Who We Are, Except When We Are Not: White Nationalism vs. Civic Nationalism

When Richard Spencer addressed a crowd at his National Policy Institute's 'Become Who We Are' conference in Washington, DC on the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, one might have almost believed the rhetoric of the white nationalists themselves: that they had arisen from the shadows to be ordained as the vanguard of Trump's legions, marching to victory. As Spencer himself declared, "Hail Trump!"

Many in the media, including the increasingly hyperbolic staff at the Atlantic, did just that, eager to hang the albatross of racism around Donald Trump's neck. Despite the intense effort by public figures like Spencer to re-brand white nationalism as a popular, mainstream movement based on rational ideas, beneath the surface lurk the same fringe assumptions that comprise the core of the old white nationalism's failed and limited appeal.

To truly become the vanguard, Spencer's vision must first either persuade or coerce white conservatives who make up the great mass of Trump's own 'America First' populist movement, a movement in the centuries' old tradition of Americanism, whose goals are described by Trump adviser Stephen Bannon as "economic nationalism" or by others as "civic nationalism." Often portrayed by left-wing media as kissing cousins, Spencer's white nationalism and Bannon's civic nationalism are in fact deeply opposed in principle as well as in practice, with fundamentally different assumptions about culture, race, economics and the role of the individual and the state. 

Spencer describes his own movement as identitarian, one that defends its conception of race as real and valid as a scientific concept, that has no interest in enslaving other races but only in creating a space for the "white race" to live peacefully, and - crucially - one that believes the only way to secure the future of whites is through gaining and exercising power in the context of an exclusively white ethno-state, irrelevant of the pursuit of human liberty or freedom. While not often discussed, economic views derived from the same line of reasoning are likely to have troubling implications regarding protections for private property not beneficial to the proposed white ethno-state (i.e. none at all). Listening to him with a reasonable knowledge of the history of ideas and ideologies, it becomes clear that his white nationalism is little more than a watered down offshoot of national socialism.

A political philosophy that values authority over liberty, the collective or state over the individual, strict hierarchies of identity instead of a meritocracy, and a government that derives its power from a monopoly on violence rather than the consent of the governed is more perfectly aligned with authoritarian socialism than the ideals embodied in the founding documents of the United States. Observations on double standards in society aside, knocking the core values America embodies isn't a great way to persuade those who pride themselves on their love of country.

Civic nationalism, by contrast, is simply patriotism, the love of one's country as a loyal citizen above any allegiance to another. In fact, most civic nationalists don't even label themselves as such, and there is no inherent racial component. (Although, often there is implicitly one by assuming the perspective of the majority of the citizenry). Since nationality and ethnicity have been intermingled as long as the nation state has existed - absent exceptions - foreign examples often more clearly correspond one to the other.

Yet, to call yourself a civic nationalist in Ireland or Japan will have a very different connotation than calling yourself one in the Basque Country of Spain, and a Ukrainian nationalist may share little in common politically with a Scottish nationalist: it is entirely dependent on the circumstances of the polity in which the individual resides. In smaller countries with ethnically homogeneous populations, national, cultural and ethnic identity are frequently interdependent. The United States of America, most would agree, is not among them. What our country tends toward demographically is not what it is dependent upon for its continued existence.

So, before we are to become who we are, in Spencer's words, who are we, exactly?

"Based Stick Man" Kyle Chapman earned instant criticism from white nationalists for his public embrace of civic nationalism.

From an a standpoint of civic nationalism, no understanding of the United States is possible without embracing the concept of American exceptionalism. We are, as Ronald Reagan referred to us, "the shining city upon the hill," one founded on shared Enlightenment civic virtues of liberty, political egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, and free market economics. Our existence as a nation is not simply to exist and prosper, but to guide and transform the world for the better, and in this, we are better and more uniquely suited than any other nation in history. As a matter of history, our founding political virtues have provided both a forward-looking appeal to correct the injustices of our present and an anchor of traditional political wisdom from our past to reign in the excesses of less-enlightened modern ideologies.

