn’t need the encouragement. The pragmatist president was merely adopting a label that was already being applied to him (his initial resistance notwithstanding), and it had been subsequently embraced by his devotees. It was necessary to classify Trump’s politics in terms that placed him somewhere on the spectrum of the American political experience, in part, because his politics rejected a half-century of intellectual history.
American conservatism, as it was understood prior to 2016, departs from its European variants insofar as what it is trying to “conserve” are the liberal values of the Enlightenment that informed the Founders. Those values expressly rejected blood and soil as criteria that determined nationhood. Postwar conservatives took pride in a nation dedicated to competition—between industries, among the states, and even within the federal government itself. Nationalists, who tend to emphasize national unity and cultural homogeneity, don’t have much use for all that infighting. But their vision of what America should be is not what the nation objectively is. This conflict gave rise to a passionate debate on the right in the Trump years over whether nationalism and patriotism were synonymous, or if they were even compatible.
Savvy political operators on the left now spy an opportunity in the right’s newfound tendency to highlight and dwell upon America’s faults. Patriotism, some maintain, is suddenly up for grabs, and the party that can harness the potency of that idea will reap the political rewards. They’re not wrong.
Back in November of last year, center-left economics blogger Noah Smith posited a simple premise: “Americans love America.” Or, at the very least, they “want to like their country.” The Trumpified right, with its emphasis on America’s social maladies and a paranoid fixation with the domestic institutions that were out to get them, stopped articulating the notion that America was, at root, a noble country populated by good-hearted people. Not that the left was much better. Leftist activists believe that the United States, founded in racism and soaked with blood, is only worthy of a delusional patriotic affection from the naïve. The market for a sunny view of the American experience, therefore, has been wholly underserved these past years.
Last week, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart observed the same gap in the rhetorical marketplace, but some of his co-partisans are trying to fill it. “We have to take back this mantra of patriotism,” said Maryland gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore in an interview with the Post’s editorial board. Capehart noted that Democratic lawmakers are reframing transgender rights issues as “narratives of ‘Christian’ and ‘family’ values,” and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has gone after pro-life Republicans by attacking their commitment to “freedom.”
Longtime Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira’s take on the subject has attracted the most attention. Democrats, he writes, would be well served if they were to distance themselves from progressives, the loudest of whom insist “that America was born in slavery, marinated in racism and remains a white supremacist society, shot through with multiple, intersecting levels of injustice that make everybody either oppressed or oppressor on a daily basis.”
Following Teixeira’s prescription is much easier said than filled, and not just because Democrats have a proven record of knowingly driving themselves head-first into a brick wall only because progressives are enamored with brick walls. The chief technocratic conceit, one that is common to social reformers of all ideological stripes, is that the public doesn’t know what’s best for them. They’re too parochial, too bound to tradition and custom, and too obdurate to be led to water, much less drink the stuff. It takes a beneficent hand to guide them in the right direction. If necessary, that hand must smash the barriers that stand before the public and a more healthful and harmonious future.
Teixeira writes, “One of the only effective ways—and possibly the most effective way—to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation.” He’s not wrong. But for the larger left, there’s a potential sticking point when it comes to one of patriotism’s defining qualities: unconditional love.
Progressives hear that phrase applied to the United States and often rush to the conclusion that anyone possessed of such an undiscerning affection for their country is blind to its myriad faults. Given the pace of cultural change and the misguided priorities of the governing class, the right is increasingly inclined to reject the premise, too. They share a misapprehension about what the phrase entails.
Unconditional love of one’s family doesn’t foreclose on the idea that some dynamics are unhealthy can can be improved. Unconditional love of one’s children doesn’t lead any parent to the conclusion that they emerge from the womb a finished product. Unconditional love of one’s home does not—indeed, cannot—reject a full understanding of its history, its frailties and faults, and the work that must be done to maintain and improve it. That kind of love is a tool only in the evolutionary sense. It cannot be discarded at will or deployed only advantageously. It’s certainly not something you can talk yourself into.
The nationalists and progressives on either end of the horseshoe arc towards one another when it comes to patriotism because both see a nation that is not meeting its potential. One side imagines a romantic past, to which the country’s present iteration pales in comparison. The other envisions a utopian future that may be forever out of reach if the public cannot be made to understand what’s best for them. Taken to an extreme, these dispositions can lead those who subscribe to them toward the resentment of their time and place, to say nothing of the people with whom they are surrounded. What’s more, these dispositions are reinforced by a political dynamic in which both coalitions increasingly embrace the idea that the country is in need of radical reform.
The party that doesn’t qualify its patriotism will benefit. But both political coalitions seem to be captured by activists for whom abiding affection for one’s country is a mark of unsophistication. They would sacrifice the political gains available to the party of patriotism only to satisfy their own egos. And there’s just no unconditional love left for country when it’s already exclusively devoted to themselves.