WASHINGTON, October 22, 2017 — What does it mean to be a patriot? The so-called “alt-right” preaches a “blood and soil” ethno-nationalist version which views traditional conservatives as the enemy.
Traditional Republicans have challenged this rejection of our unique American tradition.
Recently, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia bestowed its Liberty Medal to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In a sometimes emotional address, McCain said:
“We believed in our country, and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity.”
He sharply criticized those who:
“… refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism … We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
The speech brought a standing ovation from a crowd that included Democratic and Republican members of Congress.
Shortly after McCain’s speech, former president George W. Bush delivered a rare political address in which he warned of threats to American democracy and a decay of civic engagement. He offered a blunt assessment of a political system corrupted by “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication in which nationalism has been distorted into nativism.”
“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone and provides permission for cruelty and bigotry. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
The common theme in Bush’s and McCain’s remarks was a defense of the post-World War II liberal order America helped build. That order supported strong alliances, a defense of human rights and an open economic system of free trade, said Richard Fontaine, a National Security advisor under Bush and foreign policy adviser to McCain.
America’s Traditional Ends
In Fontaine’s view, the Trump administration is moving away from the ideals of the post-World War 2 era.
“The hallmark of McCain’s and Bush’s speeches was to try to re-center us on what have been, since 1945, these traditional ends.”
The confusion of nationalism with patriotism is a staple of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, and the alt-right. This phenomenon is nothing new.
George Orwell, in his essay “Notes On Nationalism,” distinguished patriotism from nationalism:
“By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
To divide America into groups based on race, religion or ethnic background is to reject what many call American “exceptionalism,” our very uniqueness as a nation. Other than Native Americans, all of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Whether our ancestors came from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America, whether they came last year or 300 years ago, we are immigrants.
What we share is not common ancestry, but a common commitment to a free, open and diverse society.
The nationalism embraced by some completely rejects any idea of American exceptionalism and makes our country ordinary and commonplace. How it translates into patriotism is unclear.
Diversity is not some new idea. It has been the American reality from the beginning. By the time of the first census in 1790,
- People of English origin were already a minority.
- Enslaved Africans and their American born descendants made up 20 percent of the population.
- There were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, German, Scottish and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots and Sephardic Jews.
In 1840, Herman Melville wrote, “We are the heirs of all time and with all nations, we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American, you shed the blood of the whole world.”
America is not just another country. In 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues visited New Amsterdam where 18 languages were spoken in a town of 8,000 people.
In his Letters From An American Farmer, J.Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782:
“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
The birth of America’s exceptionalism
Speaking in Philadelphia in 1776, Samuel Adams observed,
“Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last resort.”
Now, more than 200 years later, they still come. This has been our national strength, not a weakness.
Those who now vocally proclaim their commitment to “nationalism” are rejecting the very substance of the American political tradition. In George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote:
“Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. discussed identity politics in his book “The Disuniting of America.” He argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function. He believes that group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending such divisions.
According to Schlesinger,
“Movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than perpetuating that marginalization through affirmation of difference.”
The Left vs. The Alt-Right Divisions
Those who would divide Americans on the basis of race, religion or ethnic background cannot call themselves patriots. Promoting “identity politics” and challenging free speech, The Left is as much a threat to our society as the alt-right.
Genuine patriotism is working to ensure that our country lives up to its highest ideals. Those ideals, it seems, are unknown to today’s promoters of nationalism, even those disguised as patriots. But wolves in sheep’s clothing are dangerous if large numbers of people are fooled as to their real identity.
Identifying such charlatans as “patriots,” is a real example of “fake news.” Perhaps Samuel Johnson was thinking of people such as these when he wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”