If left-wing cosmopolitanism wins, it will be because our conservative nationalists were insufficiently nationalist. It will be because our conservative nationalists—both our populists and our elites—scorned and ignored too much of the nation they claim to love.
Let us start with our elites. Recently, William Kristol argued that, if the pathologies of the white working class are as bad as described by Charles Murray, we might be fortunate in getting an influx of immigrants to displace the “spoiled” struggling whites.
The least of what Kristol got wrong was the racial aspect. While the struggles of working-class whites are the subject of Murray’s Coming Apart, they are not the point of the book.
Murray uses working-class whites as a microcosm of the struggles of Americans at the lower end of the skill and education distribution. A focus on the least-educated African Americans would have been dismissed as racist and, in any case, those struggles could be described as the outcome of white supremacy. A focus on the least-educated workers in general would have been open to the same objection, since it could be argued that historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups were bringing down the averages for low-skilled workers.
Working-class whites were not subject to those conversation-stopping dismissals. By showing that the patterns of work, family formation, and civic engagement had diverged between the least- and most-educated whites, Murray could demonstrate that the collapse of marriage and civic engagement among low-skilled workers was a (relatively recent) American problem, rather than a black problem, a white problem, or a Hispanic problem.
This puts a different spin on Kristol’s words. What Murray wrote of the least-educated white workers since 1960 is also true of the least-educated African American workers. Does Kristol want to defend the proposition that African Americans were spoiled by the end of Jim Crow and should therefore be displaced?
Something has gone terribly wrong with America’s social processes for our least-educated workers, and we must focus on what will surely be the slow, painful, expensive work of repairing those processes. In the meantime, a country in which the least educated are less likely to work or to marry than they were sixty years ago should not use its immigration system to increase the ranks of low-skilled workers.
This is why the analyses of elite conservatives fail. Kristol’s comment is the reverse of Jeb Bush’s flattery of immigrants who value the freedom that the native-born take for granted. Kristol merely shifts the emphasis from flattery of immigrants to contempt for the native-born. Kristol’s comment is the 2017 version of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” Kinsley gaffe. Kristol and Romney are both decent, intelligent, and patriotic men, but it is difficult to be an effective nationalist when you despise the people of your nation. As the cliché goes, that’s how you got Trump.
That doesn’t mean that Trump’s nationalism will have staying power. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is, paradoxically, insufficiently nationalist. MAGA leaves out African Americans for whom America was not noticeably greater in the past—when, for instance, blacks were prevented from voting because of fraud and terror. MAGA leaves out that huge number of first- and second-generation Americans who are part of the post-1965 immigration wave (a category that includes this author, as well as most of Trump’s wives and children).
A conservative nationalism that can’t speak to both recent immigrant populations and anxious working-class whites will lose to left-wing cosmopolitanism. Working-class whites will stay home if they are offered nothing but contempt from elite conservatives. Patriotic, moderately conservative nonwhites will vote for liberal cosmopolitans who claim to love them, over nationalist conservatives who seem to think that nonwhites are a peripheral (and regrettable) part of the American nation.
This is a place where conservatives can learn from Reagan. No, not by blowing up the center-right coalition through another upfront amnesty bill. No, not by thinking that the open-borders utopianism of Reagan’s Farewell Address is a sound guide to contemporary policy.
One place to start would be by reading Henry Olsen and remembering Reagan’s streak of pro-worker pragmatism and nationalism. We should also remember how Reagan sold his conservative nationalism within the ethnic politics of mid-twentieth-century America.
Reagan was a Republican. The core membership of the Republican Party were the descendants of settlers from the pre-1850s wave of mass immigration. The trick to Reagan’s expansion of the party was making his ideals saleable not only to right-leaning Republicans, but also to the moderately conservative descendants of the immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. between the 1850s and 1920s, and who were skeptical of the GOP as a party of old-stock snobs.
Reagan was able to win over these historically Democratic voters because he had worked at understanding their worldview. As Lou Cannon pointed out, Reagan had internalized his Irish-American father’s contempt for anti-immigrant bigotry. When Reagan was a spokesman for General Electric, it was his job to sell limited-government politics to the sons and grandsons of the previous great wave of immigration.
A nationalist conservatism will become a genuine majority movement when it can speak respectfully and authentically to the national interest, and to the particular interests of America’s struggling workers—of all races, and regardless of whether their families came here twenty years ago, or two hundred twenty years ago. If we can’t do that, we should get ready for the left-wing occupation that we will have brought upon ourselves.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.