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The new reactionaries

Two new books reveal the coalition of far-right nationalists and anti-PC warriors who define the modern political right.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Why has President Trump gone to such extraordinary lengths to build a wall on the Mexican border?

It’s not just a campaign promise; he made a lot of promises during the campaign that remain unfulfilled. It’s something deeper than that. The wall is a physical embodiment of Trumpism’s core idea: an ethnonational political vision that holds America is the nation-state of native-born white Americans, and that policy should reflect, above all, the interests of this group.

This ethnonationalism is behind the wall and Trump’s overall immigration policy, as well as his approach to racialized issues like civil rights and police violence. It explains his affinity with a host of powerful far-right European parties, like Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland and Italy’s Northern League. But while these ideas have a constituency in Western electorates, they have virtually none among Western intellectuals. Few scholars are interested in turning the scattered political proposals of Trump and the European far right into a coherent political program.

But recently, two new books shed light on what that could look like: Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism and University of London professor Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift. One is a work of political philosophy, and the other a quantitative look at the demography and views of far-right supporters. One is written by an avowed conservative, the other by a self-described liberal. One is poorly reasoned (at best), the other tightly argued.

What the two books have in common is that they go beyond articulating part of the ethnonationalist worldview to actively defending core parts of it. Hazony’s book, widely celebrated in elite conservative circles, is a full-throated defense of the “nationalism” component of ethnonationalism. Kaufmann’s focuses on the “ethno” part, arguing that mainstream politicians need to more openly cater to white concerns about cultural and demographic change if they wish to beat back the far-right tide.

These books are emblematic of two distinct strains of political ideology that together form a new reactionary coalition: conservative nationalism and anti-PC liberalism. The ethnonationalist ideas they articulate are at the heart of modern politics. In the era of Donald Trump and the European far right, politics no longer revolves around classic left-right divisions over policy, but around whether one defends ethnonationalism’s core premises or rejects them.

Nationalism’s scant virtues

The core argument of Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is what it says on the tin: to defend “nationalism” against its many critics. But while there are many kinds of nationalism, Hazony has a particular one in mind as the ideal. It’s a kind of conservative nationalism rooted in shared tribal identities. The Virtue of Nationalism is an intellectual defense of the spirit of the Trump and European far-right movements.

There’s real demand for intellectual work describing the ideas animating these movements while abstracting them from their baser nativist and racist elements. And indeed, Hazony’s book has become a hit among American conservative thinkers who find Trump personally distasteful. The book jacket features approving blurbs from influential right-wing policy intellectual Yuval Levin, conservative political theorist Patrick Deneen, widely respected writer Reihan Salam, and Ben Shapiro. National Review’s review predicted it will “become a classic”; David Brooks cited it approvingly in the New York Times.

Hazony came to his ideas about nationalism through an international route. Born in Israel, he became involved in the ascendant US conservative movement during his undergraduate study at Princeton in the 1980s. After finishing a PhD in political thought at Rutgers, he moved back to Israel — and was dismayed at the lack of conservative intellectual infrastructure.

Israeli conservatism “has no colleges, no serious think tanks or publishing houses, no newspapers or broadcasting,” he wrote in a 1996 edition of Azure magazine, a periodical he founded. “Nothing like the writings of Smith, Burke, or Hayek has ever been written in Hebrew, or even translated.”

In addition to founding Azure, Hazony set up an academic press and two think tanks that advanced the goal of building an Israeli conservative political culture. Currently, he is president of one of them, the Herzl Institute, devoted to biblical scholarship and Jewish political thought.

The Virtue of Nationalism is both a continuation of this work and an extension of it. It is largely an attempt to universalize the Israeli conservative vision, to argue that nation-states like Israel — countries founded by and for members of specific groups of people — are the best model for political organization around the world.

Hazony’s argument centers on a binary between nationalism and nation-states on the one hand, and imperialism and empires on the other. These are, aside from pure anarchy, the only two kinds of states that exist in Hazony’s writing. He presents a just-so story about how nations arose, arguing that government is the product of smaller groupings of people with a shared history (“tribes,” in Hazony’s language) voluntarily coming together to form a nation. That stands in contrast to empires, which expand beyond one nation, incorporating other tribes by coercion.

