Since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump last November, political commentators have speculated on the intellectual and historical roots of the “alt-right,” a loosely affiliated movement of white nationalists, nativists, and right-wing populists that has put racial politics and anti-immigration sentiment back in the public eye to an extent not seen since the 1960s. Similar political movements—populist, nationalist, and opposed to immigration—have also appeared in Europe, including the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Germany’s Alternative for Germany.

In the United States, editorialists trying to uncover the roots of the alt-right have attempted to link populist political figures, such as Trump and the recently ousted White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (who once described his Breitbart media empire as a “platform for the alt-right”), with radical right-wing thinkers such as the Italian fascist Julius Evola and the French integralist Charles Maurras. In his new book, for instance, the journalist Joshua Green portrays Bannon as influenced by the worldview of René Guénon, an esoteric mystic and traditionalist conservative.

Such connections fit a certain narrative about the ascendant nationalist right—a narrative that assumes Trump and those like him not only are deeply authoritarian but also emerge from an intellectual tradition that is alien to the liberal West. Yet this narrative is mistaken. In attempting to guard liberal democracy against the perceived threat of foreign values and customs, Trump and others draw not from Evola but from a strain of liberal thought, liberal nativism, that traces its origins to John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and early American political leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Despite the violent antics of open white supremacists in Charlottesville, the much broader populist concern over immigration does not represent a sudden infusion of fascist elements into contemporary political thought.  Rather, it is a continuation of a liberal nativist tradition that has been around for centuries and speaks to our deepest fears about the fragility of liberal democracy.


In 2006, the British philosopher Adam Tebble published a prophetic paper entitled “Exclusion for Democracy,” describing the slow emergence of what he saw as a new breed of liberalism. Tebble’s observations were based on the growing popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe among constituencies not normally associated with the right, including LGBT people, the young, and certain religious minorities, such as Hindus, Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews. Behind these apparent sociological contradictions, Tebble believed, lay the rise of a new political movement that he called “identity liberalism,” which sought to use policies of the right (assimilation, strong borders, opposition to multiculturalism, and hostility to Islam) to defend a nation’s liberal identity against foreigners who were presumed not to share its values. In Europe, this approach was pioneered by Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay Dutch sociologist who rose to prominence after 9/11 by championing a populist platform of immigration restriction, social liberalism, and gay rights. The goal of identity liberalism, for Tebble, was simple yet paradoxical: “exclusion for the sake of democracy.”

But although identity liberalism may look new, in truth, liberalism has always nurtured two distinct strains of thought. One is the more utopian liberal internationalism with which we are familiar—the idea that all nations everywhere hold the potential for democracy deep within them and that this potential should be cultivated by existing liberal powers. This school was championed by the French political economist Frédéric Bastiat, who preached the natural and divine origins of economic and social liberty, although its roots could arguably be found in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s late-eighteenth-century proposal for a federation of liberal, peace-loving nations.

Dutch anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn at a press conference in Rotterdam in March 2002, two months before his assassination.
Dutch anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn at a press conference in Rotterdam in March 2002, two months before his assassination. 
Michael Kooren / Reuters

During the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, liberal internationalism became the philosophical cornerstone of Anglo-American foreign policy, first under British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and then under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. More recently, liberal internationalism reached peak influence under the democratic evangelism of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sought to forcefully impose liberty on authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet there has always been a second, more skeptical and pessimistic branch of liberalism—one that sees social and economic liberty not as a universal doctrine or a reflection of human nature but rather as the fragile achievement of specific societies in a specific time and place. Liberal nativism emerges from this tradition.


The two major thinkers associated with liberal nativism are the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville and the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, both of whom have influenced generations of American leaders. Tocqueville and Mill supported liberal constitutionalism, private property, and individual autonomy while championing the United States as a model of enlightened, progressive principles. But the American ideal, for them, was not exportable—instead, it was valuable precisely because it contrasted with the “tyranny” of other autocratic nations.

Tocqueville, who lived from 1805 to 1859, believed that his age was characterized chiefly by an ideological struggle between freedom and autocracy. On the cover of a draft of Democracy in America (1835), he wrote: “It seems that Providence, after tracing the various paths that nations can follow and fixing the final end of their course, leaves to individuals the task of slowing or hurrying this march of humanity [toward democracy] that they can neither divert nor halt.” Although democracy’s victory over autocracy was inevitable, it was only suitable, Tocqueville believed, in nations where certain cultural norms had prepared the way for liberty.

