One of my favorite quotations is the alleged last words of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico who, just before he went before the firing squad, said to his Hungarian chef: “You thought it would never come to this. You see now that you were wrong.” That line came to me from one of Eric Ambler’s thrillers; on the other hand, Ambler titled his autobiography Here Lies Eric Ambler.
Still, it’s a quotation with many attractions and only one important drawback: There aren’t many occasions on which it’s apposite. On the other hand, it’s perfect for the present political situation in the United States.
Riots, random shootings, murders; mobs stopping automobiles on the freeways, dragging drivers out of their cars, and beating them; revolutionaries establishing no-go areas policed by their own militias; lawful authorities ignoring them or even praising them as civil-rights fiestas; corporations bending the knee to revolutionary socialist demands and compelling their employees to mouth them publicly on pain of dismissal; universities abandoning academic freedom in order to ensure that faculties hire only Marxists; television news reports that never seem to show the urban wastelands that are the aftermath of these uprisings; and mainstream news organizations that report not a speech that President Trump gave but their own bitter contempt, complete with invented quotes, for what they think he would have said if he were being honest.
You thought it would never come to this, didn’t you? But it has. Sure, but it isn’t happening everywhere? No, it isn’t. But it isn’t over, either. And maybe the worst is yet to come.
Now, I can’t claim that I myself thought it would come to this exact point. It all seems to be happening more quickly than I would have predicted even a few years ago. But I and most of my National Review colleagues did think that America was drifting gradually but inexorably towards some kind of national unraveling as early as the early 1990s. Two policies in particular were taking us towards that: namely, high levels of immigration and multiculturalism, as we argued in a special issue on Demystifying Multiculturalism in February 1994. Migration brought large numbers from many nations into the U.S., and multiculturalism encouraged them not to assimilate but to retain their previous cultures and national identities. The result would be what Samuel Huntington a few years later in his classic book, Who Are We? would call “the deconstruction of America.”
Most of the conservative response to this unraveling — we at NR called it the National Question — concentrated on the immigration half of the problem. We sought to reduce immigration in total, make it more skilled, reduce the number of extended family members coming in under family reunification provisions, and above all to prevent an amnesty that would give unknown numbers of illegal immigrants the right to stay indefinitely. We’ve had some negative success — a general amnesty has been stopped — and when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General, various immigration rules were tightened and the numbers coming into America fell. At most, though, we’ve held the other side to a stalemate, and if Senator Biden wins the presidency, we look like losing the entire ballgame. Millions of illegal immigrants — eleven million is probably a serious underestimate — will be legalized and on a path to voting, and changes in the rules for legal immigration will admit many more. Our only clear gain is that now many Americans are at least aware that something bad is happening.
Would we have done better to devote more time to the other half of the deconstruction of America — namely, multiculturalism? This is shorthand for a range of (mainly official) bureaucratic programs that in various ways dilute the meaning and value of American citizenship and identity and balkanize the common American culture. It covers everything from standards of teaching history in the schools to making citizenship or language tests more or less impossible to fail. And the reason for getting the right policies on such things — i.e., policies designed to strengthen the pride of native-born Americans and to assimilate new ones into an American cultural loyalty — is that national loyalties eventually wither and die without such supports or, worse, they are renounced in the face of sneering hostility and the attraction of utopian alternatives. Nations are not fixed, eternal, rock-like things, well, like Mount Rushmore; they have been described as a daily plebiscite — which may be an exaggeration, but it’s not a falsehood.
And if you don’t see that now, you’ll never see it.
Let’s be clear: This should not have been a difficult fight to win. On many of the key issues — for instance, support for official English — the polls regularly gave the patriotic side of the debate majorities of 80–20. Moreover, conservatives had powerful allies among moderate and conservative Democrats. Not only Huntington but also Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote powerful and witty books — the latter’s was titled The Disuniting of America — pointing to how historiography and university teaching were encouraging a multicultural tribalism in the country and undermining a sense of common citizenship. Patriotism wasn’t a partisan cause; it transcended class and racial differences; but it was a neglected and ignored cause.
“Events, dear boy, events” (to quote Harold Macmillan’s explanation for what drives politics) also gave an impetus to patriotic sentiment in the form of the 9/11 attack on America. As Samuel Huntington noted later, houses on his street that had stopped flying the flag on the Fourth of July began flying it again after 9/11 only to gradually cease doing so as the outrage waned. President George W. Bush could have fruitfully exploited that outrage to strengthen an American patriotism that is, of its nature, unifying. Instead he wasted his opportunity and the nation’s time in a doomed attempt to relax immigration restrictions and increase its numbers.
All in all, Republican and Democratic presidents have had equal time in government since 1988. For half of those thirty-two years, administrations of either party could have issued executive orders and pushed legislation to strengthen the national fabric and the sense of common destiny that until recently united America. They did almost nothing to address these concerns. And when ordinary Americans became alarmed and welcomed the fact that Donald Trump seemed to share their concerns, many conservative writers and intellectuals reacted with puzzlement or hostility as if patriotic national feeling were not the normal mark of a healthy society but a “dark and divisive” intrusion from history.
All of these sentiments and failures have either encouraged or allowed the erosion of national or patriotic feeling throughout the country to metastasize into something negative and nasty. But politics abhors a vacuum, and when patriotism slowly shrinks and evaporates, it opens the heart to other loyalties and unfamiliar hatreds, from utopian socialism to a racism that calls itself anti-racism. And we’re now seeing these monstrosities stalk the land, destroy its substance, and brutalize people.
Rich Lowry and I discussed these and other topics, including his recent book on nationalism, in this Danube Dialogue podcast. It’s a calm and civilized conversation, but it takes place against the less calm and less civilized background of America’s fiesta of anarchy, violence, and unreason.
It’s about how we got here. Now, you can see why nationalism is important. So how do we get back to somewhere better?