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Review Essay

America’s Original Identity Politics

Rich Lowry’s Flawed Case for Nationalism

In This Review

The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free
The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free
By Rich Lowry
Broadside Books, 2019, 288 pp. Purchase

“You know what I am?” U.S. President Donald J. Trump said at a rally in October 2018. “I’m a nationalist.” Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism can be seen as a way of working through, and defending, what the president meant. As the editor of National Review, the prominent conservative magazine, Lowry is an intellectual gatekeeper on the American right. He was one of the speakers at the National Conservatism conference in July 2019, an event that brought together such thinkers as J. D. Vance and Patrick Deneen, with keynotes by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, along with a notorious intervention on the perils of immigration by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax. 

Lowry’s central claim is that Americans are, and have been from their country’s founding, a nation and not a community of universal ideas. Although intellectuals and left-wing pundits are openly hostile to expressions of national sentiment, the United States has a unique national tradition that is today obscured by fissiparous identity politics. If Americans reacquaint themselves with their true national heritage, they will be better equipped to overcome dangerous tribalism, protect their borders, and make their country great again. To the degree that the United States has a global role, it should be as “vindicator of the prerogatives of other democratic nation-states”—in other words, a defender of the idea that a world of culturally defined nations is humanity’s state of nature.

Nations have existed since antiquity, Lowry says. The notion that they are relatively recent inventions, put forward by scholars such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, is “nonsense.” Instead, today’s nationalists are the inheritors of an ancient form of social and political organization known to classical Greeks and biblical Jews. They rightly see a language, a discrete culture, and a common historical experience as the best basis for self-governance. Nation-states are the political entities that encase these natural nations. 

The United States

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