How is it that we hear the loudest jingoistic yelps from dismal patriots who cannot stand the state of the nation and half the people in it? Traditionally, the conservative right has prided itself on its heightened patriotism in contrast to the “cosmopolitan” left. As one pro-Trump writer put it, “in this age of doubt and guilt, Trump has the one absolutely essential thing: an unabashed, unapologetic love of his own country.”
But an influential set of Trumpist intellectuals shows such disdain for progressives and “elites,” and the country they supposedly corrupted, that their grandiose professions of love for country ring hollow. Examining the writings of these paradoxical patriots-without-a-patria can help us better understand the broader conservative dilemma.
In a shift from earlier conservatives, key writers and publications from the pro-Trump and self-professedly post-conservative right have begun to see the United States not just at a critical point in its history, but in many ways as past the point of no return. They envisage America as under assault by disciplined and united leftists. According to one essayist in the American Mind, the “ruling class” has divided Americans “over a novel coronavirus and fabricated racial animus”—all of which was just a diversion from how that ruling class has been destroying Americans’ “humanity, freedom, and security in pursuit of their unending lust for power and control.” David Azerrad, an assistant professor at Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C. campus, gives American decline a historical context, pointing to two phases: first, the rise in the 1960s and ’70s of Black Power and women’s and queer liberation movements critical of white, Christian, mainstream America; and second, the moment, some years later, when the targets of that criticism, “members of the so-called oppressor class, for reasons that have yet to be explained, accepted the critique and came to think of themselves and their country through this lens, giving rise to the self-flagellation.”
Trumpist writers have worked themselves into such a state that they have stretched their critique to include literally half of the American population. As Michael Anton, a former Trump aide who is now a Claremont Institute senior fellow and a Hillsdale lecturer, puts it, “one side loves America, the other hates it—or can tolerate it only for what it might someday become, were the Left’s entire program to be enacted without exception.” Anton, the articulate id of intellectual Trumpism, cuts America in two on religious, linguistic, and even moral grounds, casting the Biden coalition as speaking a babble of languages, worshipping “wokeness” with “Dionysian abandon,” and conceiving of justice solely through the lens of punishment. In a blunt essay, Glenn Ellmers, another Claremont and Hillsdale associate, claims “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
In part, Ellmers means that “foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are—politically as well as legally—aliens.” But Ellmers’s real target is native-born Americans “who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans.” These pretenders “do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people.”
Who are the real Americans then? The 74 million who voted for Trump in 2020.
Meanwhile, Trumpist anger has led at times to an almost gleeful listing of America’s problems, ipso facto proof of progressive failures. In American Greatness, Victor Davis Hanson, emeritus classics professor and Trump intellectual, claims
most major American cities are broke, dirty, unsafe, and run by either corrupt incumbents, neo-Marxists, or both. The law is optional, and applied asymmetrically on the basis of race and ideology.
In the American Mind, one writer claims that “it is not clear that our military is presently capable of responding to a major global conflict” while another, former Trump aide Paige Willey, says Chinese diplomats “humiliated” their American counterparts in March by baldly asserting that “the United States does not have the qualification to say it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
In the Claremont Review of Books, Angelo Codevilla chastises conservatives for continuing “to believe that the United States’s institutions and those who run them retain legitimacy.” Or as Ellmers concluded, “our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed.” Some among the Trumpist intellectual set have taken to referring to “the Late Republic,” evoking the fragility and decadence of the late Roman Republic (and, perhaps intentionally, echoing Marxist language of “late” or “late stage” capitalism).
To be sure, the jeremiad is the quintessential genre of conservative writing. The conservative worldview frequently sees the American political tradition as one that has been badly damaged. The narratives of decline identify various points at which the fatal misstep was taken—where everything started to go wrong. Sometimes it’s Lincoln, sometimes Wilson, often FDR or the 1960s. What’s unusual about the Trumpist right is the extent to which they think that America is not just on the brink of collapse, but that it has already toppled. This may just be post-electoral defeat malaise, but increasingly these American Greatness patriots appear to actively hate America and their fellow citizens.
It is reasonable to expect a regime or a state to be a good one in order to have a legitimate claim on citizens’ loyalty. But it is also reasonable to think an authentic patriotism demands a sense of fellow feeling or kinship with other citizens, especially if those other citizens represent a majority of the population. In his public addresses, President Biden has made a conscious effort to speak to all Americans. Donald Trump, by contrast, typically reverts to the language of us-versus-them—his people, the ones who want to make America great again, against their various enemies.
“When we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands,” wrote conservative thinker Walter Berns a quarter century ago, “we mean the republic that secures our rights.” The “average American’s belief” that the United States “embodies” the principles of the Founders, Berns held, is “the root of our patriotism.” The dismal patriots of the Trumpist right believe that progressive elites have corrupted the founding principles of the United States and so have concluded that the American republic no longer secures their rights. Thus has the root of their patriotism rotted. They—or some of them, at least—reject the very Americanness of a majority of Americans. To love the ideals of the republic, as defined by the Trumpist right, but to despise half or more of the body politic seems less like patriotism than revanchism.
And if it is true that Trumpist intellectuals can only believe in an America shaped by their interpretation of the founding principles, “patriots” isn’t really the term for them anymore. They are ideologues and critics of the United States. It’s certainly fine to be a critic—and a critic of the United States; conservative luminaries have often shined in the role. Perhaps it’s time for the Trumpist right to admit this to themselves. Of course, the irony is that Trumpist intellectuals routinely deride progressives for being too critical of the United States. Increasingly the far right mirrors the far left in their bleak vision of America.
Trumpist intellectuals do not have a monopoly on understanding patriotism—or America’s political tradition. It is not just a textual tradition, defined by readings of the Founding principles, which were of course debated, defined, and disputed by a narrow band of Americans. In practice, through conflict, compromise, protest, and even war, American history has seen the rights guaranteed in the Founding documents gradually reinterpreted and expanded to include more Americans, and seen the practice of government transformed as the republic has grappled with the problems of modernity.
Many Trumpist intellectuals have bought into an idealized vision of a bygone America and see the present as its perverse antithesis. So they proclaim, or at least imply the existence of, an authentic American people that excludes more than it includes or a Golden Age that never really existed. Caught trying to theorize the dominance of an electoral minority, they rely on a narrative of the people versus a ruling class—a kind of Silenced Majority of real Americans battling elites and their captured voting blocs of immigrants and minorities.
Contra the Trump intellectuals, there are credible liberal interpretations of the American past; challenges to racialist alarmism about demography; questions about whether the United States is a nation as traditionally understood; even alternative philosophies of republican political theory.
The paradox of the most ardent patriots being angriest at the state of their own country is a version of the conservative dilemma. In his history of conservatism, Edmund Fawcett observes that “progressives normally end in frustration, whereas conservatives are frustrated to start with.” Through mastery of modern politics and compromise with the political changes of the day, conservatives “found themselves in command of a modern world they could not love in their hearts.” Fundamentally at odds with modernity, the Trumpist intellectuals are at odds with the real America, but remain committed to the rhetoric of patriotism. They are strangers in their own country, all the while professing to love it.