Few things frustrate a historian or political scientist more than to witness reprisals of debates that have been settled for decades, or even centuries. So anyone with a legitimate claim to those labels could only throw up his hands upon reading a recent Vox article endeavoring to explain the pro-Trump movement’s seemingly “bizarre” embrace of socialist platforms.
The alt-right and its fellow nationalists, marvels author Dylan Matthews, love single-payer health care. They’re also proponents of a universal basic income, increased welfare spending, and pro-labor controls on the economy.
This presents Matthews with a conundrum. To him and much of the political left, socialism is good and nationalism bad. That binary is hard to maintain when prominent nationalists are supporting economic policies that would make Bernie Sanders blush, so Matthews is left to conclude that nationalists’ social welfare rhetoric amounts to mere “strategy.” It’s not so much that socialists and nationalists share a common ideology; it’s that nationalists adopt popular socialist stances to attract more followers.
But as anyone familiar with political history could attest, the embrace of social statism isn’t some strategy intended to serve a separate and external goal of nationalism. It is the goal.
Nationalism Subverts Individuals to the Collective
To be sure, nationalism is a dynamic concept that doesn’t lend itself to universal definition. Orwell influentially described it as identifying with a single nation or unit and recognizing no duty except the nation’s advancement, whereas some modern writers have conceived nationalism (at least of the American variety) more restrictively as a benign, “democratic” ethos defined primarily by loyalty to one’s country above all else.
Despite any descriptive variation, though, the irreducible minimum in any conception of nationalism is abrogation of the individual as the relevant unit of political power. Absent that feature, the term is incoherent. The sine qua non of nationalism is the idea that the nation is supreme, and national supremacy doesn’t admit exceptions in the name of individual liberty. So to endorse nationalism, even for purportedly benevolent purposes, is to accept the idea that the citizen exists to serve the nation rather than the reverse.
The same goes for socialism. The two doctrines employ distinct language and imagery in expressing their respective missions — broadly, “public before self” versus “country before self” — but the basic feature of both is the use of centralized power at the expense of individual freedom to achieve an ill-defined and necessarily pliable common good. Both are, in other words, just rudimentary variants of authoritarianism.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that leaders in both camps inveigh against conspiratorial elites and make utopian promises of universal prosperity. Those tactics are central to how any authoritarian movement coalesces enough support to achieve its ultimate end, which is to take over the instruments of social control.
Why Socialists Emphasize Meaningless Distinctions
Socialists don’t like to imagine themselves as ideological bedfellows of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, so they look outside their shared authoritarian core to find where they and nationalists ostensibly differ. True, they say, we want more power in the hands of government. But we want to use it in the name of everyone’s well-being, whereas the nationalists are just a bunch of jingoistic racists obsessed with putting country above all else.
In reality, the differences socialists imagine are superficial and usually complementary. The socialist tax on the rich to fund wealth redistribution in the name of social equality is not meaningfully different from the nationalist use of economic controls on business and trade to promote national welfare. It doesn’t matter to the individual whether he’s forced to hand over the product of his labor in taxes or to channel that product according to a centralized directive. It matters only that he is forced.
What these superficial differences accomplish above all is to obscure the crucial truth that socialism can’t exist without nationalism (or vice versa). A $15 minimum wage, for example, would be meaningless in the long term without simultaneous controls to prevent U.S. businesses from hiring cheap foreign labor, or from importing the cheap products that foreign labor makes possible. Redistributive social programs would quickly collapse without immigration restrictions to limit the number of people who could claim their benefits. And so on.
An ideology based on force doesn’t countenance half-measures. No matter the particular policy, the realities of economics doom any socialist effort that doesn’t have a nationalist companion to stamp out individual freedom across borders.
Sadly, as the Vox article shows only too clearly, the modern left has let sideshows like the alt-right obscure this symbiosis. Yes, there are racist nationalists, of which the alt-right is the most prominent representative in the United States. But contrary to fashionable lore, racism isn’t an integral part of nationalism. It is, at most, a convenient adjunct. What defines nationalism, like socialism, is the subordination of individual freedom to an amorphous higher good. Socialists can’t coherently fault nationalists for racism while championing an ideology that uses a different social construct (i.e., class) to accomplish the same destruction of the individual in the name of an alternatively phrased higher good.
The Real Distinction Is Individualism Versus Collectivism
It’s critical that anti-authoritarians at all points along the political spectrum, but especially those who call themselves liberals, figure this out. The Republican Party has finally completed its devolution into the party of American nationalism. Any movement that wants to oppose that creed has to fashion itself not as the party of socialism, but as the party of individual freedom. And it can’t be shy about reaching out to erstwhile political opponents to unite around that common issue. Otherwise we’ll be left with a national political order in which the American left and right are just two sides of the same rotten authoritarian coin.
In the midst of World War II, Austrian theorist Friedrich Hayek explained how accepting the structure and premise of socialism leads necessarily to fascism, as he watched happen in his home country with the ascendancy of the era’s most prominent socialist party. More than 70 years have passed since, and we still haven’t learned that lesson.
Until we recognize authoritarianism, in whatever form it takes, as the ultimate evil to be averted, our march down the road to serfdom will continue. And self-professed liberals like our friends at Vox will be leading the parade.