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The NatCons v. Ukraine

At least Hazony recognizes that the democratic world should defend Ukraine. Other nationalists do not agree.”

Pat Buchanan may seem like a relic of American political history. From the early 1990s to 2000, he was a marginal presidential candidate (twice vying for the GOP nomination, and once as the nominee for the Reform Party), but his only time in the White House was spent as an advisor to President Richard Nixon and as President Ronald Reagan’s communications director from 1985 to 1987. During his career as a political commentator in the 2000s, Buchanan was out of step with the mainstream American right: He loathed the George W. Bush administration’s neoconservative foreign policy, he was deeply suspicious of free trade, and his rhetoric on immigration and cultural issues was much more conservative than that of the Republican establishment. 

Buchanan’s nationalist ideas stayed largely dormant on the American right until 2015: when Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president. The connection between Buchanan and Trumpism is clear, a fact that the former acknowledges with wry pride. “The ideas made it, but I didn’t,” he told Tim Alberta in a 2017 Politico Magazine profile. But beyond isolationism, xenophobia, and economic nationalism, Buchanan has something even more fundamental in common with President Trump: contempt for democracy. 

“Democracy lacks content,” Buchanan wrote in a 2018 article. “As a political system, it does not engage the heart.” The title of this article is “Why the Authoritarian Right Is Rising,” and Buchanan’s explanation for the phenomenon is simple: Authoritarian nationalists such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are winning elections because they are more committed to maintaining cultural and demographic unity than upholding abstract liberal values like democracy, secularism, and pluralism. This was the main theme of Buchanan’s political life in the decades after the Cold War, a theme the mainstream right in the United States would adopt a quarter of a century later. 

“Why are autocrats like Orban rising and liberal democrats failing in Europe?” Buchanan asks. Because the are “addressing the primary and existential fear of peoples across the West…the death of the separate and unique tribes into which they were born and to which they belong.” Buchanan argues that this is why Hungarian voters rewarded Prime Minister Orbán for his efforts to “halt any further surrenders of Hungarian sovereignty and independence to the European Union, and to fight any immigrant invasion of Hungary from Africa or the Islamic world.” Meanwhile, the “democracy worshippers of the West” have turned their countries into moral and cultural wastelands. Buchanan explains:

“Our democracy boasts of a First Amendment freedom of speech and press that protects blasphemy, pornography, filthy language and the burning of the American flag. We stand for a guaranteed right of women to abort their children and of homosexuals to marry. We offer the world a freedom of religion that prohibits the teaching of our cradle faith and its moral code in our public schools.”

This is the sort of cultural essentialism that has become a major feature of the nationalist right, from President Trump to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to Tucker Carlson. While right-wing nationalists often invoke democracy and claim to be the true representatives of their respective countries’ democratic will, the reality is that they view democracy as an instrumental good and not a good in itself. Hungarian voters, Buchanan argues, have “used democratic means to elect autocratic men who will put the Hungarian nation first.” He regards this as a positive outcome, so he approves of democracy in the Hungarian case. But when democratic procedures and institutions produce results he does not like—freedom of religion, gay and women’s rights, more immigration—he suddenly denounces democracy as a system which is implicated in cultural rot and dissolution.

Carlson’s commitment to democracy is similarly flimsy. He constantly claims to speak for the silent majority on trade, immigration, “wokeness,” and so on. But when President Trump attempted to overturn an election in which an audible majority of Americans elected President Joe Biden by a margin of 74 electoral votes and more than 7 million popular votes, Carlson accused the congressional committee investigating this anti-democratic campaign of “Stalinist overreach.” Carlson argues that the committee only exists to attack the Biden administration’s political opponents, at one point urging “anyone who didn’t vote for Joe Biden to erase your texts and emails every single day.” When American democracy faced one of its most serious threats in generations—a concerted effort led by the president to pressure state lawmakers and election officials, the Department of Justice, congressional leaders, and even his own vice president to overturn the results of a legitimate election—Carlson told his massive audience that those who opposed this effort were the ones steering the United States toward autocracy. 

One of the reasons Buchanan and Carlson are ambivalent about democracy (when they are not expressing active hostility toward it) is the fact that they do not like the composition of the electorate. In a monologue this past July, Carlson made the case that the Democratic Party has spent decades “trying to replace the American population with more compliant foreign-born voters.” Ever since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Carlson believes the replacement of native-born voters with “compliant” foreigners has been a major policy priority, a ridiculous straw man he righteously assails with appeals to the value of democracy: “You can’t just replace the electorate because you didn’t like the last election outcomes. That would be the definition of undermining democracy, changing the voters.” 

According to Carlson, “The question from day one has always been: What holds everyone together? What is the one thing we all have in common? It’s not an ethnic group. It’s not a shared history. Now it’s not a language. So what is it? Well, in the absence of glue, things break apart.” Buchanan makes the same point: 

“The question is, what is it that holds us together? The neocons say we’re an ideological people bound together by what Lincoln said at Gettysburg and what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and that’s what makes us one nation. But my tradition of conservatism says it’s not; it’s the idea of culture and faith and belief and history and heroes and holidays.”

