That sounds like a pretty interesting and important Washington, D.C. conference that took place last week that gathered a bunch of politicians, pundits, intellectuals (how I hate that word!) and activists of all kinds on the political Right. Their aim: Developing a form of “national conservatism.” Think of it as a large-scale attempt to create Trump-ism without the – ah – idiosyncracies of its namesake.
Not that it will be easy to accomplishing this worthy goal – which appears to amount to seeking to replace the economic libertarian- and globalist-dominated views that have predominated on the Right for so long with something much better suited to advance the interests of working-class Americans.
After all, like it or not, the President’s controversial character in general clearly pleases a big chunk of the electorate, and it’s probably a major contributor to the near-universal support he enjoys with avowedly Republican voters. Moreover, Trump-ism as practiced by the President includes a lot of economic libertarian-ism, as indicated by his early and avid support for a business-heavy tax cut plan, for major cuts in the discretionary portion of the federal government, and for substantially easing environmental and other regulations. And for good measure, as I’ve written, his foreign policy honors America-First precepts in the breach at least as often as not.
So the presidential version of Trump-ism has not surprisingly attracted backers from all over the Right, and the big disagreements that apparently broke out at the conference were just as predictable. One of the thorniest has to do with the intertwined issues of identity politics and immigration, But however emotional such disputes are likely to remain, they seem to me among the easiest to resolve – at least if Trump-ism is to have any viable long-term political future, and more important, to play a constructive role in resolving them.
According to one sympathetic conservative writer, Henry Olsen, too many of the conservatives at the conference, and too many Trump supporters generally, seem insistent on emphasizing “the country’s past as a British Protestant nation, one where the vast supermajority of citizens took their moral cues from the Bible as the guide to its future.”
The author, a Washington Post columnist who is supportive in particular of much of the “nationalist” part of national conservatism (especially on the crucial trade and immigration fronts), argues correctly that “Since the 1890s, the country has successfully defined what it means to be American without recourse to denominational persuasion or British heritage.”
And in my view, he’s equally correct in contending that claims (mainly from the social conservative wing of conservatism) like “Christianity was the force that created America” simplistically overlook the more inclusive beliefs of the Founding Fathers, ignore centuries of massive demographic change, and “argue for modern America’s de facto dissolution.”
So what does hold us together – and just as important, has held us together for so long? Olsen’s pinpointing of 1890 brings the answer very close. Because its precise chronological location is the year 1915. That’s when soon-to-be-appointed Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis gave a speech in Boston titled, “True Americanism.”
If you think the title means that Brandeis was a jingoistic xenophobe, think again. He was the son of immigrants from Prague, the first Jew to sit on the high court, and a genuine titan of that era’s progressive movement. And in this address, he presented probably the strongest, most eloquent descriptions of what is unquestionably the most admirable, and effective, unifying forces a work throughout American history – what most of us would call the “American way of life.”
Indeed, Brandeis’ theme that day was why the country should welcome the immigrants arriving during that era in record numbers, and how it could maintain the consensus on bedrock national values and governing practices that’s vital to any society’s coherence – and therefore success.
I’ve quoted from this speech before, but it’s worth revisiting at some length. In Brandeis’ words, since its founding, America had
“admitted to our country and to citizenship immigrants from the diverse lands of Europe. We had faith that thereby we could best serve ourselves and mankind. This faith has been justified. The United States has grown great. The immigrants and their immediate descendants have proved themselves as loyal as any citizens of the country. Liberty has knit us closely together as Americans. Note the common devotion to our Country’s emblem expressed at the recent Flag Day celebration in New York by boys and girls representing more than twenty different nationalities warring abroad.”
He also implored his audience, “let us not forget that many a poor immigrant comes to us from distant lands, ignorant of our language, strange in tattered clothes and with jarring manners, who is already truly American in this most important sense; who has long shared our ideals and who, oppressed and persecuted abroad, has yearned for our land of liberty and for the opportunity of abiding in the realization of its aims.”
But crucially, he added, simple admission was not enough. Nor was the adoption by immigrants of “the clothes, the manners and the customs generally prevailing here” or even substituting “for his mother tongue, the English language as the common medium of speech.”
“To become Americanized,” Brandeis argued, “the change wrought must be fundamental. However great his outward conformity, the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this. He must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment. Only when this has been done, will he possess the national consciousness of an American.”
I won’t describe Brandeis’ specific definition of that consciousness (you really should read it), but I can’t imagine that any American of good faith would quarrel significantly with it (although Brandeis’ view that this system of beliefs was distinctive and distinctively virtuous wouldn’t sit too well with many on the Left).
What plainly has been even more controversial in recent decades, however, is the equally Brandeis-ian idea that these beliefs need to be actively propagated, and his emphasis on lifelong education makes clear that this mission needed to be carried out not just by the schools, but by many of society’s most important institutions: “the public platform [i.e., by political leaders]…discussion in the lodges and the trade unions….”
So if national conservatism wants to be truly national, and therefore, successful, it will have no choice but to rally round the view that anyone from any part of the world can become an American – if Americanizing them becomes a national priority again. Of course, that’s the key to success for liberalism, too – which unlike too much of conservatism, is fine with the “anyone” part of the above conviction, but seems convinced that diversity should be sought uber alles, and perhaps exclusively.
Which portion of the political spectrum will be the first to recognize the synthesis – which will be a win not only for its own fortunes but, as history has taught, for the nation as a whole? So far, I’d bet on the conservatives. But not heavily.