When it comes to understanding the divides within the right, I think that some of the labels are a little off. Some critics have spoken of a globalist vs. nationalist divide on the right. I think that Trump and his Republican critics each represent a different form of broken nationalism, but those who speak of “globalist” Republicans are on to something important about the failure of conventional Republicans to connect with large parts of America.
There are globalists on the left, among libertarians, and even within the business community. But these categories don’t describe the main fault lines within the right. The main competition on the right is between partisans of different kinds of incomplete nationalism.
Think of the Republicans who are closest to being the opposites of Trump. Some of the names that come to mind are Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. These are the kinds of politicians who are called “globalists” by Trump partisans, but it is useful to compare them to leftwing post-nationalists.
The conventional Republicans don’t want the United States to be subordinate to transnational institutions such as the European Union, and they only have use for the United Nations on those rare occasions when it is useful to the accomplishment of American goals.
These Republicans aren’t multiculturalists. They have an infinite faith in the ability of America to assimilate. They, more than any other American faction, believe in the melting pot that leftists despise as racist and many Trumpites fear has broken.
They aren’t wracked with guilt over America’s past sins (though they do acknowledge them). They focus on the positive side of America, as the first truly creedal national that is open to everybody, regardless of surname, skin color, or religion. They look with pity on countries whose development has been deformed by the moral polio of ethno-nationalism.
These Republicans are among the greatest enthusiasts for using force to advance American interests and values around the world—with our sometimes-cowardly allies if possible, but proudly alone if necessary.
This is the point where conventional Republicans of the McCain/Jeb Bush/Paul Ryan stripe point out that theirs is a peaceful and positive love of country, unlike the haughty prejudice that is nationalism. Nonsense. If John McCain is not a nationalist, then there are no nationalists anywhere.
That doesn’t mean that Trumpists aren’t on to something. There are similarities between the post-nationalist left and the conventionally nationalist right, but they don’t have to do with globalism. They have to do with meritocracy.
As Noah Millman pointed out, the left thinks of its leadership class as a moral and technical aristocracy, but it struggles to define the constituency for this class. The most it can do is define that constituency as the residents of a given territory at a given moment.
But even that isn’t quite right. The really angry, elite British opponents of Brexit wanted to keep the UK in the EU, but they would gladly have seen the Brexit-voting UK majority out of the country. For the cosmopolitans, their true fellow citizens are the Brussels bureaucrats and the hopeful migrants, rather than their populist countrymen. The Remainers are ultimately cosmopolitans who are stuck with working through national institutions until they can be transcended.
The conventional Republicans come at meritocracy from the other end. It’s not that they consider themselves fit to rule, but that they consider Americanness to be something that is awarded according to meritocratic criteria. They call this civic nationalism.
You hear it when they talk about how America is based on agreement about the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or how anyone who comes here to work hard should be welcomed. The criteria for being American are meritocratic ones: having the right principles and meeting certain standards of productivity. By this logic, the heart of America is found anywhere in the world where someone gets home from a double shift and, before going to bed, has a good cry over the Gettysburg Address. That’s the real America. Appalachia and Detroit, not so much.
The problem with this civic nationalism is that it isn’t … civic. It leaves out large numbers of our countrymen who have the wrong political ideas (or no particular political ideas) or are mired in social or economic disaster—even as it notionally expands citizenship to anyone who wants to get here and repeat the proper formulae. These meritocratic nationalists talk about American Exceptionalism, but they don’t know what to do with unexceptional Americans.
The problem with this meritocratic nationalism is that it sets up the conventional Republican elites not as post-Americans, but as boss-Americans. They become not public servants within a society of equals, but management on the lookout for lower-cost, lower-fuss employees. The boss-Americans can’t lay off their more troublesome fellow citizens from the job of being Americans, but they can ignore them and replace them with those who are worthier to be real Americans.
I can see why this is an attractive proposition for Republican elites. It seems better than the available alternatives of either leftwing cosmopolitanism or white nationalism. But this meritocratic nationalism is too brittle and too alienating, and its understanding of America too abstract.
It’s great to believe in the Declaration’s statement of God-given rights and to admire the statesmanship and wisdom of Lincoln, but we also need a true civic nationalism. That civic nationalism starts with the interests of the people who are our fellow citizens. These civic ties (which are not the only ties that matter) don’t exist because our fellow American is better than some fellow in Demark or Tanzania or Japan, but because we are part of the same community and we have some reciprocal responsibilities to each other and to our country. With this civic nationalism, it becomes clear that our priority should be to help the most struggling of our communities.
The good news for conventional Republicans is that a genuinely civic nationalism can’t be an ethnic or a white nationalism. It must embrace the vast numbers of first- and second-generation Americans (including this author) who are part of our country. But in order to embrace the whole of our actually existing country, our nationalism needs to be less self-servingly meritocratic, and less dependent on ideological tests.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.