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The bulk of the scholarly literature says otherwise: The process of nation-building is complex but often non-voluntary and quite bloody. European nations, which Hazony holds up as the historical ideal, didn’t arise out of smaller groups choosing to join together: As historian Mark Koyama shows, European states likely grew strong because tribal identities in Europe were weak, making it easier to consolidate power at higher and more remote levels.

Hazony defends his heterodox view with a lengthy exegesis of the Old Testament. He takes for granted that the biblical account of Jewish history, a story of tribes merging voluntarily, is historically accurate, and then more or less asserts that the biblical account is typical of all nations.

The core philosophical argument he derives from this potted history — that nationalism is morally good because it reflects an organic pre-political order — is wrong. In fact, national identity is plastic, changing and shifting as cultures and the needs of the state change. Take “American” nationalism. It is quite different, and more inclusive, than it was at the nation’s founding. (Hazony, somewhat oddly, argues that the citizens of each American state made up a separate tribe before independence.)

Now, he does admit that America’s boundaries have expanded, arguing that this shows the power of American national identity as an idea, but he fails to understand that this admission undermines his thesis. If the boundaries of the nation can be expanded, why can they not include more and more groups — even groups that now may think of themselves as separate nations?

Hazony’s dubious history also powers some wild empirical predictions. He condemns international organizations as would-be empires, as they seek to bring people of disparate nations together under a broader non-nationalist banner. The European Union is a particular boogeyman of Hazony’s, an “obviously imperial” threat to freedom everywhere.

“Such an imperial order cannot and will not tolerate the existence of independent national states,” he writes. “As it grows stronger, it will work to delegitimize and undermine the independence of all remaining national states, declaring them to be a holdover from a savage and primitive age.”

Since the EU’s expansion in Europe has been voluntary, and it has demonstrated zero interest in forcibly annexing non-European states, this feels a bit like paranoia. It’s especially strange since the EU has a far more limited history of imperialism than actual European states in the pre-EU era — back when they were the purer kind of nation-states Hazony admires so much.

The EU is substantially less imperialist than 18th-century Britain or 19th-century France, and those nations’ conquests arose partly because they were competing for power with rival nation-states. In Hazony’s view, these were aberrations, imperialist deviations from the true values of the nation-state. This is a bit like claiming that the Soviet Union and North Korea tell us nothing about the risks of communism.

To take the point even further, the present-day EU is substantially less imperialist than present-day Israel, which is currently occupying land largely populated by members of the Palestinian nation. Incredibly, Hazony frequently holds up Israel as an example of a non-imperial nation-state without once mentioning Palestinians.

The book makes no systematic effort to prove that historical imperialism had no relationship with nationalism, let alone was constrained by it. It does not seriously engage with the vast historical scholarship suggesting otherwise, nor with the quantitative political science documenting a relationship between nationalist sentiment and war. The Virtue of Nationalism is, in short, less a serious work of political philosophy than a series of specious empirical assertions about the benefits of nationalism justified by conceptual trickery and Bible references.

Only the book’s standing in the conservative movement, and its particularly clear attempt to gentrify the ideologies of Trump and the European far right, makes it worth taking seriously.

The central political argument of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic is that the “nation,” as Hazony would construe it, is under assault from foreign influences, primarily nonwhite migrants who are bringing violence and stealing jobs. At its base, this claim is rooted in ethnonationalism: a sense that the country’s core identity is based on the culture and influence of its white majority, and that this culture and influence are being erased through demographic change. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally, has warned against “savage globalization” infringing on France’s sovereignty, threatening “our existence as a people.”

Hazony seems to see himself codifying this vision into a more systematic framework: In a 2016 essay previewing The Virtue of Nationalism’s core arguments, he called on conservative intellectuals to “give birth to the kind of political theory and historical work that could yield a coherent alternative to the order they are up against.”