American exceptionalism has its critics, but to a civic nationalist, we are Americans. Our civic identity is embodied by a love of our country, the liberties codified in our Constitution and our federal republican system of government. We are Americans regardless of our own personal ethnic or religious identities, and the civic values that define us as a whole must be embraced and defended in spite of our distinctions.

But what is American culture?

As white nationalists are quick to point out, the United States has been a majority white Protestant nation throughout its history. Despite waves of immigration, it was never arguably multicultural, as non-Christian and non-European immigration was heavily restricted. Nearly all of the real changes in that baseline cultural demographic has been the result of immigration following the revision to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. To white nationalists, there is no such thing as "American" culture - culture to a white nationalist is wholly dependent on race.

But then, who is white?

Perhaps the single most divisive question among die hard white nationalists you can ask is defining what makes someone white. There are those who still hold to the "one drop of blood" rule from the antebellum south, and define white as being an American of European descent with zero non-European ancestry. Others argue for micro-nationalisms of their own, elevating their own ancestry to "God tier" levels while denigrating even other European ancestries as "shit tier." Some refuse to consider anyone with Celtic, Iberian, Slavic or Mediterranean heritage as white, while others go back to the Nazis' own system of classification with Nordic-Aryans at the top of a hierarchy of various European and "honorary European" backgrounds. The availability of big data genetics research - rather than resolving the issue - shows far more variation and offers yet more (politically meaningless) ways to slice the genetic pie into genotypes that have little bearing on the real world identity of the individual person. 

"Pinwheel" expression of the distribution of European Y-DNA haplogroups.

So at the very first philosophical hurdle of simply defining what is white, white nationalists have instead devolved into a No True Scotsman fallacy loop. What would a white nationalist look like in 1840's Prussia, before the concept of "white" existed? If civic nationalists "still get the rope," as many online white nationalists like to threaten, what does a white skinned, mainline Protestant, predominantly Celto-Iberian-Slav with an Anglo-German surname and 1% North African DNA get? Why would any of those "whites" ever support a nationalism that envisions a future gas chamber for them? How can the Volksgemeinschaft be achieved when you can't agree on who the Volk even are? 

How do we define the nation?

For civic nationalists, the nation is the whole of the citizenry, and the individual creates the nation. Patriots can persuade others to become patriots and defend the values of the nation. National cultures exist because of shared values, traditions, morality, civic virtues and practices, which can be expanded and invigorated by building cultural capital. In this sense, civic nationalists might argue that there have been many successful multi-racial empires in history, but never any successfully multi-cultural ones. Race does not equal culture, even if it often correlates, and culture can be defended and expanded persuasively, as part of a longer process of inclusive ethnogenesis: a Briton or a Thracian can both be Romanized, but the system breaks down when you let in too many Goths to absorb at once; they resist integration and demand political autonomy. 

The concept of the nation among white nationalists falls into the same trap as white identitarianism. If there is a white nation but not an American one, then why is there a German or a Swiss or a Hungarian nation? If America is exceptional in this way, then isn't what makes us American also exceptional? (Adolf Hitler held the United States in particular contempt, and did not consider it a true Aryan country.) If the concept of an American nation is inherently meaningless from a racial perspective, shouldn't white nationalists in America be inherently anti-patriotic? White nationalism is dissuasive precisely because it is exclusive, with categorical definitions of what does or does not constitute a nation or a race either debated or avoided to suit the political purpose of the moment.

Comparing the genetics of various racial groups is also not an argument. While white nationalists talk about statistical variations in standardized test scores, rates of violent crime by race of offender, or shifting ethnic demographics (all of which, by the way, may be statistically valid in isolation), civic nationalists are busy debating how to best ensure that liberty and sovereignty as universal principles are preserved, protected and expanded. If tracing the movement of peoples by the prevalence of Y-DNA haplogroups is your hobby, no one is stopping you, but don't expect to be taken seriously as a viable political movement because there is no meaningful political component to your argument.

If white nationalists truly believed in the inherent and provable genetic inferiority of non-whites, they might just as easily advocate a pure laissez-faire meritocracy with full individual liberty, where only the most talented prosper and the least able simply, and naturally, fail. Instead, we see the opposite, where in spite of the inherent superiority of the white race, white nationalists say that it is threatened with extinction, reducing the scope of white nationalism as an ideology to one simple biological trait: the ability to reproduce. 

