How does a Conservative differ from a Nationalist? – Part 1 (Defining Nationalism)
Updated: Apr 14
In attempting to compare and contrast the conservative to the nationalist I must first—in all futility—attempt to define what I mean by “nationalism”. There appears to be little consensus not only on what nationalists believe, but what sort of thing nationalism even is. Is it a worldview, an ideology, an ethnic or cultural or historical identity, an attitude, or some kind of esoteric tribalism?
Trump says he’s a Nationalist
Compounding the problem, there seems to be little uniformity among those calling themselves nationalists save for some vague sense they all support the nation to which they belong and see outsiders as varying degrees of contagions capable of inflicting harm on the nation they cherish. “Nationalism is a universal phenomenon,” wrote National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg, “Generically, it has no ideological content save glorification of whatever nation it manifests itself in.” That is why an Indian nationalist in the 19th century will look, behave, and believe very differently than, say, an American nationalist in the 21st century. President Trump recently declared himself to be a nationalist in an effort to differentiate himself from “globalists” who he believed “wants the globe to do well, frankly, but not caring our country so much.”
"You know what I am?” Trump continued, “I'm a nationalist." He admitted the word was a little “old-fashioned” but encouraged the audience to go ahead and use it for themselves if they like. “Old-fashioned” might be too understated of an admission as opponents of nationalism often accuse nationalists of being throwbacks to 20th century fascist, white supremacists, neo-Nazi sympathizers—an accusation I hardly think fits the vast majority of people who would be comfortable with the nationalist label.
If we are to accept the definition of nationalism as no more rigorous than talking smack about China, NAFTA, and the EU and implying vast swaths of immigrants are dangerous rapists, murderers, and terrorists, then Trump’s declaration might be of some use. But Trump is not known for expounding upon the finer nuances of political theories, and I do not believe this overly-simplified understanding of nationalism will be of much help to us here.
Allegiance, Duty, and Love of Country
Since supporters of nationalism can’t seem to satisfactorily define it and opponents of nationalism only wish to define it as something so grotesque it couldn’t possibly describe many of its adherents, it would appear nationalism is a concept that means a great many (different) things to a great many people.
We might say that nationalism expresses allegiance, duty, and love of the place we call home. And any allegiance, duty, and love of something can be made virtuous or corruptible depending on the circumstance, degree, timing, or kind we are expressing. We might say that our first duty is to our family. But would that mean that if a member of our family turned traitor to the United States and was actively releasing classified records on strategic and vulnerable military positions during a devastating war with an equally powerful foe, we would be justified in concealing their treason? But so too we could easily imagine a scenario in which putting the welfare of our country ahead of the welfare of our family would appear equally abhorrent.
I’m using an extremity here to make a point: pledging our allegiance, duty, and love is a trade-off between various competing interests. With the one religious caveat of God Himself, we will always run into trouble when our allegiance, duty, and love of one thing breaks out of its proper place and begins to absorb the attentiveness we ought to be showing other things. If nationalism means putting the nation’s interests ahead of everything else in all circumstances, it is hardly worth defending.
Nationalism vs Patriotism
Some attempt to clarify the matter by further dividing one’s fond feelings towards their country as either nationalism or patriotism. This paradigm explains that, while both the nationalist and the patriot might say they support their country, their fundamental difference lies in what they mean by support. The nationalist might be willing to sign on to harsh treatment of unwanted and illegal immigrants (from strict deportation all the way down to genocide) whereas the patriot would never support their country doing something they considered immoral or abhorrent. The nationalist’s love for their country seeks to put their country first. The patriot’s love for their country seeks to make their country morally virtuous. The nationalist seeks first the good for their country. The patriot seeks first for their country to be good.
But the problem with differentiating nationalism and patriotism in this way is one might simply conclude that nationalism is the bad kind of love of country whereas patriotism is the good kind. But such a distinction is mostly meaningless when attempting to compare and contrast nationalism with a worldview such as conservatism. We don’t get very far if we simply say conservatives oppose nationalism on the basis that it’s the bad kind of love of country because that begs the question: what is the bad kind of love of country? This would be like saying conservatives support good things and oppose bad things.
