The reasons Jeff Sessions faced such a brutal path to confirmation as the 84th attorney general of the United States despite being well liked by his Senate colleagues are not all traceable to controversies from 30-plus years ago.

Before President Trump, Sessions was the Republican politician most responsible for trying to move American conservatism in a more nationalist and populist direction.

Until recently, discussions of Sessions’ brand of conservatism have focused on debating particular issues: whether the Alabama Republican was right about immigration levels or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now conservatives are finally debating what role nationalism itself should play on the American right.

National Review’s Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru published a powerful defense of nationalism as a “healthy and constructive force.” Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro dissented, the latter arguing that Trump has mainstreamed a European-style nationalism divorced from national ideals.

The Heritage Foundation’s David Azerrad, however, writes, “Trumpism represents not the rebirth of an older European ethnic nationalism, but instead constitutes a re-affirmation of American civic nationalism to deal with the realities of the 21st century.”

So which is it?

First, let’s dispense with competing definitions of nationalism and settle on the less controversial concept of patriotism: love of country.

Second, let’s keep in mind that patriotism has always been a big part of conservatism’s political appeal. Before Trump campaigned on making America great again, so did Ronald Reagan.

Reagan also promised “Morning in America.” He left office saying his proudest accomplishment wasn’t the record economic boom or the United States’ heading toward victory in the Cold War but a “resurgence of national pride.”

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“Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” Reagan worried in his 1989 farewell address. “And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.”

Yes, Reagan went on to talk about American freedoms. But he also talked about a woman whose father fought on Omaha Beach, vowing to “never forget what the boys of Normandy did.”

Reagan was an ideological conservative. But he appealed to people who weren’t ideological. He won millions of votes who might not have understood the intricacies of supply-side economics or what the contras were fighting in Nicaragua but rallied behind “We win, they lose.”

“They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they came from the same schoolyards and playgrounds and towns as we did,” said Patrick Buchanan. “They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart.”

In the intervening years, conservatism has lost some of that appeal. It has become too abstract or it has relied too much on war to create a sense of national solidarity.

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That doesn’t mean the abstractions or universal values are wrong. It just means that without grounding in real human history and experience, they are insufficient.

The writer John Zmirak observed of some Cold War-era conservatives, “The country itself became secondary to the ideas it used to govern itself, which it lived in order to instantiate and spread around the world.”

America as an “idea” is seen as being more inclusive, which it certainly can be, especially as compared to more malign forms of nationalism. But when millions of Americans don’t see themselves in these ideas, they are not inclusive enough.

In a fascinating Vanity Fair piece, T.A. Frank quotes top Trump and Sessions adviser Stephen Miller as saying, “One of the things that we’re missing from our political dialogue right now is the idea that the United States is a home.”

“It is more than an accounting sheet,” said Miller. “It is more than the sum of its G.D.P., its total tax collections, or its total outlays. America is a family.”

That’s not sufficient for a political program, but you could do a lot worse as a moral starting point.

Without some universalizing principles, patriotic impulses can be turned into something ugly, much like fanatics can do to religion or crazed stalkers can do with romantic love.

Trump has not taken us to that point. But if other Republicans became too abstract, Trump’s nationalism is too divorced from our founding principles.

It is the task of American conservatism to join these two things together again.

Democrats scrap all-nighters after DeVos, Sessions votes

Top Story

Senate Democrats on Wednesday abandoned the all-night “talk-a-thons.”

02/09/17 12:01 AM

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