Crucial to this view was the importance of what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart,” or what political scientists today would refer to as cultural institutions. The success of American democracy, Tocqueville argued, was enabled by the norms and institutions that the American settlers had brought with them from England. These included freedom of speech, a diversity of learned opinions, and the existence of a strong civil society (“public associations”). Most important of all was the separation of church and state, a product of America’s Puritan roots. “In America, religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go. Within its limits, he is master of the mind; beyond them, he leaves men to themselves.” Tocqueville’s theories have received support from modern scholars such as Michael Mann and Douglass North, who have similarly argued that cultural institutions—including a large and open civil society—were necessary preconditions for the emergence of liberal democracy.   

After his visit to the United States, Tocqueville traveled to the French colony of Algeria in order to study what he considered the heart of the old, aristocratic world. He had for many years studied the Koran and the hadiths and emerged with a respect for the spiritual dimension of Islam. But like today’s liberal nativists, he feared that the social customs of the Islamic world were incompatible with democracy. His chief concern was the degree to which he believed that in Islam, religion had infiltrated political life—an infiltration that he saw as antithetical to the American separation of church and state. Protestant Christianity, he claimed, lacked this political dimension. “The Gospels,” Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, “deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone . . . is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.”

New U.S. citizens take the oath of allegiance during a swearing-in ceremony at Ellis Island, May 2016.
Mike Segar / Reuters

Tocqueville’s contemporary and admirer John Stuart Mill held similar views about the limited suitability of liberalism. As he wrote in his most famous work, On Liberty (1859), “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” In Mill’s view, only the “European family of nations,” and especially the United States, had reached this level of development.

But whereas Tocqueville believed that democracy was destined to win the battle of ideas, Mill suggested that it is a pariah, under attack from all sides. He worried that liberal norms were fragile and could be easily destabilized by the authoritarian customs that he believed still ruled in much of the world. “The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history [progress], because the despotism of Custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East.” He warned Americans to vigilantly protect their freedoms and claimed that tyranny—or the “Chinese ideal of making all people alike”—had already begun to infiltrate the West.

Tocqueville’s and Mill’s distinctions between the West—for whom democracy was suitable—and the autocratic East should be easily dismissed today as the product of a nineteenth-century Orientalist worldview. Tocqueville, for instance, did not encounter a single Shiite Muslim during his travels and had only a superficial understanding of Islamic laws and traditions. And Mill’s vision of “the East” as a vast, undifferentiated expanse without history has long been disproven.

These thinkers, however, were not wrong in their more subtle view that liberal democracy is a rare and historically contingent achievement. Work by contemporary political scientists, including the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, has confirmed this intuition by demonstrating the sheer diversity of political institutions both historically and around the world—a diversity that casts doubt on the liberal internationalist claim that everyone is (or wants to be) a liberal.


Tocqueville and Mill gave intellectual heft to the liberal nativist position, and their own views on immigration ranged from skepticism, in the case of Mill, to outright opposition, in the case of Tocqueville. But fears that large-scale immigration could destabilize the United States go back to the earliest days of the republic. Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers were immigration skeptics, who believed that liberalism was a uniquely British inheritance that could be undermined by French, German, and Irish migrants with radical political views or foreign loyalties.

Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, founded his Federalist Party in 1789, at the same time the French Revolution began to unfold in Europe. Although Tocqueville and Mill would later paint the revolution as a victory for liberal ideals, Hamilton was skeptical. The overthrow of the French monarchy seemed to threaten mob rule, and with it the widespread theft of private property. Federalists such as Hamilton, who represented the interests of wealthy financiers and landowners, feared that French (and other European) immigrants had imbibed the values of the revolution and would bring them to the United States.

Fears that large-scale immigration could destabilize the United States go back to the earliest days of the republic.

The Federalists dominated early U.S. politics; most of the Founding Fathers were either members or sympathizers. James Madison, who became president in 1809, was an early supporter. In a 1790 debate on citizenship in the House of Representatives, he argued that immigration should not be an end in itself but should help to strengthen the nation. “It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours,” he wrote. “But why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community.”