A Better Definition
Another National Review compatriot, Michael Brendan Dougherty, recently offered one of the best summations of nationalism I’ve yet encountered:
“My proposal is that nationalism as a political phenomenon is not a philosophy or science, though it may take either of those in hand. It isn’t an account of history. Instead, nationalism is an eruptive feature of politics. It grows out of the normal sentiments of national loyalty, like a pustule or a fever. It could even be said that nationalism is patriotism in its irritated state, or that nationalism recruits the patriotic sentiment to accomplish something in a fit of anger.” (Emphasis mine)
This is hardly the Wikipedia-version definition of a worldview that we might demand of something like conservatism, Marxism, or socialism, but it will work for our purposes here. In expressing nationalism as an eruptive phenomenon that may latch onto various philosophies or sciences as it finds convenient, we are in a better place to critique it. Nationalism, then, is less of a belief system and more of a group reaction.
When America was One
Growing up in a Free Holiness church—a Christian faith that emerged out of the Methodist/Wesleyan and Pentecostal traditions that emphasized abstaining from modern worldly entertainment—much of my entertainment came from listening to various forms of audio, including a great many radio programs from the 1940s and 1950s (the Golden Age of Radio).
What never ceased to amaze me in listening to those entertainers from generations back was the intensity of the patriotism they expressed on their programs. That era encompassed the United State’s involvement in the second World War, the greatest existential threat our nation faced since fighting the British. It was not at all unusual for a comedian or dramatic performer to include some commentary on the war effort, encouraging people to buy war bonds or give up personal items for military use, celebrating the latest reported victory overseas, or announcing the shipment of products to the embattled troops to bolster moral. There was a profound sense throughout this era that this war our war, that the troops in combat were our boys, and that every effort, thought, and resource should be generously poured into this righteous national project. Americans behaved as one.
This example of national unity stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam era or the embarrassing reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in the war in Iraq. The closets we’ve come to such unity—in my lifetime—was in the short period after the terrorist attacks on September 11. It was otherworldly and soul-stirring to see the American flag in proud display in front of nearly every business, every home, and every house of worship. Though it didn’t last, for a brief period Americans behaved as one.
Nationalists Must be Judged in the Circumstance
“One of the outstanding features of nationalist political movements, the thing that almost always strikes observers about them, is their irritated or aroused character,” Michael Brendan Dougherty observed. This explains why bouts of nationalism are most common when there’s a threat—real or perceived. The instances of warfare I’ve noted above are the most obvious examples. But there are other instances in which this nationalistic fervor may grip the nation (or at least some of the nation).
Listen to the most ardent supporters of president Trump and you’ll get an earful of nationalist exclamations. Many are stone-cold serious when they speak of America on the verge of complete collapse or how we were just one Clinton away from transforming the United States into the Soviet Union 2.0 in 2016. My point here isn’t to criticize these beliefs, but to show the connection between the sort of nationalism that embodies these beliefs about harm coming to the country they love. To the extent Trump is leading a nationalist movement, we might expect his most devoted followers to appear more animated—dare I say, angry—than your average panelist on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line.
Nationalism isn’t a viewpoint we can universally praise or condemn. There is a significant difference between the nationalist who’s motivated to take up arms against an invading force of British soldiers in wartimes or members of the opposition party in times of peace. Likewise, there’s a significant difference between nationalists of different countries in different eras.
Because of these variables, Michael Brendan Dougherty concluded that, “if nationalist political movements are national loyalties in this aroused state, then we must judge them on a case-by-case basis.” I agree. In the upcoming posts in this series I want to look first at instances in which nationalism can be beneficial and where the nationalist and the conservative see eye to eye. And in the final post we’ll turn to the business of how they do not.