The open hostility toward immigrants and cultural change in these politicians’ visions go largely unmentioned in Hazony’s account. But he largely seems to be fine with it. He has argued that Trump’s invocations of nationalism are not racially tinged, and even claimed in a 2018 interview that Trump was articulating his own vision:

[Trump recently] said, “We reject the ideology of globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” That is substantively the theoretical distinction that my book proposes and seeks to advance. The distinction that I draw between imperialist politics and a nationalist politics, you could call that a distinction between a globalist politics and patriotic politics. I think it’s basically the same idea.

There’s a deep and revealing irony in an Israeli thinker glossing over the anti-Semitic connotations of the word “globalist”: It demonstrates how Hazony has built a politically and intellectually “respectable” apparatus for defending the far-right political vision.

The Virtue of Nationalism defines the nation by components like “shared heritage,” a neat way to privilege the status of native majorities that just so happen to be white. It’s a vocabulary for defending ethnonationalism without owning the “ethno” part, in essence allowing mainstream conservatives to find something to admire in the Trumpian, far-right project.

Whiteshift and white supremacy

Whiteshift, Canadian demographer Eric Kaufmann’s book on the future of white majorities, is in many ways the opposite of The Virtue of Nationalism. Empirically careful where The Virtue of Nationalism is sloppy, conceptually precise where Hazony is loose, the book is in many ways a model of scholarship on right-wing populism.

But the book’s fundamental conclusion — that the only way to defeat the far right is to appease its voters — is both wrong and, as I’ll explain, morally repulsive. Understanding how such a careful analyst ended up here can help explain another kind of modern reactionary movement: the “classical liberals” who wage war on political correctness.

Kaufmann is of Chinese, Latino, and European Jewish descent; he was born in Hong Kong, raised in Tokyo and Vancouver, and currently teaches at the University of London. He is, as he notes in the book, an embodiment of the cosmopolitan ideals so many modern liberals hold dear.

Kaufmann cherishes these ideals too. He describes himself as a “liberal” and a “moderate egalitarian”; he wrote Whiteshift partly as an attempt to grapple with the threat the ethnonationalist right poses to liberal democracy. His goal is to understand the rise of these movements: What is it about the West today that makes it such fertile soil for right-wing extremism?

On this point, Kaufmann is clearsighted where Hazony is not, pinpointing ethnicity and not a more abstract clash over “nationalism” as the root of the current turmoil. “In our more peaceful, post-ideological, demographically turbulent world, migration-led ethnic change is altering the basis of politics from class to ethnicity,” Kaufmann argues.

He provides an ocean of data, from both original research and the broader literature, suggesting that anxiety about demographic change is behind the recent tectonic shifts in Western politics. He carefully works through data on the Brexit vote, the 2016 American election, and rising support for European far-right parties — finding correlations between economic factors and far-right support to be weak and those between demographic threat and far-right support to be strong.

Kaufmann’s research finds, for example, that there is little evidence that poor Americans or those more concerned with inequality were more likely to vote for Trump. But a bevy of tests of cultural values — things like attitudes toward immigrants and the degree to which a voter identifies with a “white” American cultural tradition — were profoundly predictive.

There are some glaring omissions in Kaufmann’s diagnosis. Most notably, he gives short shrift to the vital role of anti-black prejudice and backlash to the Obama presidency in Trump’s rise. But his basic claim, that a root cause of Trump’s and the European far right’s rise is a sense of cultural dislocation on the part of native whites, is persuasive.

Kaufmann believes the solution to this problem is to make whites more comfortable with rising diversity. Part of this, he argues, will come from the inevitable increase in mixed-race populations. The more whites and nonwhites intermarry, the easier it will be to develop a more inclusive definition of “whiteness” that decreases the sense of threat from migration and diversity.

“It’s easier for politics to revolve around class and government competence than ethnicity,” he writes. “I therefore favor Whiteshift: a model in which today’s white majorities evolve seamlessly and gradually into mixed-race majorities that take on white myths and symbols.”