In their most basic equation, the only way to positively win is to have more white babies. Any white nationalist who isn't on track to biologically replace himself and his mate, and also also have enough children to replace the whites who can't or won't have children, is a failure. No amount of Internet posturing, conjecture, or arms and ammo stockpiling will alter that mathematical fact. Even halting all foreign immigration at this point, if theoretically feasible, won't put a dent in the demographics if white couples don't have children.

Or, one could just redefine what it is to be white (again). Not like it hasn't happened before. (But don't tell them that.)

Race nationalism is, at its heart, a tribal identity, and it places loyalty to the tribe above loyalty to the country. Additionally, whether white supremacist or white separatist by strategy, all white nationalism is rooted in eschatological beliefs that are only confirmed by the collapse of the institutions preserving our current civic order, thrusting us backward to tribalism. The intent is not to be an accurate prediction, but to continually push the Overton window while assuming society's inevitable collapse. They are not interested in defending civic virtue or civic institutions; the success of their particular ideology depends on the failure of both.

Ironically, this is the one scenario that validates everything white nationalism advocates and represents. White nationalists talk about white genocide... then the corrupt South African government encourages black militias to kill and displace white farmers. White nationalists argue that whites are the only racial group currently facing legalized discrimination... then the city of North Hollywood decides to cut funding from a school on the sole basis that it is "too white," and our courts completely fail to prevent it. White nationalists talk about how European populations are being deliberately replaced by migrants to destabilize Western societies... and we witness nearly endemic riots and upheaval, forever obliterating native cultures in countries like Sweden. (Likewise though, black nationalists just as easily point to perfectly valid examples of oppression to reinforce their own apocalyptic conclusions.) And the one place where white nationalism has shown itself to be most successful in practice is a place where civic institutions have all but vanished, leaving people stripped of their rights but forced to organize and defend themselves: prison.

So who is right?

As a country and society, we are not at that point of civic collapse, but not for lack of trying. There are many groups and individuals actively working to see the West fall. However, in contrast to the regressive left, antifa, authoritarian communists or their fellow travelers, the first impulse of those on the libertarian right spectrum - libertarians, conservatives, ancaps and civic nationalists - should never be to ban or suppress through violent intimidation opposing ideas, thoughts or speech. That does not mean offering messengers a platform or refusing to criticize them. Censoring an idea itself does not prove it wrong, it merely prohibits it, and in doing so, lends it unearned validity. 

There are also those times when we have to listen, without conceding our principles, to acknowledge the uncomfortable double standards within society that our blisters have brought to the surface. Indeed, the saddest and most pervasive theme within white nationalism is a visceral one of cultural disenfranchisement fueled by social pressure to denigrate European heritage, to not positively defend our own nation's accomplishments and cultural values, or to openly minimize white Americans as if they were not 61-70% of the American population. It is the kind of double standard that says White Lives Matter is a racist statement, but Black Lives Matter is not. Hand in hand with Marxist social justice warriors pushing white guilt and white privilege theory, the cumulative effect undermines our social traditions and civic institutions by creating distrust and animosity. It is not only possible to be racist against whites, but in America in 2017, it is plainly and hypocritically acceptable. We simply can't accept the basis for one flavor of racial prejudice without legitimizing another.

In Richard Spencer's own words: "Our lived experience is being a young, white person in 21st century America, seeing your identity be demeaned... I’ve lived in this multicultural mess for years and I’m trying to get out of it." 

At present, Western civilization is teetering on the brink of an epochal shift the likes of which have not been seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire and many ordinary people can sense this, but each interpret it differently. It may take place over the next hundred years, or it may accelerate over the next decade. The demographic shift induced among European nations over the last five years is not going to be reversed. If we are optimistic about the future and want to still have a sovereign Constitutional republic to call our own, for all Americans, then the umbrella of civic nationalism makes sense, even if we do not individually consider ourselves civic nationalists. If the end times are truly upon us, then white nationalists have a point, and even people who aren't white need to pay attention because it's going to be a bumpy ride.