Interview with Rich Lowry

National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry speaks to the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program public lecture event on February 13, 2020.

On February 13, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a public lecture and dinner seminar with Rich Lowry to discuss “The Case for Nationalism,” which is also the title of his new book published this past November. Mr. Lowry is the editor-in-chief of National Review. A respected conservative voice, he is a syndicated columnist and political commentator with CNN, and he writes a weekly column for Politico. He is also a best-selling author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years and Lincoln Unbound. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mathis Bitton: Nationalism, according to your own definition, has everything to do with culture. Compared to, say, many European nations, some would argue that America does not have enough cultural commonality to have a “nationalist sentiment.” Many would, for example, point to the coast versus Midwest divide. What do you say to those who claim that Americans do not share a sufficiently extensive culture to benefit from nationalism?

Rich Lowry: While we may be more culturally “open” than many of our European counterparts, Americans certainly share a cultural and historical core. Of course, this core has been joined—and modified—by generations of immigrants over time, but it nevertheless retains identifiable characteristics, most important of which is speaking English. Language is an incredibly important cultural influence. The French, British and German hegemony over 19th-century Europe was primarily felt because of linguistic supremacy. Those who claim that America merely has access to “civic” nationalism (and nationhood) are missing one crucial part of who we are. Certainly, our institutions have been shaped by a set of important ideals. But there are American traits that go beyond such ideals. I could walk down a street in Paris and try to desperately fit in, but there are markers (of which I may not even be aware) that would make me instantly differentiable as an American. Our identity may be open, but it is nonetheless discernible. 

MB: Would you say that America has not been pursuing assimilation-based immigration policies, and if so, when does this trend start historically?

RL: We have had constantly fluctuating rates of immigration throughout our history; and the so-called ‘immigration debate’ has always been a point of contention. Traditionally, the emphasis on assimilation was certainly present. From our very founding, the likes of Hamilton, Franklin, and Washington have stressed the importance of people adopting American ways, avoiding ethnic enclave, and spreading within American society. I think we currently have an overly romantic view of immigration that is too beholden to this cliché that we are but a “nation of immigrants,” a cliché that most people interpret as a warrant to have high levels of immigration without thinking about the consequences. We have forgotten that immigration ought to be about our (i.e. the American) interest, not the immigrants’ interest. The national interest should not only be included in the debate, but it should be the central test underpinning every policy decision we make. 

MB: You called President George W. Bush’s foreign policy “overly idealistic.” Could you briefly explain why you hold this position?

I was very supportive of both President Bush and the Iraq war, but it became very clear early on that the intellectual mistake behind the war (independently of questions of execution) was the belief that if you knocked over a tyranny, and just “freed” people, free Western-style individuals would naturally organize themselves around the values we hold dear. That was just naive. It is true that people “yearn to be free,” but that is far from the only motivation we have — unfortunately. We have a strong sense of pride, a strong attachment to family, to clan; and while the Western world has culturally developed individualism throughout centuries, we cannot — by any means — assume that we can magically generate this kind of response in foreign lands. All we have managed to accomplish is to turn tyrannies into sectarian conflicts. 

MB: Does this mean that we should reject interventionism, or should we simply approach a more Burkean kind of foreign policy, one that incorporates a concern for people’s cultural roots and traditional landscapes? 

RL: I would tend to say the latter. Clearly, the American people have no appetite for invading another country with 150,000 troops. But I think that some folks on the right over-react to the failure of the Iraq war, and claim things like ‘We can’t have 5,000 troops in Syria to provide a residual force to fight ISIS.’ Those are two clearly distinct things. What you called the Burkean option should certainly be the key prism through which we view international relations; not everyone is like us, and it is an easy mistake to think that they are — or should be.

MB: We live in a time where labels matter. Many claim that whether Senator Bernie Sanders is a socialist remains irrelevant, as long as he calls himself one. Nationalism is a word that has accumulated a slew of negative connotations. Have ‘proper’ nationalists failed to draw a line between the acceptable and the inacceptable, and if so, what should they do about it?

RL: We need to re-focus on the proper definition of the term and depart from the cliché that ‘patriotism is everything good’ and ‘patriotism is everything bad.’ Technically, patriotism shares a Latin root with “patriarchy;” it describes a kind of fatherly loyalty to your own. Nationalism is the doctrine that a distinct people, united by a common language, culture, and history, should govern a distinct territory. Unless you are a cosmopolitan progressive or a radical libertarian, most people are nationalist to a certain extent. The nation is the most natural form of social organization; it defines the modern world, it defines the international system we have built, and it grew up in congruence with modern democracy. You cannot have a proper democracy if you don’t have a proper demos, one that shares a collective feeling of mutual trust, association, and affiliation — that you don’t have for other people. We simply wouldn’t have the modern liberal order we have, if not for nationalism. Conservatives should value that which is natural, old, and powerful; they should want to eliminate nationalism simply because they don’t like it. All in all, I think there has always been a nationalist thread in American conservatism; it has not been well-defined or described by the right words, but it has always been there, and should fully integrate it into any conservative platform.

MB: One of the questions that I had was one of the things that you touched on the end was about whether you would change some GOP policies. One of the things that I said where there is some tension between the nationalist view and the GOP is how we teach history, whether perhaps you would want to teach civics or the Western canon in a certain way. I certainly would want that. One of the things that I think the GOP has tried to stay away from is wanting to standardize the school curriculum for decades and has embraced a school choice model, whether we want to encourage some autonomy. Would you say that this at least may be a policy that the GOP did not necessarily anticipate the consequences of with their school choice actions.

