Maybe the most misleading conclusion anyone could reach about the political forces at work in this election cycle is that this is not a year of ideas but directionless angst. It is a year of ideas; they all just happen to be ruinous.
After watching the last eight months of unexpected developments in the political cycle with both bewilderment and a sense of foreboding, it is easy to throw up one’s hands in confusion and despair. It is simply self-deceptive, however, to suppose from that justifiable impulse that everything we thought we knew about politics must be wrong. Surely, it would have benefited political analysts to set aside their priors, eschew theory and science, and stare deeply into the eyes of the electorate if only to identify and mimic their emotions. Perhaps there would have been more predictive value in performing a version of Sanford Meisner’s technique on the voter; prioritizing empathy over intellect and sentiment over substance.
No doubt, the millions of voters on both sides of the partisan divide drawn to the polls this cycle to register their dissatisfaction with the irritating stability of the applecart would take umbrage with the arrogance inherent in the idea that reason does not guide them. Such irritation would not be unwarranted, although that is itself an emotional response. Many have made cogent and convincing arguments contending that genuine privation and hardship, not to mention an unhealthy dose of class envy and revanchism, animate the insurgent voter. The right’s mutinous electorate shares more in common with the left’s mutinous electorate than either would perhaps like to admit. There is only one way to avoid indulging the condescension to which both insurrectionist voters on the right and the left are so sensitive, and that is to take the avatars of their dovetailed rebellions at their word. And that word is nationalism.
Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have put forward a nationalist agenda. They promise a restoration of the prevailing economic conditions of the last century. Both raise the specter of debilitating competition from East Asia, and both promise solutions in search of problems – imposing tariffs on cheap goods manufactured in China, reducing the trade deficit, and containing the Japanese menace. These candidates’ trade plans are not so much policies – to the extent they can be taken seriously, their effects are known, predictable, and disastrous – as they are primal expressions of anxiety. The same might be said for the national security platforms of both candidates, which lack coherence but, for the most part, pledge the extrication of the world’s only superpower from global military affairs. Sanders promises cradle-to-grave, from health care to education. Trump promises retribution against perceived classes of enemies, both foreign and domestic. Both are the politics of grievance. Both guarantee a national restoration. It thus follows that a shockingly large number of American voters are aggrieved and believe deeply that the nation needs to be restored.
To argue that this kind of sentiment arose in a vacuum is to pound the table. It is undeniably true that over a decade of confidence-sapping and inept leadership at the top have contributed to the present backlash. A kind of inward-looking nationalism is a predictable corrective response to the kind of feckless internationalism that the Obama administration has pursued. In everything from military matters (“leading from behind”), to economics and climate issues, (“global responsibilities”) to trade (“If the world relies excessively on the American consumer, it will jeopardize the sustainability of the global recovery”); Americans can be forgiven for both noticing and chafing under the auspice that the island nation America is no longer the master of its own destiny.
American exceptionalism derived from the notion that it is a nation apart is a feature of its character and a noble one at that. Those who seek to midwife that sense of self-reliance back to life are not ignorant of American traditions but keenly aware of them. Nationalism as practiced in America is not synonymous with ugly xenophobia, although those who decried the influence of “papists” in the 19th Century and “globalists” in the 20th Century certainly deserved that label. The problem of nationalism, particularly in an American context, is that this philosophy’s definition is a malleable one. More portentously, it is uniquely susceptible to hijacking.
Nationalistic fervor is dangerous enough when it arises in genuinely mono-cultural societies, or in nations that are for the most part ethnically or religiously homogenous. What is nationalism in America, a nation in which the guiding ethos is not blood but an idea? The elasticity inherent in the concept of American nationalism ensures that any political opportunist of even modest talent can exploit it. One doesn’t need to be a particularly competent orator to whip up resentments toward foreign hordes. A kind of tribal, chauvinistic nationalism quickly corrupts. But its penetrating appeal to crowds and the power it imparts to those who wield it effectively can lead even the most thoughtful and wary to rationalize nationalism’s usefulness and seek accommodation with it.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was useful, for example, particularly for American anti-communists on both the right and the left. Those opposed to Stalinism and the influence of American communist outfits in the United States — organizations that were often quite literally financed and directed by a foreign power — were understandably conflicted about the necessary project of containing such a dangerous and imported ideal. Among them was the intellectual writer Irving Kristol, who, writing in COMMENTARY in 1952, called McCarthy a “vulgar demagogue” whose insincerity and paranoia made him, at the very least, a deeply flawed messenger for the cause of anti-communism in the United States. At the same time, Kristol observed that American liberals who found McCarthy’s excesses a graver evil than those being executed hourly in the Soviet Union and around the world in the name of the communist international were in error. “If American liberalism is not willing to discriminate between its achievements and its sins, it only disarms itself before Senator McCarthy, who is eager to have it appear that its achievements are its sins,” Kristol wrote.
Then, as now, nuance is often intentionally cast aside in order to make a point. His erstwhile allies in the liberal movement in America attacked Kristol, and some of the criticisms he and other anti-communists earned were unfair. In retrospect, however, even Kristol admitted: “I did not disassociate myself from McCarthy as vigorously as I should have.” At the time, McCarthy was seen as the vanguard of “a popular revolt against the upper classes,” according to Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons. Today, he is the reviled face of Red Scare hysteria. Be that revisionist history or no, the cultural battle over McCarthyism is over; Joseph McCarthy lost. What’s more, his imprudence legitimized those who hoped to poison the American public against the righteous cause of anti-Bolshevism.
There is a lesson here, insofar as the demagogic figure of uniquely persuasive ability – however tied up those perceived abilities are in the fevered and likely fleeting passions of the moment – is a figure nonetheless deserving of skepticism. Nationalism is the vehicle through which abuses of the public trust are made palatable, even desirable, to an anxious populace. If we are doomed to relive the past, we should at least be familiar with its lessons. There is a distinction to be made between national pride and the defense of national interests, and the graceless suspicion that so frequently infects those who find common cause with nationalists.
History will be the judge of this moment’s virtuousness, and history can be an unforgiving critic.