This is not just the view of populist demagogues such as Carlson or yesterday’s America Firsters like Buchanan; it is also shared by influential conservative intellectuals. For example, Yoram Hazony is chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which runs a project called National Conservatism. It is a political and intellectual movement built around the idea that the “past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” 

Like Buchanan and Carlson, Hazony emphasizes the importance of unique national traditions over “universal political ideals.” In his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony observes that human beings are motivated by what he describes as “collective self-determination: the freedom of the family, tribe, or nation.” Hazony argues that the “liberal political tradition” mistakenly derides this form of self-determination as “primitive and dispensable.” He continues: 

“British and American concepts of individual liberty are not universals that can be immediately understood and desired by everyone, as is often claimed. They are themselves the cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations. Americans or British who seek the extension of these concepts around the world continue to give voice to the age-old desire for collective self-determination, which moves them to want to see their own cultural inheritance grow in strength and influence—even if it means destroying the inheritance of others who may see things differently.”

Hazony is selective about how he chooses to express and defend his nationalist principles. When Russia invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin argued that the shared culture, history, linguistic ties, and other elements of national identity that Western nationalists celebrate were reasons the two countries should be one. President Putin justified the invasion with an explicit appeal to Russian chauvinism and nationalism. Hazony gets around this problem by redefining Russian nationalism as Russian imperialism and arguing that there is no connection between the two. Here is how he put it in a March, 2022 speech at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels: “Russia acts as an empire. Russia has never in its history been a nation-state. It’s always been an empire.” As such, Hazony argues that nationalists are well-positioned to resist Russian imperialism: 

“From our perspective as nationalists, we feel that this [the invasion of Ukraine] is unjust. We imagine it happening to us. We say that a people has a right—if it’s capable of asserting that right—it has a right to be able to chart its own course, to guard its own borders, to make its own laws, to have its own currency. As nationalists, we support this when we see it.”

Hazony does not just believe nationalists have strong reasons for supporting Ukraine. He also believes opponents of nationalism, whom he derides as the advocates of a “universal liberal empire,” are supporting Ukraine for the wrong reasons: 

“There is a possibility that you could say: ‘I don’t believe in all of that nationalism stuff. I support the Ukrainians because I believe that there is a war of black against white, light against darkness, liberalism against tyranny.’ And there are some people who say that, they say: ‘It doesn’t matter where the Ukrainian border is. What matters is that we liberals continue the fight to advance liberalism.’”

Ukraine has appealed to Western Europe, the United States, and the rest of the international community for assistance with explicit reference to the universal liberal values that Carlson, Buchanan, and Hazony regard as such a weak source of solidarity. The origins of the war can be traced to Ukraine’s desire to join the Western system of international trade, security, and political organization—from the protests following former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement (which led to the Revolution of Dignity in 2014) to Kyiv’s potential membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hazony believes the nationalist case for defending Ukraine is superior to any argument that rests on universal liberal values; however, since the beginning of the war, these values have been articulated most clearly and powerfully by the Ukrainians themselves. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy explained at the beginning of the war: “Putin began a war against Ukraine, and against the entire democratic world.”

At least Hazony recognizes that the democratic world should defend Ukraine. Other nationalists do not agree. Buchanan routinely argues that President Zelenskyy is dragging Europe and the United States toward World War III and contends that the war is “generating greater risks and dangers for the United States than any additional rewards we might realize from ‘weakening’ Russia with further fighting.” He mocks the United States’ insistence that it is on the right side of a global struggle between democracy and autocracy and demands to know: “When did the internal political arrangements of foreign nations—there are 194 now—become a primary concern of a country whose Founding Fathers wanted it to stay out of foreign quarrels and foreign wars?” Meanwhile, Carlson describes President Zelenskyy as a “dictator,” whose corrupt government does not deserve the defensive weapons and other forms of support provided by American taxpayers.

Ukraine is a democracy—a flawed democracy with high levels of corruption, but it is a democracy nevertheless. For nationalists like Carlson, though, that is not the point. Ukraine could have the same level of corruption as Denmark, and Carlson still would not support the Western effort to defend it from Russian aggression. Here is the “American position,” according to Carlson: “Fight to the death to defend what you love. Your people, your family, your country. To defend it: that’s why we call it the Defense Department. It is not called the department of nation-building…” This is the same America First isolationism that has motivated the nationalist right throughout history, from Charles Lindbergh to Buchanan to President Trump. 

Nationalists insist that transnational democratic solidarity is a poor substitute for shared culture, tradition, history, and all the other forms of solidarity they embrace. That is why Ukraine is such a problem for their movement: Despite the fact that Ukrainians have more in common with Russia historically and culturally, they want to be part of the democratic West. Consider the price Western democracies are now willing to pay to facilitate that transition: a global financial crisis; a long, cold winter of high energy costs and other forms of inflation; the potential for a wider war with a nuclear-armed dictatorship. The entire European Union signed on to sweeping sanctions against Russia, which amounts to an unprecedented form of economic warfare that is becoming more costly by the day. Meanwhile, Western countries continue to send billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine while accepting millions of refugees who have been driven from their homes.

A vast array of diverse countries, all of which have their own cultures, traditions, and histories, have come together in solidarity with a besieged democracy in Eastern Europe. Nationalists are constantly telling us that loyalty to our own tribes and customs is the only glue that can hold us together. In their minds, this form of tribal loyalty supersedes all other values: from democracy to basic human solidarity. The democratic world’s response to the war in Ukraine has once again put the lie to this old argument and demonstrated that the most important causes and principles always transcend borders.

Matt Johnson writes for The Bulwark, Haaretz, Quillette, and many other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming book How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, which will be released with Pitchstone Publishing in February of 2023.

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