RL: No, I don’t think if I would agree with that because one it is our national tradition to have a decentralized school system and I’m not sure that the constitutional authority for the federal government to do more than what it is already doing. If we get a nationalist school curriculum, it is not going to be to our liking because the bureaucrats and elites and the defiant are not going to be sympathetic to what we want. I think, just as a practical matter, it is better to fight it out locality by locality.

The tension would be that, to be a nationalist, you have to be okay with a national government. There’s a tendency within conservatism that’s just not, and ideally this wouldn’t happen. It’s an outrage that we do, that’s a more libertarian strain that definitely is in conflict with this kind of lowest common denominator that I outline. I think what a lot of people associate with a nationalist agenda is a populist agenda and obviously the two are closely associated, especially in central and eastern Europe and even somewhat here, but they are mistakes. I’m a conservative, not a populist, and I’m a conservative nationalist, but if you’re a populist nationalist, then you get more of what the agenda that was animating the nationalism conference last year in Washington, where you’re going to have a much more robust government economic policy. 

Kevin Xiao: You mentioned [Samuel P.] Huntington’s idea of the American creed and its values of liberty and equality and how the America elite and in recent years, that’s been the trend. I was wondering what policies or characters in the current political scene would you say are not actually agitating for something that’s in the creed, like liberty or equality. You mentioned Bernie Sanders and how, while you may disagree with his policies, he has changed [from being a nationalist to not] from 2016 to 2020. But he still seems to be advocating for equality, so can you elaborate more on how exactly the American elite is abandoning the creed as Huntington put it a couple decades ago?

RL: I think they are abandoning the American nation more than they are the creed, but I think the idea of borders and national interest is more hateful to them than the American creed is. But I do think that the tendency of identity politics is certainly in tension with our creed, which at its best, and obviously we’ve fallen down on this throughout our history, at its best is color blind in values and the individual over groups. If you play out the logic of identity politics, you’ll have a Balkanized society. It’s what Elizabeth Warren said at the debate on Friday night, the only way we can have true equality is to have a race conscious policy about everything. That’s in tension with what our Constitution is and what our creed is.

KX: Do you see, since we have so much identity politics today, maybe not on the right or perhaps more on the left, if this could get worse or devolve further, or do you think it is only uphill from here?

RL: I’m a conservative, everything is going to get worse.

KX: [Laughs] Fair enough.

RL: It clearly can get worse. You know, obviously we live in a divisive time, but we also live in a time of incredible civic peace. We don’t have anything on the level of the civic disservices that we had in the 60’s or 70’s, in terms of major urban riots or cities burning partway to the ground. Bombings, domestic political bombings, crime waves that really tugged at the fabric of our civil society, we don’t have any of that now. I’ve talked to people about the Ferguson protests, they burned down a Quik Mart, which they shouldn’t have done, and it was on cable, dominating cable news. If that had happened in 1973, if it made the New York Times, it would have been one paragraph from A15 because Detroit, the whole city of Detroit, was burning to the ground.

So we have lots of divisions and they’re more poisonous than they’ve been in a long time, but we’re still far from anywhere close to what the nadir’s been in terms of domestic division.

KX: Do you think Trump has been increasing this divide? Many people have said that he has and that he’s been purposefully using a dog whistle to attract his followers. But do you think he’s more of a symptom or that he’s been trying to inflame things and use this to propel his reelection?

RL: Many of the problems with Trump could be taken off the table if he just stopped and thought I’m the president of the United States. So I’m not going to say this, I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to tweet this.

KX: Like decorum?

RL: Right. He doesn’t do that, and he does, as I said in my talk, the opposition is hysterical and out of its mind, but he tries to drive them hysterical and out of their minds. This is an aspect of nationalism that he slights. Unless he is in front of the teleprompter, then he’ll hit on the unifying themes of nationalism, but otherwise, he doesn’t. He’s a naturally divisive figure, and the political strategy is to keep the base with him at all costs, which he’s done. If he didn’t have that, he’d be dead politically. But it’s not the best political strategy for his own purposes or for the country.

MB: Do you think, I’m talking about pure politics here, that [Trump] has managed to bring the GOP to a more nationalist stance and perhaps, given the coalition the GOP now has, it’ll be forced to embrace more nationalist tendencies in the post-Trump GOP than there were in the past? Would that be a fair assessment?

RL: I don’t know. Certainly, the first part is true, the party is more nationalist because of Trump. How the Trump thing ends will affect it a lot. If he were to lose in November, one-term presidents are not remembered fondly, even by their own parties, and there will be a tendency on the part of the Republican establishment to bounce back to where they were before, circa 2004. I think that would be a mistake.

That’s one reason I wrote the book, even conservatives who aren’t enamored with Trump, to think about nationalism as separate and distinct from Trump and not just him. If he crashes and burns, not just to say that everything he said and did and stood for is totally discredited. I don’t think the party can go back to what it was 10 years ago.

KX: Building on that, some say that much of Trump’s support is ethnonationalist and that’s a strain of nationalism that’s been introduced into the discourse more and more obviously in recent years. First of all, do you think that’s the case or do you think that this is something that can be eradicated.

RL: I don’t think he is an ethnonationalist or that his supporters are ethnonationalist. I think Trump’s more populist and nationalist politics has more of a chance to jump racial lines than conventional Republican orthodoxy. There’s a certain kind of middle-class, working-class, Latino, black males that will find this more attractive than a Mitt Romney Republicanism. But you gotta work it, and Trump hasn’t adequately. The key to the party in the future is does he spread out from his white base, but the way to do that, I don’t think is the traditional formula like, oh, we’re going to favor immigration, but I think it’s more in this Trumpian direction ironically. Obviously, he’s highly divisive himself.

KX: Thank you so much for answering our questions, Mr. Lowry.