May 17, 2022

Conservatives and ‘American Nationalists’ aren’t the same thing

View Original Notice ? Conservatives and ‘American Nationalists’ aren’t the same thing

Labels matter.

A news story in the Orange County Register this week titled “Police break up fracas at Orange County Republican meeting” got a lot of attention.

It was reported that a group of “conservatives” wearing “orange shirts that said ‘RINO hunters,’ with crosshairs making a target of the O,’ tried to storm a Republican Party of Orange County meeting in Costa Mesa on Monday night.”

I disagree with the term “conservative” being used interchangeably with “American Nationalist,” which is what the group’s leader called himself in the next paragraph.

Those words are not synonyms. Had the story simply referred to the group as  “American Nationalists,” or far-right agitators or populists, there would be no issue.

In covering politics, labels are often used incorrectly and it’s often only when reporters and pundits use broad terms like “right” and “left” or “Republican” or “Democrat” do we really know what they mean.

The group’s leader called himself an “American Nationalist” and I’m inclined to think he’s right, based on what he said and did.

And I told the well-respected reporter as much on Twitter.

The reporter replied that the group was: “Pretty textbook for ‘faith and flag’ conservatives. Pro-America first, pro-policies that favor Christianity, pro-small government, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, pro-gun, pro-Trump … They had a sign mocking the OCGOP for having ‘conserved nothing.’”

Since “‘faith and flag’ conservative” is a term I can only find referenced by Pew Research Center (a fine organization, but not an authority on conservatism), I’m going to assume the “textbook” is not yet finished.

Most of the positions described above are consistent with what many modern Republicans believe. It would be correct to say the party has changed. It might also be correct to say that many so-called conservatives are actually not conservatives or have since abandoned their principles.

But conservatism is a distinctive philosophy that doesn’t really change and based on the description provided by the reporter, the group at hand wasn’t motivated by conservatism.

“America first” is basically a slogan combining isolationism and nationalism. Conservatives believe in the opposite, which is that there is something inherently unique about the American experiment that ought to compel us to promote American values internationally. As just one example, proponents of “America first” policies support tariffs, while conservatives support free trade.

Conservatism also can’t be reduced to “pro-policies that favor Christianity.” Conservatives believe in the First Amendment, which the founders went out of their way to ensure did not promote any one religion.

There’s a group sometimes referred to as Christian conservatives, but that’s more appropriately called the Christian right. These folks may be conservative in many ways, but pushing a religious agenda through the government is not conservatism — it’s statist, if anything.

I’m Christian, and it guides my beliefs. But the conservative movement has many non-Christian leaders, because conservatism is centered on the principles written by our Founding Fathers, specifically, that humans are created equal and are blessed with inalienable, God-given rights.

And if most of the traits of the group identified by the reporter aren’t consistent with conservatism, some are not even compatible with each other. For example being “pro-Trump” is at odds with being “pro-small government.”

Trump did nothing meaningful to slow the growth and spending of the government, because that’s not what he cared about. Conservatives care about debt and deficits.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of conservative values, but it’s enough to highlight my point. And within these values are sometimes contradictions and tensions, which can lead to differences of opinion.

All of this might seem like a pointless semantic argument, but it’s not. The reporter said I needed to recognize that the “vast majority of Americans have a different definition of conservatism.”

First, conservative values haven’t really changed much since the days of Edmund Burke. Even so, if most people have a mistaken understanding of something, it doesn’t somehow make them right. There are real differences between those who would describe themselves as conservatives and those who would describe themselves as American nationalists.

Second, even if it were true that the definition of conservatism had changed, which it hasn’t, then what would you call people like me (nice names only!), who until this week thought we were still conservatives?

Hopefully, everyone commenting on American politics sees a difference in philosophy between Jonah Goldberg and Steve Bannon.

Third, even if many Americans have a mistaken understanding of conservatism, where do you think they got it from?

Again, labels matter.

Matt Fleming is a member of the Southern California News Group’s editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @FlemingWords.

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