For years, I feared that the political Left's ugly embrace of identity politics would generate an equally ugly backlash, and sure enough we're seeing it take place. I'm not particularly concerned about the bizarre bands of white nationalists who have crawled out from under their rocks to march with their Confederate banners. They've always been around—and they were vastly outnumbered in their latest Washington, D.C. march. They can be dangerous, but their extremism gives them a fairly limited appeal.
But I am concerned about a striking shift in conservative thinking that has moved in a more race-conscious and nationalistic direction. The modern Republican Party has long faced a battle between its paleoconservative and neoconservative wings. The prime dispute had centered on foreign policy: The paleos don't believe that the United States government should be meddling around the globe, whereas the neocons made nation-building a prime focus.
The neoconservatives had the upper hand since the Reagan administration, largely because of the hard-to-dispute threat from the Soviet Union. But the disastrous "wars of choice" waged by both Presidents Bush have helped pave the way for a resurgence of the "America First" philosophy. Donald Trump's military policy is inconsistent and his advisers come from both factions of the GOP, but he has breathed new life into the paleoconservative wing—and not just on military matters.
What does this have to do with resurgent—or at least more visible—white nationalism?
Well, the paleos' admirable noninterventionist stance doesn't come in a vacuum. It emanates from a less-admirable overall philosophy that rails against "internationalism" in all its forms. Hence, we see the Trump administration's focus on curtailing immigration and adopting tariffs, with direct appeals to nationalism. Basically, the two sides have a fundamentally different perspective on what it means to be a nation.
Most Republican leaders, since Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, have generally accepted the notion of America as an idea. It's a place where individuals of all backgrounds can be free to pursue their own dreams. Under this view, immigrants should come here legally and embrace the basic tenets of society. But, to them, America should be welcoming to people of all races, ethnicities and religions. Likewise, the idea-oriented version of our nation focuses on economic freedom, including international trade.
The paleoconservatives focus on America as a product of a specific time, place and people. In some instances, it has more in common with the type of populist conservatives one finds in Europe. They talk about national identity, culture and, at times, ethnicity. They also mock the economic priorities of the other brand of conservatives. These conservatives rarely speak about liberty or limiting government.
It's not hard to see how the playing field has shifted since the Trump election. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that Trump or his supporters are racist or white nationalists. But some of the deep thinkers on that side of the aisle have views of cultural matters that give libertarians such as myself the willies. For instance, former Republican presidential candidate and commentator Pat Buchanan has long been one of the leading advocates of the paleoconservative view.
Here's what he wrote last year: "Who, during the centuries-long discovery and conquest of the New World, really believed that the lives of the indigenous peoples were of equal worth with those of the colonizers? 'All men are created equal' is an ideological statement. Where is the scientific or historic proof for it? Are we building our utopia on a sandpile of ideology and hope?"
Another prominent and controversial paleoconservative, the late Sam Francis of The Washington Times, argued that "Capitalism, an economic system driven only, according to its own theory, by the accumulation of profit, is at least as much the enemy of tradition as the NAACP or communism." As the New York Times' David Brooks wrote, "There's very little Donald Trump has done or said that Francis didn't champion a quarter century ago."
Recently, Fox News host Laura Ingraham said, "Because in some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they're changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don't like." After criticism, she clarified that the remarks had nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but we see how these ideas are creeping into the mainstream.
Obviously, the left has long been fixated on racial and ethnic politics, which has done immeasurable damage to the American idea of freedom and justice for all. I understand why many Americans would push back against a world of 51 gender categories and Critical Race Theory. But you can see why some of us would like to see the Republican Party take a more forceful and public stand on behalf of freedom and opportunity for all.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at email@example.com. This column was first published in the Orange County Register.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.