The Spiritual Emptiness of the New Nationalists

Michael Brendan Dougherty has penned a thoughtful piece for The Week on those he calls the “new nationalists.” It’s a broad category that presumably encompasses not just nationalists in the United States and Europe, but also that loose confederation of reactionary, racists, and Internet trolls known as the alt-right. If anything unifies the new nationalists, according to Dougherty, it is their “biting critique of globalism,” that is, those “elites…[who are] committed to the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people” while also being for the further integration of a global political class.” One of the core problems the new nationalists have with the globalists is that the latter’s “goals are all promoted in an anti-democratic spirit.” However, when compared to the globalists, Dougherty finds “the new nationalists’ ambitions more inscrutable”; they “lack…a forward-driving vision[.]”

Maybe, or perhaps the simple truth is that the new nationalists neither desire nor need a unified ideology. They thrive on disaffection and any attempt to unify them under a single banner or set of transnational policy goals would erode the heterogeneity they strive for. Keeping democratic legitimacy alive is secondary to preserving national and cultural identity; the pushback against homogenizing trade deals and other international agreements emanates from the perennial desire to preserve “one’s way of life,” whatever that happens to be. The new nationalists, by and large, do not subscribe to the progressive view of history that animated the so-called “Washington Consensus” after 1989—the belief that integrated markets and legal cultures was the only way to go in a post-communist world. Sure, many believe in particular national progress, which may or may not come at the expense of others. But the idea of a glorious future shared-in all by all peoples in all places and for all time going forward is anathema.

In the end, Dougherty is concerned that he doesn’t see where the new nationalists are going, and maybe the new nationalists don’t even know themselves. That is probably true at the international level, but the international level really isn’t the focus of the new nationalists. The new nationalists may cheer each other on, but only because nationalist victories in the United Kingdom, then the United States, and maybe next in France, etc. are bad for globalism. This isn’t to say that the new nationalists don’t pick-and-choose favorites. Witness, for example, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The clash between “European” Ukraine and “Eurasian” Russia is a clash of competing and mutually exclusive nationalist visions. A victory for Ukraine is a loss for Russia and vice versa. When the Maidan broke out, perhaps there was some hope that the globalists would step-in to save Ukraine; perhaps that is why so many Western media sources are alarmed to find powerful nationalist (right wring) forces at the forefront of Ukraine’s battle against Russia. It’s “not supposed to be that way” in the globalist narrative peace, love, and internationally managed “self-determination.”

The critical problem with the new nationalists has little to do with the future and almost everything to do with the new-absence of an authentic spiritual center. In the U.S. and Europe, conservative Christians have rallied behind the new nationalists in the hopes of achieving certain concrete policy goals, but there is little evidence that most new nationalist organizations, political platforms, and candidates are meaningfully Christian. Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) have some say in the direction of certain right-wing political groups across the pond, particularly when it comes to social matters and remembering Europe’s Christian identity, but the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church prevents it from filling the moral void at the center of contemporary popular politics. In the U.S., which has never been Catholic, the Church has next-to-nothing to say except, embarrassingly, repeating a handful of mainly globalist platitudes dressed up with passages lifting from the Bible.

This does not mean that the new nationalists ought to remain walled-off from the tried and true social, political, and economic principles of the Catholic Church. Trade deals, and indeed economic policy as a whole, should be scrutinized in the light of what Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI taught. It is not enough to speak about the family being the foundation of any healthy society; policies must be enacted to ensure that a husband can support his wife and children; that corporations do not dictate the timing and nature of holidays; and that social structures are put in place to assist the least well-off. Dismantling international agreements and institutions that are deleterious to national life is only the first step toward orienting that life toward the common good. The new nationalists needn’t adopt a wholly uniform vision as applicable in the U.S. as it is in Ukraine, but they cannot be exempted from adhering to the Kingship of Christ. That the new nationalists may, in some parts of the world, be closer to abiding by that kingship than the globalists is certainly true; that does not justify, however, accepting half-measures.

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