Is nationalism right for America? With President Trump, an avowed nationalist, leading the Republican Party, it’s not surprising that the best commentary on nationalism—and the sharpest debate—is now found on the political right.
For proof, one need only have sat in on the National Review Institute’s recent Ideas Summit, where the grand debate saw Rich Lowry, National Review’s editor-in-chief, take the side of nationalism against Jonah Goldberg, the founder of National Review Online.
But why is nationalism such a hot topic today at all? While the president’s rhetoric is influential, and the ferment on the right has an attentive audience, something much more substantial accounts for the rise in nationalist sentiment at home and abroad.
Americans must realize that the solution to the puzzle is hiding in plain sight. Nationalism is back as a burning issue not because of modern demagoguery or ancient hatreds but because of the triumph of digital technology over everyday life.
Dehumanization Versus Self-Rule
In the United States and around the world, the digital age is forcing a new choice between two types of governance—one nationalist, the other imperial. While both carry risks, only one is compatible with constitutional government and the central claims of the Declaration of Independence.
Americans shouldn’t fear that digital life is going to bring back the inhuman old days of twentieth-century-style nationalist extremism. The proper thing to fear is a dehumanizing new form of digital despotism.
The preeminent threat to American life is not the resurgence of the beasts within us, but the mastery of the bots above us. This is why the right’s new nationalists should command our attention.
The debate on the right frames the issue in exactly the right way. One side asserts that nationalism contains the paramount threat of the new age. These critics warn that all will be lost if we fail to head off a primitive backlash against the globalizing forces accelerated by the technocratic elite. They fear the beast within.
The other side warns that the West’s globalist technocrats have embraced a new imperial vision, one that promises uniform unfreedom on all, their worship of “diversity” notwithstanding. Their plan is increasingly out in the open.
In “The Big Nine,” New York University professor Amy Webb argues that artificial intelligence must be put not under American control but under that of a new international organization—a global diversity and inclusion agency. Otherwise, she warns, our robots will have white privilege—or even become white supremacists.
Is Society the Problem Or Are Individuals?
So long as we learn to code our machines with the right secular religion, our imperialists believe, their robotic creations can and should order our lives better than we humans can order them ourselves. This is why today’s nationalists rightly conclude the bots above us, not the beasts within, are the proper object of our political fear.
This is an exercise of sound political judgment, not of dogma. As former national security advisor Michael Anton explained in a recent Princeton University address, in the totalitarian age, nationalism did pose a preeminent threat to America and the West. Only a globalized military and diplomatic response could destroy the threat and rebuild a legitimate order. But now, the order has mutated, and the context around it has changed. Nationalism our only political defense against the new imperialism.
Anton is hardly alone. The philosopher Yoram Hazony is now famous for persuasively advancing a similar argument. National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, reviewing Goldberg’s latest book, stated the matter this way: “I’m less worried about foaming tribalists drunk on natural passion than I am of a generation of grass-eating males, who mute the natural passions and ambitions through drugs, pornography, and the flickering of the backlit screens. And so, in the immediate future, I don’t fear a return to the natural, I fear our continued flight from it.”
These insights arise from encounters with the reality of the digital age that established anti-nationalists strain to avoid. But their pedigree weaves back through philosophers from Montesquieu and Niccolo Machiavelli all the way to Aristotle. Intentionally or not, elites today who fear nationalism are working toward a much more alarming and damaging post-nationalist world of unfreedom and uniformity.
Barreling Toward the Abolition of Man
With today’s progressives rushing to establish an automated imperium programmed with woke consciousness, the greatest peril today is not man’s barbaric inhumanity to man, which has always been with us, but a fresh horror without parallel: what Francis Fukuyama called “our posthuman future,” and C.S. Lewis called the “abolition of man.”
This is the new kind of evil empire Americans must stop today. To do so, we must travel down a path being cleared for now by President Trump, whose election forced our first big encounter with how dramatically digital life has disenchanted the one-world dream and made the “unthinkable” real. Trump’s administration will occupy only a handful of years, but his influence on the choice we must make might set us on a course of centuries.
Such a path delinks American finance, economics, and law from would-be automated imperialism. Trump’s skepticism of Silicon Valley, and his sense that government of the people and by the people must govern artificial intelligence, are essential instincts for securing the blessings of liberty and promoting the general welfare in a digital age.
Americanists should take heart in recalling how hard it is to force people to believe in obsolete dreams. But without clear and concerted action, that is precisely what the teched-up utopians will do.
Nationalism is back for one reason: awful as it is when men become as beasts, the more terrible threat of the new digital age is that the West’s progressive technocrats and woke seminarians will make us the slaves of their bots.