There wasn’t much to be excited about in President Trump’s inaugural address last week. The speech’s language itself was, of course, more demotic and crude than that of any inaugural in American history. And there is no doubt Trump neglected to provide the invocations of our national civic religion one expects at such occasions. These developments aren’t necessarily all bad. While the decline of oratory is lamentable, Trump’s plain-spokenness really just makes stark the rhetorical emptiness that has characterized American political speeches for decades. And while our civic religion does periodically need reinvigoration, perhaps it is appropriate to take a break from tired (and increasingly implausible) paeans to this great land of opportunity.
Yet while certainly a disappointment, many of the conservative critiques of the speech (exemplified by this Bill Kristol tweet) proved rather helpful in making me see the bright side of Trump’s rhetorical pivot. After all, it is a very good thing indeed that our President has retired the utopian clichés of late-stage neoconservatism. President Bush’s Second Inaugural gave us enough of those shibboleths to last several lifetimes.
In fact, I am pleased to see a rhetorical and philosophical transition toward a civic nationalist conservatism. But I remain worried that Trump’s nationalism won’t really move beyond the dogmas of the recent past. As someone pointed out to me over lunch a couple days ago, in many ways Trump is simply assembling all the nation’s worst clichés, left and right, since World War II. The GOP’s new civic nationalism accordingly threatens to combine the very worst of social democratic statism with the very worst of Reaganite supply-side economics, adding a new contribution of caesarist, rule-by-command.
Trump’s rhetoric of national greatness in many respects recalls the progressive “New Nationalism” of Teddy Roosevelt. Fixated with an illusory “national community,” such nationalism demands war against corrupt elites (the swamp Trump so desperately wishes to drain) to advance the public good. In Roosevelt’s words:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from overdivision of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.
I certainly agree that many of our elites represent a grave threat to the health of our national culture and civic institutions. But I fear that Trump’s
authoritarian pragmatic impulse may well be a cure as deadly as our disease. Calvin
observed that when any man “begins to feel that he is the only one who can
lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our
institutions.” And if there is anything at all we can be sure Trump actually
believes, it is that he is the indispensable man.
I had hoped then for an inaugural less charged with the impulse to remake America anew, and more dedicated to providing a philosophical statement of the meaning of citizenship. In this regard, Teddy Roosevelt is not a bad act to follow. Our politics today is threatened by seemingly intractable cultural divisions, fueled unrelentingly by the academy’s fixation with identity politics. What is needed in response is a restatement of American citizenship without hyphens:I was glad to hear in Trump’s inaugural one or two references to a pan-ethnic American solidarity. But the speech did little to provide a clear statement of the meaning of American citizenship. To be a citizen is to be given the real opportunity to lead a decent, flourishing, American life. It entails a thick commitment not only to our people’s material prosperity, but to their ability to assimilate into the cultural mainstream.
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul….
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
This is the argument from solidarity civic nationalists should advance in favor of immigration restrictionism, for example. Solidarity cannot be sustained in a nation that lacks the ability to integrate immigrants and their children. Our primary priority today should be extending opportunity and social dignity to the millions of Americans who have been forgotten, including, of course, our black racial underclass. But with a foreign-born share of the population at historic highs, and with assimilation rates slowing, continued mass migration threatens to further ossify an existing racial caste system.
The nationalist, "America First" philosophy of immigration demands taking in relatively few immigrants, but affording those we do take in a real chance at cultural and economic integration. At the same time, it calls us to prioritize expanding opportunities to the most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens before maximizing global utility and welfare.
Such a renewed ethos of solidarity should be the core of a civic nationalist conservatism. I can't say I am optimistic that this is what President Trump’s promise of “America First” will deliver, but I can say I remain hopeful.