Your new book, Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism, defines conservative nationalism as one of the central features of the Republican Party’s culture over decades. Could you briefly summarize for our readers your analysis of this trend in U.S. political culture?
The way I trace it is really back to the American founding. You have at the founding a foreign policy tradition which emphasizes national sovereignty and freedom of action of the United States as an independent country. Both Washington and Jefferson phrase that in different ways. Jefferson calls it “no entangling alliances” – this idea that the US will retain a sort of freedom of action internationally, Washington referred to it in his farewell address as well. That actually was the mainstream American foreign policy tradition throughout the 19th century and then well into the 20th century. It is a nationalist tradition, but it is a distinctly American tradition. I would say it is conservative in the sense that it was meant to literally conserve the American experiment – the American regime, system of government, as well as American independence internationally.
This American conservatism is tied up with a civic form of nationalism, which emphasizes rule of law, constitutionalism, limited government, opportunity, individual liberty, and so on. That is a bipartisan tradition throughout much of the 19th century. It is really challenged most aggressively by Woodrow Wilson during World War One when he offers a different foreign policy paradigm. That is what today we call the liberal internationalist tradition as opposed to the conservative nationalist one.
Wilson was revolutionary because he suggested that the United States needed to make multilateral, enduring, permanent, and binding commitments worldwide; a collective security system globally and universally. Of course, the U.S. Senate rejected his proposal in the short term by recusing the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. But in the end, Wilsonism in the 1940s is vindicated in a more pragmatic form by presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. That then becomes the mainstream tradition in U.S. foreign policy for generations.
I think one of the things that made Trump so unusual and shocking for a lot of people is that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he refers back to an older tradition prior to the 1940s. In other words, he questioned that entire Wilsonian-liberal-internationalist framework. He never said exactly what he planned to do to replace it; it was more a question of disruption than of reconstruction. But he clearly questioned or disrupted the existing paradigm. I think in a way, whether knowingly or not, he refers back to that older nationalist American foreign policy tradition, putting great emphasis on freedom of action internationally. That is a central theme in my book. That is how I see conservative American nationalism in foreign affairs and where Trump fits in at the broadest level.
Where did Trump innovate or disrupt the traditions of U.S. foreign policy?
In some ways, there is more continuity than we might have thought. For example, Trump said, NATO is obsolete. In in the end, of course, NATO still exists. In terms of continuities, I don’t think Trump ever got out of bed in the morning and said, “How can I wreck the liberal international order?” I don’t think he thought about it one way or the other. What he actually argued for decades was that the United States had provided benefits – economic and military benefits – for its allies without receiving proportionate benefits itself. It has to be admitted that he was pretty consistent about that. He didn’t say it in the usual thinktank way, with set-piece speeches in a formal setting; he said it in off the cuff in radio interviews or on the Howard Stern Show, but he actually kept saying the same thing for over 30 years.
Trump is a kind of instinctive populist and nationalist in the sense of believing that the United States needs to retain a great deal of freedom of action and that it has been taken advantage of by its allies as much as its adversaries. Trump then ran on a platform in 2016 advocating for clawing back greater benefits materially for the United States thinking in narrow terms about material interests, looking to renegotiate trading arrangements, or renegotiating military arrangements. There was an open-endedness to it which was exactly what made a lot of people nervous about the end game. I’m not sure he himself knew the end game. I think he made some broad commitments to direction without necessarily knowing the end game.
What is striking about his presidency is that he has pushed the envelope on a lot of commitments; some he abandoned altogether, some he renegotiated, some he kept, some remain unchanged. It has been a mixture of disruption and continuity, depending on the specific commitment or the specific arrangement if you go down the list regionally and functionally.
One could also say that there is a sense of disruption versus continuity in Republican foreign policy traditions and ideas. For example, Trump clearly rejected the George W. Bush policy of the freedom agenda in the greater Middle East. He said that these interventions were a waste, that they were a mistake, and that we should never have gone into Iraq in the first place. He questioned fundamentally why we were in Afghanistan. That is a big change from G. W. Bush. However, when you add it all up, the United States has not completely exited those regions. It still retains troops in the Middle East, it still retains troops in Afghanistan, and it has a hardline policy on Iran. It is still a player in the region, backing its allies and opposing its adversaries. Taking the Middle East as just one example, there has been a combination of continuity and disruption and I think one finds that that is true in almost every case.
Now that Trump is defeated, what is the future of national conservatism in a post-Trump era? Do you think there is a long-lasting “Trumpism” that will continue to shape the Republican Party’s culture and the way it speaks to its audience?