Up to this point, the argument is on relatively solid ground. But it’s when Kaufmann starts to get into specific proposals for his “seamless” shift that things get dicey. Much of his argument centers on relaxing what he calls the “anti-racism norm,” the informal rules that stop mainstream Western political leaders and intellectuals from nakedly appealing to white identity and cultural fears.

“If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed,” Kaufmann writes. “Not only is white group self-interest legitimate, but … in an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.”

This means politicians speaking openly of the need to maintain “white culture” in their societies, and to emphasize the assimilation of migrants into the traditions and national identity that define whiteness. Acting on this means a series of policy proposals that sound like straight-up concessions to the far-right political forces Kaufmann claims to oppose.

He suggests that Western nations should develop a “cultural points system on immigration” that would rank immigrants on things like their “assimilability to existing groups.” He proposes Europe put refugees in “long-term refugee camps” rather than allowing them to move into existing cities and towns, a kind of segregation designed to prevent native whites from freaking out. He advocates creating a form of “second-tier citizenship” for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, which would “deny them membership in the nation and the right to vote.”

Kaufmann wants to let Trump build a wall on the Mexican border, and even defends the idea of white student groups on US college campuses. “It is unclear to me why no members of a dominant group would be interested in their cultural traditions, ethno-history, and memories,” he muses.

This kind of “why not White History Month?” conclusion forces a reconsideration of Kaufmann’s overall argument: What went wrong that we ended up here? It begins with his strange treatment of the concept of racism and social justice activism.

Chapters seven and eight of Kaufmann’s book are dedicated to attacking the social justice left, blaming their overly censorious definition of “racism” for helping produce the rise of the far right. In these chapters, Kaufmann advances a definition of “racism” as, essentially, personal animus toward nonwhites and “racial discrimination which results in a violation of citizens’ right to equal treatment before the law.” He contrasts this with what he calls the “left-modernist” account, the notion of “structural racism,” which views racism as deeply embedded within systems that ultimately privilege whites over nonwhites.

The problem, as scholars like Harvard’s Lawrence Bobo and Duke’s Eduardo Bonilla-Silva note, is that it is impossible to talk seriously about modern race relations without discussing structural racism. Racial prejudice did not disappear after the American civil rights movement; it simply became less overt. The anti-racism norm prevented people from outright saying, “Black people are inferior,” but it didn’t stop them from perpetuating a social system that privileged whites over nonwhites.

Yet Kaufmann dismisses the very idea of structural racism as pseudoscientific gobbledegook.

“Indicators of structures of white oppression have largely disappeared,” he argues. “Arguments based on critical race theory, history, or income differences do not constitute evidence of a structure of white privilege. Too often proponents make unfalsifiable claims which intimate that white privilege is engraved into the soul of society.”

Kaufmann is mostly talking about research on race in America here — and he is presenting a straw man portrait of it. Even if you only care about quantitative research, as Kaufmann seems to, there are hundreds of studies, often validated by researchers in large meta-studies, documenting “evidence of a structure of white privilege.”

One review of 28 quantitative studies on job applications finds that “whites receive on average 36 percent more callbacks than African Americans, and 24 percent more callbacks than Latinos,” and that levels of discrimination have not changed since 1989.

A literature review on racism in employment, housing, credit, and other markets from scholars at Princeton and Harvard found that “the weight of existing evidence suggests that discrimination does continue to affect the allocation of contemporary opportunities,” and that “our current estimates may in fact understate the degree to which discrimination contributes to the poor social and economic outcomes of minority groups.”

A massive report from the National Institutes of Health found that “racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive a lower quality of healthcare than non-minorities, even when access-related factors, such as patients’ insurance status and income, are controlled.”

The causal mechanisms here are straightforward. Slavery, Jim Crow, and racially discriminatory practices like “redlining” created a society in which African Americans were separated from the white population and shunted into inferior institutions. This was not fixed overnight in the late 20th century; on some metrics, like measures of school segregation, the United States has actually gone backward of late. Nor did white attitudes change overnight; while explicit prejudice toward all groups became less popular, stereotypes about minorities persist and affect the way whites treat minorities.