Madison would eventually break with Hamilton, forming the Democratic-Republican Party with Thomas Jefferson in 1791. The new party became the voice of poor farmers and workers, as well as recently naturalized immigrants. But the Jeffersonians held little influence at first. Although Washington was officially nonpartisan, he did not hide his personal sympathies for the Federalists and shared their general skepticism of immigration. In 1794, following European political unrest, representatives of the University of Geneva had written to then Vice President John Adams requesting permission to move their academy to the United States. Adams conferred with Washington, who strongly objected. “My opinion with respect to emigration is, that except of useful mechanic’s—and some particular descriptions of men—or professions—there is no need of extra encouragement.” Washington feared that the large-scale immigration of a homogenous group of foreigners over a short period of time would prompt migrants to keep to themselves and resist attempts at assimilation. He wrote:

While the policy, or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of [immigrants] in a body [that is, a country]) may be much questioned; for by so doing they retain the language, habits & principles (good or bad) which they bring with them; whereas, by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, manners and laws: in a word, soon become one people.

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819.
Wikimedia Commons

General skepticism of immigration exploded after the XYZ Affair, a 1797–98 diplomatic dispute between the United States and France that nearly led to war. In 1798, during an upsurge of anti-French sentiment, the Federalist-majority Congress swept into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which raised the waiting time for naturalization of new immigrants from five to 14 years, gave the president executive authority to arrest and deport suspicious noncitizens, and banned the publication of anti-American literature. These laws were used to convict various newspaper editors (and a few opposition politicians) for the crime of “false, scandalous and malicious” writing against the U.S. government. The Jeffersonians argued that new executive powers were unconstitutional. After the brief threat of war had subsided, Americans sided with Jefferson by electing him president in 1800. 

After the Jeffersonians began repealing the Alien and Sedition Acts, Hamilton was furious. He wrote a series of polemics for the New-York Evening Post, refuting every part of Jefferson’s policy platform. In 1802, he specifically addressed the subject of “the consequences that must result from a too unqualified admission of foreigners.” Although war was no longer imminent, Hamilton was firm in his belief that the United States was threatened by recent settlers with foreign loyalties:

The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others. It has been often likely to [compromise] the interests of our own country in favor of another.

For Hamilton, the question of immigration was existential. “To admit foreigners indiscriminately,” he wrote, “would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty.” In his view, the very “safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.”

Indeed, Hamilton went further than others in arguing that mere public suspicion of immigrants’ loyalty was enough to justify closed borders. This was, in effect, an ex post facto justification for the Alien and Sedition Acts. “In times of great public danger,” he said, “there is always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone weakens the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.” In a twenty-first-century context, for instance, it would not matter to Hamilton whether or not immigrants from Muslim countries posed a legitimate threat or whether paranoia about them was simply the result of fearmongering. Rather, the existence of public suspicion, with its negative effects on national energy and morale, would be a sufficient national interest justification for keeping them out. The price of democracy, in his view, was simply too high to warrant any risk.  


Given the predominance of liberal internationalist thinking in the modern West, it is easy to dismiss those who reject its universalist principles as being opposed to liberalism itself. Yet in their desire to protect a liberal “us” from a foreign, illiberal “them,” Trump and other modern identity liberals are no different from Hamilton, Madison, and other liberal nativists of old. Their views have intellectual precedent in the work of Tocqueville and Mill. They are, moreover, correct in their belief that liberal democracy is fragile and contingent—a position that has been vindicated by contemporary political scientists even as the more utopian liberal internationalist position has failed. Where they falter—and where liberal nativism has historically faltered—is in their belief that immigrants with different value systems pose a threat to that fragile social order.

In truth, once suspect immigrant groups have always proven to be fiercely patriotic to their adoptive home. The fear of French settlers as revolutionary agents soon gave way to the empirical fact of their loyalty, and Americans voiced their disagreement with nativism through the landslide victory of Jefferson. Once widespread, the fear of a papist fifth column has vanished, as German and Irish Catholic migrants integrated over the course of a few generations, eventually rising to the top levels of U.S. society. The same could be said for other groups, including the Chinese and eastern Europeans. Today, evidence suggests that the vast majority of immigrants from Muslim countries are integrating well into the United States.

Those who see the ascendant populist nationalism as a growth of illiberal ideas play into a familiar narrative about right-wing politics. But liberal nativism has a long and influential history in the United States as well as the broader liberal family of nations. Understanding this tradition is the first step to tackling its resurgent demons with dialogue and evidence. 

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  • JOZEF ANDREW KOSC is a DPhil (PhD) student in the international development department at the University of Oxford. He is writing a dissertation on liberal constitution-making during the Iraq war. 
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