There it depends on exactly how you define “Trumpism.” For example, some people are more sympathetic to the ideas than to the personality. I suppose one might find some people who feel the reverse. There are some who like both, and some who like neither. Part of what is so striking about Trump is just his personality –his demeanor –his character. The way he has responded to this election result, for instance, is so unusual. Part of it, I think, is what do we mean by “Trumpism.” I doubt we’re going to see an exact replica of his personality, his character, his demeanor, or his decision-making style. This is something that probably no other Republican politician will exactly replicate. He is just unique. He is a very unusual person to put in the White House.
In terms of the policy themes, I think one might see a little more continuity. For example, on trade, the Republican Party was thought of as the party of free trade for several decades. If anything, it was the base of the Democratic Party that was more protectionist. Trump, of course, leapfrogged over that distinction and took a more protectionist stand on trade. This was a stunning outcome. What we didn’t realize going into 2016 was how much appeal a protectionist stance might have to blue collar Republicans in rust belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. That actually played pretty well and it didn’t hurt him against Hillary Clinton either. It was one of Trump’s ingredients in his ability to break the Democrats’ hold on those upper Midwestern states initially.
As it turns out, there is a wing of the party that is more protectionist. This is an example of something that I don’t think it’s going to go away. Politicians tend to see what works politically and then copy it. Thus, if Republican politicians believe that a good chunk of their base is more skeptical of free trade, they are ultimately going to respond to that. From here we can start to make distinctions. Do we really need to pick fights with the EU? Personally, I don’t think we do.
On China, I would say Trump has won the argument. There is now almost universal agreement in the Republican Party that that free trade with China didn’t work and that China itself never practiced free trade in the first place. Therefore, it is time to get tough on China. If anything, I think we are going to see that as a major unifying theme for Republicans of different types moving forward. This is an example of where a more protectionist line on trade, or “Trumpism,” if you want to call it that, is going to probably have a legacy beyond Trump himself. This is certainly true with respect to China and maybe even in other areas depending on how Republican leaders proceed. That’s the trade angle.
Another angle would be greater skepticism toward new military interventions. Trump, oddly enough, had more in common with progressives than traditional Republican hawks on some of these issues like Afghanistan. It was very clear how he felt about it. He kept saying, “Why are we there?” I think if he had his way, we would be gone from Afghanistan by the time he leaves the White House. However, he’s finding that that’s hard to do. This represents a wing of the Republican Party that is more skeptical of military interventions overseas. It is still very hardline on terrorism. Strictly speaking, Trump’s line is pro-military defense or defense spending and very aggressive against jihadist terrorists when it comes to issues like interrogation and targeting and detention. But when it comes to large-scale, nationbuilding, counterinsurgency operations, Trump is very much against it. A lot of Republicans, I think, now feel the same way. That is another example of a shift that is taking place that I think might outlast him.
Taking into consideration everything that has been said about Trump and the far right, Trump and Bannon, Trump and white supremacists, do you think this is really a key feature of Trump’s political personality?
I doubt that Trump himself has much interest in the far right, per se. I don’t think he thinks about it very much. One thing to always keep in mind is, at the end of the day, he is a crass, outer-borough, New York real estate developer who sees the world based on his experiences over several decades. I have my own point of view on his character personality, but I’ve never seen him as a kind of nascent dictator. For one thing, I don’t think that the system allows for it. For another thing, I don’t think he has any interest in it. If what we’re seeing this month is an attempted coup by Donald Trump, it is extremely incompetent and is not going to happen. That tells you something about the system that we live in.
I don’t really think Trump has ever had much of a personal identification with what is called the far right. It is easy sometimes to project onto the United States movements in other countries where you really do have those movements. For example, Golden Dawn in Greece. That that is a genuinely neo-fascist movement. We can get into the specifics of the far right in America, but that that is not a mass movement. What you have among most Republicans is a traditional emphasis on law and order or being tough on crime. These are classic themes that have been there for a while. They were there under Nixon, Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush. That is actually nothing new; that is a mainstream conservative right-of-center view on issues of crime and law and order. I think that actually explained a lot of the reaction of Republicans to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The other thing is this issue of political correctness. I don’t know if this is as big a term in Europe, but there really has been a backlash against left wing identity politics, multiculturalism, and political correctness in the United States. The Republican Party has tilted to be an explicitly politically incorrect party. That was one of Trump’s strengths politically as he spoke directly to that. Sometimes that meant he spoke in ways that were outrageous or offensive, or even just off the cuff, but the idea that average citizens need to police their language and behavior and thought, at all times, based on what left liberal opinion leaders say, is not terribly popular in this country. There are a lot of people that find it very annoying. That’s something that Trump was able to tap into, in a big way and I don’t think that’s going to go away.
Do you see conservative nationalism as specific to U.S. culture, or as a widespread phenomenon? What makes it different from the similar political projects we have in Europe and maybe even beyond Europe?
