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The American right wing, long identified with the conservative movement, is increasingly latching onto something very different – nationalism – which frightens some students of history but is inspiring to a new breed of Republicans.
Some recent examples:
- Laying out his platform in a series of videos, former President Donald Trump accuses a “globalist class” of not putting America first.
- Amid the wreckage of ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s cable career lies a journey from garden-variety conservative to explicit White nationalist.
- An up-and-coming congressional backbencher calls for the GOP to be “the party of nationalism.”
These moments, which seem unremarkable to a regular consumer of news, remind us that the Republican Party has been struggling for decades to reconcile its internal partnership of nationalists and conservatives. If you just woke up to American politics in the past 30 years, the two terms seem synonymous, but they haven’t always been.
Nationalism is identity over philosophy
So what is a nationalist and what is a conservative? And does it matter if we use these terms interchangeably?
First, a quick definition: When academics use “nationalism” by itself, it’s the concept that some kind of identity matters more than philosophy. That can be a place, an ethnicity or a religion. In current US politics, we typically see that identity with Christian nationalism or White nationalism.
Defining conservatism is tricky
Whether you throw all the way back to the philosopher Edmund Burke or start with former President Ronald Reagan, conservatism has typically meant a resistance to radical change and a faith in caution, especially when it comes to government’s role in a citizen’s life.
Many conservatives bristle at being lumped in with the very idea of nationalism, even without add-ons like “Christian” or “White.” Their version of conservatism is irrespective of place.
Former Heritage Foundation Executive Vice President Kim Holmes argued in 2019 that “American conservatives have argued that one of the great things about America was that it was different from all other countries. Different from all other nationalisms.”
Embracing nationalism under Trump
Trump flipped that more open principle of conservatism around when he declared himself to be a “nationalist” in 2018. Most of his policy proposals as president were focused on putting “America First.”
For Holmes, American identity is “based on a universal creed … grounded in America’s founding principles.” Holmes sees kindred spirits and a shared struggle with conservatives elsewhere in the world who might share those principles.
It wasn’t always partisan
Conservativism as a concept wasn’t even partisan in the 20th century. Joe Biden embraced the term during his first term in the US Senate, telling Kitty Kelley of the Washingtonian in 1974, “When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues.”
Over time, the term has evolved. As Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the think tank New America and author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America,” told me, “Once upon a time, there was a consistent meaning, but now you can be a national security conservative, an economic conservative, a social conservative. It’s become more of an identity.”
Holmes said when conservatives lose confidence in the strength of their philosophy, it risks becoming an identity. “They think that traditional fusionist conservatism and the American exceptionalism idea are not strong enough. These ideas are not muscular enough. They want something stronger to stand up to the universal claims of globalism and progressivism that they believe are anti-American.”
A partnership is forged
Such a partnership between nationalism and conservatism, argues Angie Maxwell, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, was forged in the middle of the 20th century when the Republican Party worked to break the hold the Democratic Party had on the South since the Reconstruction to the late 20th century.
“We see the Republican Party try to adopt the specific brand of Southern White conservatism,” she said.
Maxwell said while the party was divided over the strategy, various Republican campaigns noted they could pick up voters by emphasizing Christian values, anti-feminism and racial resentment. In the 1960s, she noted, sentiments on those three dynamics would split evenly among members of both parties, while today those views are disproportionately felt by Republican voters.
Which leads us to today, where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, says plainly, “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”
“There’s nothing conservative about Marjorie Taylor Greene, if conservative means we should tread with caution, we should not blow things up, we should have restraint and humility,” argued Drutman, harkening back to Burke, who many consider the founder of modern conservatism. “In some ways, (former President Barack) Obama is much more of a Burkean conservative.”
What lies ahead
Drutman noted that some forms of nationalism are benign: “You can argue that’s what’s great about America – that we have a diverse and pluralist society, (that) America is the greatest nation in the world because we welcome everyone.”
What concerns Drutman is Greene’s kind of identity-driven nationalism.
“What is changed in our politics is the extent to which our political divisions have led us to see competing viewpoints as illegitimate. For half the country to treat the other half as if they were a threat to the country,” Drutman said. “Maybe there are some issues where we should be more conservative. They become dangerous when their adherents deny that there is legitimate opposition.”
That also concerned Holmes, writing in 2019 before Greene was elected, when he warned, “Nationalism is devoid of a common idea or principle of government except that a people or a nation-state can be almost anything. It can be fascist, it can be authoritarian, it can be totalitarian, or it can be democratic.”