Anne Applebaum: Conservative intellectuals face a turning point: Normalize Trump or resist him?

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In the short span of a few days, two very different events unfolded that will, together, shape American politics for the next decade. At a rally in Greenville,North Carolina, the president of the United States, though he later tried to deny it,egged on a crowd to chant "send her back," echoing not only his own racist tweets from a few days earlier, but also the language of American nativists down the decades. From the 19th-century movements that sought to send emancipated slaves back to Africa to the anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" party and the Ku Klux Klan, the notion that only certain kinds of Americans are "real Americans" is one that we have heard many times and know very well.

“Send her back” also chimes beautifully with the modern language of the European far right, especially the Identitarians, a conspiracy network that believes in the existence of a secret plot, organized by Jews, to replace white Europeans with brown ones. The group, which assiduously seeks to gain followers in the United States, calls repeatedly for “remigration” - in other words, “send them back” — and promotes the idea online whenever it can. Some of Trump’s followers surely recognize those ideas even if they don’t know where they come from. Already those ideas appeal to an extremist fringe: Both the synagogue shooters in the United States and the mosque shooter in New Zealand were inspired by them.

Many miles away from the Greenville rally, a group of intellectuals met in a ballroom in Washington. These were "national conservatives," thinkers and writers who are trying, in the wake of the president's destruction of American conservatism as we know it, to build something new in its place. This is not an easy task. If, once upon a time, William F. Buckley and National Review laid the groundwork for what became Reaganism, the situation is now reversed: Trump's 2½ years in office have undermined whatever remains of President Ronald Reagan's impossibly sunny vision, and intellectuals are racing to keep up.

The question is whether it is possible — in the atmosphere of hysteria created in the United States by Trump and in Europe by the Italian, Austrian and Hungarian far right, among others — for intelligent people to build on the word “nationalism,” as opposed to “patriotism,” without becoming, in practice, the Heideggers to his Hitler, or the Webbs to his Stalin: Philosophers working, whether they acknowledge it or not, to justify the instinctive racism, vulgarity and violence on display in Greenville, and thus help make a corrupt president palatable to the wider public.

This is not a new problem. As far back as 1927, in his famous essay "The Treason of the Intellectuals," French essayist Julien Benda denounced the "scholars, philosophers and 'ministers' of the divine" who "share in the chorus of hatreds and political factions" on both the right and left, and in retrospect he was correct.

Right now, it is still possible for American conservatism to avoid this trap. According to several accounts, the co-organizer of this "national conservative" gathering, Israeli academic Yoram Hazony, banned open white supremacists from the meeting and warned the conference against them. Many of the speakers chose unifying themes, focusing on a more communitarian, less individualistic vision of society, a path away from libertarianism that some European conservatives are also looking to follow.

But Tucker Carlson did use his moment on the podium to dismiss the problem of racism as boring. (“It can’t be fixed; it can’t be changed.”) One or two of the speakers are already established fellow travelers, active participants in the whitewashing of authoritarian nationalism in Europe. Hazony’s own book in praise of nationalism contains a bizarre and ahistorical description of the formation of nations: groups of families, clans or tribes that came together in some mythical pre-modern era and decided to be unified — a definition that might fit biblical Israel but clearly excludes the United States of America as well pretty much every other modern nation-state. He also dismisses any forms of international cooperation as “imperialism,” understands almost nothing about the European Union and seems incapable of coming to terms with the idea that “patriotism” might be something different and distinct from “nationalism.”

But there is a reason that, in recent history, we have consistently spoken about civic patriotism and not nationalism in America: because we are not, and never will be, a nation held together by ethnic blood ties. In its way, this is what gives us our strength. All nations are, at base, imagined communities, and our imagined community is based on a uniquely inspiring set of principles. Americans have proved that they can be loyal to, and will fight on behalf of, a more complex, more cerebral national ideal, one derived from ideas of democracy and justice as opposed to blood and soil. By contrast, those who promote a narrower, nativist definition of America will weaken and divide us, as the president is already doing. The will teach us to hate one another and lose us the respect we once had abroad.

Having left it myself, albeit quite a while ago, I have some sympathy: The conservative movement is at a real turning point. But its most intelligent thinkers will soon have to decide whether they will continue to normalize Trump, providing him with the intellectual framework to indulge the dangerous impulses on display in Greenville, or whether they will try to create something that gives the Republican Party, at least, some viable alternative once Trumpism fails. If they can bring themselves to abandon the word "nationalism," that will be a good sign.

Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.