One of the differences is that American nationalism has always been civic. That is not to deny that there has been an ethnic nationalism in the United States historically. In fact, there has always been a strain of that thought present. For example, in the 19th century, there was a strain of thought emphasizing Anglo-Saxon Protestantism as foundational for the country. That encompasses the ethnic strain. But there has also always been a civic strain which is more about ideas or values of citizenship, lawfulness, constitutionalism, limited government, or a distinct American creed, that is not specific. In other words, somebody can come to this country, from a different part of the world with any ethnicity, any religion, any race, and join that church. It is creed-based rather than ethnicity-based. That is actually quite popular on the right. There are a lot of conservatives who really do feel that way. In fact, a lot of Trump supporters feel that way. I think that that’s a tradition which, at its best, is not one of ethnic nationalism, but one of civic nationalism.
Now, I think one difference internationally is that nationalism in a lot of other countries has often been identified with a more exclusively ethnic version, which really is about the prerogatives and the supremacy of a specific ethnicity. For instance, Serbian nationalism or Russian nationalism. The other difference is, in a lot of countries, nationalism has been identified more with a truly authoritarian political tendency. People will debate whether Trump and the last few years has represented a turn towards authoritarian rule in the United States, but the country remains a democracy. It remained a democracy in the last four years, and it will remain one looking ahead. It is not an authoritarian country and there just isn’t really much support for that. I think American nationalism is democratic and it expresses itself democratically.
A more conceptual question now. Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How would you relate to the term “illiberalism” and how do you articulate it with the notion of “conservative nationalism” and with that the notion more widespread among academia of “populism”? What are the gaps and overlaps?
I think populism is a fair term to use. To me, populism simply means resentment of established elites: anti-establishment. That can take all kinds of forms that can be more benign or less benign. In the United States, there have been populist movements over the years that sometimes influence or are attached to one party or the other. Really, their only common theme is that they are anti-elitist. They tend to have a very unfriendly view toward the interests and values of some existing elite. In the 1890s, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination as a populist and reoriented the Democratic Party. Then, he was really speaking on behalf of western farmers and the interests of western farmers. Again, it is not that he is some nascent dictator. Rather, he had an economic program that was distinct from the one that was more fiscally conservative at the time from either party. He was speaking on behalf of debtor. That was a populist movement that then was incorporated into the Democratic Party. That has tended to be the American tradition.
The Republican Party over the years has sometimes had populist movements inform it, influence it, or overlap with it, and I think that absolutely describes Trumpism: Trump is a natural-born populist for better or worse. He is not really even conservative; I don’t think he claimed to be one. But he is a populist, he actually does have that. Odd as this is to say about a New York billionaire, he is an instinctive political populist and his style, of course, is just as important as the substance.
Illiberalism is something I’m a little more skeptical of because I’ve never been exactly clear as to what it means. It could include almost any political group internationally that does not accept a specifically progressive policy agenda. I think we’re familiar with Karl Popper and the notion of an open society and its enemies. But I think the word illiberal, in journalistic circles last few years, has been used to describe almost anyone who isn’t liberal in the narrow sense. Thus, you could include everyone from Vladimir Putin, to ISIS, to democratically oriented conservatives. I’m not sure what the analytic utility is of that, but I’d be curious to hear more about that.
I think that the other question has to be, whether the term illiberalism allows space for democratic actors. In other words, parties, individuals, or factions that are committed to democracy but are not specifically liberal in the narrow sense. One of the things that makes the United States interesting, of course, is that there actually is a consensual American creed in both parties that is classically liberal, even though we argue about its meaning and implications vociferously. You’re not going to find very many Americans in either party saying that individual freedom is a value that is repellent. I think American nationalism has a classical liberal element built into it from the start through that civic nationalism. That’s one of the qualities of that makes the United States unusual. What’s happened the last few years is that some people feel clearly that that’s under threat, but there’s no agreement from which direction. Democrats and Republicans disagree very much on where they see the threat to that.
Colin Dueck is a Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He studied politics at Princeton University, and international relations at Oxford under a Rhodes scholarship. He has published three books on American foreign and national security policies, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford 2015), Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton 2010), and Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton 2006.) Dueck has provided congressional testimony and published articles on these same subjects in journals such as International Security, Orbis, Security Studies, Review of International Studies, Political Science Quarterly, and World Policy Journal, as well as online at RealClearPolitics, National Review, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, War on the Rocks, and the New York Times. His current research focus is on the relationship between party politics, presidential leadership, American conservatism, and U.S. foreign policy strategies. He has worked as a foreign policy adviser on several Republican presidential campaigns, and acted as a consultant for the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council. His latest book is Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2019.)