The result is that it’s still harder on average for minorities to live in safe neighborhoods, attend high-quality schools, or get access to the best health care. White Americans now enjoy systemic privileges purely because they were born white, a brute social fact that is among the most well-documented in all of American social science.

Kaufmann does not engage with the literature in any sustained way. He examines a few individual studies on discrimination, conceding some and nitpicking others, but the sense you’d get from reading Whiteshift’s middle chapters is that “anti-white radicalism” — his term — is a bigger problem in the modern West than actual racial discrimination.

This is vital to Kaufmann’s argument. Because structural racism doesn’t exist, he argues, white identity politics are no different from minority identity politics.

“Expressing a white identity or group self-interest, or an ethno-traditional national identity which includes a white-majority component, isn’t racist,” he writes. “The same holds true for black, Muslim, or other minority interests.”

This equation can only be true if a politics of “white identity” does not require, by its very nature, maintaining a social structure in which whites enjoy privileged and unfair access to social goods. But to defend “white group interests” today in the West is to defend white privilege.

On this point, I’d recommend research by Duke University’s Ashley Jardina. In her forthcoming book White Identity Politics, she presents evidence that Americans who strongly identify with being white do not necessarily express higher levels of animus toward nonwhites. But she cautions against drawing benign conclusion about white identity politics.

One reason, she explains, is that her research found “many whites who identify with their racial group do recognize their privileged status, and yet they express no interest in relinquishing it.” This shows that whiteness is a necessarily exclusivist category — and a politics emphasizing it is necessarily a politics of racism:

Whiteness, by its very nature, is still constructed in opposition to other groups. It exists as an identity by way of drawing boundaries around racial and ethnic groups, asserting who belongs, and who does not. Who is granted privilege and status, and who is not. The power and import of white identity politics makes clear that, as a nation, we have a long way to go toward achieving racial equality.

By failing to acknowledge this, Kaufmann ends up betraying the liberalism he set out to defend. And in doing so, he throws in his lot with Hazony, providing intellectual fuel to the far right’s arguments.

Kaufmann is part of a broader tendency of Western writers and thinkers to view the far right as a reaction to a deeper problem: censorious political correctness and intolerant social justice activists. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor who has become a best-selling author and cult intellectual guru, is the Platonic ideal of this kind of advocate. Similar views can be found from those in the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web.”

Whiteshift, which approvingly cites Peterson, reveals the link between the anti–political correctness brigade, which include some self-proclaimed liberals, and Hazony and the nationalist right.

By positioning the left as the problem, disproportionately training rhetorical fire on them, and concluding that condemnations of “structural racism” are unfair, Kaufmann lands on a position that severely downplays the reality of racial oppression. That makes it possible to see whites as a victimized class maligned by social justice warriors, and even swinging all the way around to embracing white ethnonationalism.

Kaufmann may still refuse to support far-right politicians directly, but by advancing their narrative and an ethnonationalist worldview, he is making them more respectable all the same. It’s not the far right that has to change fundamentally, if you accept his arguments — it’s the activists and people of color who are silencing them.

Whiteshift’s clarity about the ultimate implications of anti–political correctness politics is, second to the statistical analyses, its core virtue. The book reveals just how little practical daylight there is between the actual right and the anti-PC warriors. Their arguments may begin with different premises, but they end up at remarkably similar conclusions: the necessity of catering to a politics of white grievance.

Ultimately, this is the battle line along which Western politics will be fought — whether at the ballot box or in the academy. The far right and the anti-PC crusaders represent the energy of a restive white majority, each reacting to challenges from changing demographics and movements for racial equality. It’s a loose ideological coalition, but a coalition nonetheless.

Against them are establishment liberals, social justice activists, the newly resurgent socialist left, and those few conservatives who reject ethnonationalism on principle. These various factions disagree profoundly on a host of issues, but all share a baseline commitment to racial equality. The question for these groups is this: Can they find a way of getting past their differences, and come to something like the emerging right-wing coalition?

The future of Western politics will depend on it.


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