The Liberal Roots of Nativism

Where Trump Meets Tocqueville

U.S. President Donald Trump during a statement about deadly protests in Charlottesville, August 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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

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