Words like “globalism,” “nativism,” “populist backlash,” and “liberal elites” pepper thinkpieces trying to make sense of anti-EU movements and Donald Trump’s presidency. Amidst the speculation, John Judis has written a short book arguing for the importance of nationalism and the dangers of ignoring it, holding forth the promise of an explanation for recent events. He doesn’t quite deliver on that promise, but The Nationalist Revival raises important questions for the thoughtful citizen.
Judis aims to rehabilitate nationalism as a neutral force that world leaders can harness for good. He argues that although many denigrate nationalism as outmoded and inextricably linked to conflict and oppression, it has nevertheless been responsible for human progress. Pride in the nation drove Polish anti-communism, a desire to benefit the nation powered American improvements to infrastructure, and appeals to national ideology provided traction for the American civil rights movement. Repressed or misdirected nationalism can lead us to lash out in violence, but well-ordered nationalism can inspire us to national and international virtue. Right now, Judis argues, the elite’s failure to give this impulse constructive channels combined with the negative impacts of globalism have led to explosions of destructive nationalism.
Judis places the blame for these upheavals squarely on the shoulders of those elites, who pursued grandiose globalist goals without counting the cost to those whose way of life depended on restrained trade. Increased immigration and reduced regulation of multinational corporations combined to expand local labor pools as employers moved elsewhere. The impact, however, was not evenly distributed—elites remained largely untouched while manufacturing workers and rural areas were devastated. The “losers” of globalization, Judis argues, have revolted against this perceived assault, and the result is Trump, Brexit, Orban, and the Crimea.
The United States’ foreign policy comes in for savage criticism. Everything the U.S. has done since the end of the Cold War has, it appears, been wrong-headed. Normalized trade relations with China have hurt American small towns and, far from opening China to democracy, have enabled its leadership to tighten control. Attempts to expand NATO have provoked Russian paranoia and militarism. Practically every move the U.S. has made in the Middle East has gone wrong. All of this, Judis argues, goes back to a failure to account for nationalism in others and to guard our own fellow-citizens.
The story Judis tells is a coherent and moving one. He explains broad swathes of the twentieth century in terms of nationalism, and it’s a plausible framework. However, the brevity of the story forces it to rely on generalizations, and the reader may wonder whether these claims hold up under scrutiny. In fact, the latter chapters of the book function not only as an application of this theory of nationalism, but also as a series of case studies offered as evidence for the theory. In many ways, Judis’ interpretive framework makes sense of recent events, raising powerful questions for the future. However, certain threads do not fit the frame, and Judis downplays them accordingly—leaving open the possibility that the power of nationalism is not the whole explanation.
The most striking omission is that of race. Throughout, Judis downplays the significance of racial, ethnic, or cultural hostility, even though these play an outsize role in the nationalism he describes. He seems to have two main reasons: first, as he says upfront, analyses of nationalism that stop at bigotry put both sides beyond the position of compromise by invoking stark moral categories. If your opponent is merely racist, what justification is there for compromise? The other reason that Judis spends little time on issues of bigotry is the economic focus of his account. Immigration is a problem for nationalists, he argues, because it threatens their material wellbeing and those they view as their people—the citizens of the nation—and opens the door to another material threat in the minds of the nationalists—that of terrorist attacks. While Judis acknowledges that changes to local culture are also a concern to many nationalists, he is relatively uninterested in exploring the significance or merit of this concern.
One of the more peculiar anecdotes in The Nationalist Revival comes in chapter three, when Judis recounts his interviews with Trump supporters. He remarks on their hatred of Obama, whom they see as “not a true American.” Judis ascribes this to the ideology of American nationalism, which these men believe Obama has betrayed in his policies. There is merit in this account, but anyone familiar with recent outbursts of antiblack violence will find the dismissal of Obama’s race glib. It’s disappointing that Judis does not address this issue more fully—while he criticizes others for focusing unduly on bigotry, he doesn’t make a compelling case for his own approach. This makes his account incomplete just where it ought to be providing a fresh perspective.
The other omission boils down to a failure to probe into the belief systems that underlie the “Cosmopolitans” (globalists) and “Nationalists” whose conflict drives the book’s argument. Judis articulates what these groups believe, and tries to account for the role of cultural, moral, and religious ideas in nationalism, but he describes without probing. His analysis remains at the level of economic and material factors, despite its goal of explaining an ideology. For example, there is no sense here that the current failure of the globalization project suggests deeper questions about the project itself. There is no sense that any non-economic differences between the globalists and nationalists are fundamental. Human progress has just gotten a little off track because we didn’t account for the nationalism variable. Adjust the approach to accommodate it, and the project of building a peaceful and materially prosperous world may proceed.
The Christian reader can hardly help questioning this narrative. Historic Christian doctrines resist both materialistic, pragmatic accounts of reality and progressive humanist accounts of history. Biblical ideas such as human sinfulness, creaturely limitations, and God’s sovereign direction of history call into question the underlying principles of the globalist project far more comprehensively than Judis is willing to do. These omissions leave The Nationalist Revival ultimately unable to enter fully into its subjects’ concerns or to explore the deeper and more interesting questions of principle. The book provides a thought-provoking and succinct account of arguments about the meaning of recent political movements, but offers no solutions, leaving the reader to wonder, “so what?”
The final chapters both end with burning questions—”will Trump’s successors be able to build on his negation of what is obsolete… to create a new order?” “Can a new international order be created that acknowledges… nationalist sentiments?” These are unsettling, important questions. If you have not already been thinking about them, then The Nationalist Revival provides a summary that remains measured despite its clear point of view, but without any positive proposals, it’s hard to see what The Nationalist Revival provides that is really unique.
Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.