What Nationalism Really Means

What Nationalism Really Means

Below are Dissent editor-at-large Sarah Leonard’s opening remarks at our debate with the editors of American Affairs, last Friday at the Verso Books office in Brooklyn. To watch the full debate, click here. To read Tim Shenk’s opening remarks, click here.

In the last six years, we’ve seen waves of organizing on the left: Occupy, then Black Lives Matter, then yes, the Bernie campaign, and now the explosive growth of organizations representing socialism, reproductive rights, and immigrants rights. I have heard the tired phrase “identity politics” used to describe these movements, but that is only another way of saying that they look like America. In fact, they look like its future. Consider: millennials voted for Bernie. By 2032, the working class will be majority minority—if you’re an American being born in the United States today, odds are you aren’t white.

What’s remarkable about this coalition is it seeks to heal the divisions that have prevented working people from organizing against those who dominate them for a long time. For example: Black Lives Matter produced a platform that boasts a sophisticated economic program and wraps up gender justice under its mantel. Democratic Socialists of America, a pretty white organization if truth be told, is out working on gentrification and walking picket lines with AT&T workers.

Now, many see Trump as the wave of the future, and this is understandable. The man won an election, despite relentless efforts to sabotage himself. Like Bernie, he became a vehicle for those who felt alienated and victimized by the political establishment. We know, and we should be glad, that people are fed up with politics as they stand. But we should ask ourselves: is Trumpism the best we can do? In a journal, where you have freedom to imagine and to plan, why this agenda?

American Affairs tells us that nationalism is the answer. They believe that capitalism isn’t the problem, but what theorist James Burnham called “the managerial elite”—disloyal professional globalists with no ties to the nation, who are the real enemies exploiting the masses (sort of a cute dodge to avoid blaming capitalists, and therefore replace class struggle with a nationalist one). These elites must be disciplined by nationalism.

All the people I described earlier, who have been fighting the excesses of capitalism for so long, don’t seem to be getting behind your plan and Trump’s. Not only are Trump voters overwhelmingly white, but so is American Affairs: a masthead of all white men, a first issue made of all white men, and a second issue that has managed to squeeze in one white woman. I wonder why?

Since you are all erudite, I’m sure I don’t have to puzzle out why people of color haven’t flocked to a nationalist agenda. Nationalism in America is always accompanied by paranoid attempts to purge the agents within—interning Japanese Americans during the Second World War, attacking Sikhs as we geared up for war in Afghanistan. When Trump stands up and says “these are my people,” it has that George Wallace ring to it. He doesn’t mean “all Americans.” He means the people who are cheering his attacks on the rest of us, all under the guise of making America great again. So, whose America?

When you choose nationalism as your refuge from modernity, you exclude all but the only people who have ever truly loved American nationalism—white people, especially men. That’s not what America looks like. That’s your fantasy, the imaginary American community to whom you claim loyalty in your pages. It’s a vision with a tenuous relationship to reality, one you can only see, ironically, with the type of blinders they seem to distribute to Serious Harvard Men for some reason.

After reading Julius Krein’s essay about James Burnham, I read a sort of wonderful critique of Burnham by George Orwell. After considering several disastrous predictions Burnham made during the Second World War, all predicting the ultimate victory of whoever was winning at that moment, Orwell argues that this tendency had roots “partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.”

I would propose that American Affairs is like Burnham in more ways than one. The contributors don’t necessarily worship Trump, though at least one has joined his odious administration. Most of the editors are content to play footsy. But they think that white nationalism is the great force that will shake up our elites because it won this time, and they’re willing to get on board alongside all its ghastly baggage. It’s a cheap, short-term, and cowardly political vision.

Now, it’s not polite to call someone else’s journal a crypto-white nationalist project, and who knows, my mom may be watching, but I’ll cite your esteemed contributor Michael Anton, who is a senior national security official in the Trump administration. He has said, just prior to your journal being born, in an essay called “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism”: “Islam and the modern west are incompatible.” He later moderates this by saying “not all Muslims are terrorists, blah, blah, blah.” Now, what’s remarkable about this statement is not the casual racism. What’s notable is that it conflates the modern west, or America, with . . . Christianity? Whiteness? Certainly not with the people who live here. When American Affairs talks about nationalism, it’s a proxy for a white America they wish existed, but doesn’t and won’t without something worse than internment. Just as William F. Buckley at the National Review struggled to make segregation respectable sixty years ago, will you make alt-right racism respectable by sticking it in a Harvard gown? Take it out of the hands of Milo and make it tweedy again? First as tragedy, then truly as farce.


Sarah Leonard is a senior editor at the Nation and editor-at-large at Dissent.

To watch Dissent’s full debate with American Affairs, click here. To read Tim Shenk’s opening remarks, click here.

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