Nationalism and Populism Are the GOP's Future | Opinion

It's long past time for American conservatism to change course. In 2020, we face a crisis of solidarity. Our political programs, left and right, need to re-tie the strands of our society that have come undone in recent decades. For conservatives, that means adopting a nationalist-populist platform.


Nationalism does not mean nationalization. It is not an assault on our free market tradition. Instead, nationalism requires rebalancing policy priorities away from greater globalization and toward the restoration of an integral domestic economy.

  • Economic growth should be more widely spread around the country, rather than clustered in super-wealthy cities on the two coasts.
  • Supply chains and key industries need to be brought back to America, not merely to ensure our security, but also to provide productive work for a wide range of Americans.
  • Super-sized firms must be prevented from swallowing up Main Street retail and service firms.
  • Capital needs to be invested in manufacturing and other industries in order to increase worker productivity, which is necessary for increased wages.
  • Government funding needs to be directed away from higher education, which subsidizes the top third of society, and moved toward vocational education, which helps ordinary Americans get good jobs.

Trade and tax policy need to be recalibrated to align with these goals. It is dishonest to say that doing so violates "free market principles," in the abstract. Our current globalized economy depends upon key policy decisions, including the establishment of transnational institutions such as the World Trade Organization. Those decisions were political, and rightly so.

But times have changed. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the American people had suffered a long decade of economic stagnation. Tax cuts and de-regulation unleashed the creative energies of the Baby Boomer generation, then coming into their primes.

However, as is often the case in human affairs, yesterday's solutions give birth to today's problems. I remember well the rhetoric of the late 1990s and early 2000s. America would be the financial, technological and media hub for the world, allowing our country to retain the high-value functions of a globalized economy that would, in turn, provide cheap consumer goods for domestic consumption.

That prophecy has largely been fulfilled. Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood have minted vast fortunes. But we failed to notice that, unlike earlier post-war booms, the rising tide of GDP since the 1990s has lifted fewer and fewer boats. As many have documented, wages have stagnated for the working class, while those at the top have seen extraordinary gains in wealth.

Put simply: As currently configured, our economy is great for those in the upper 20 percent and increasingly lousy for the rest. After the 2008 financial crisis, investors ended up even richer. The same trend is unfolding during the COVID crisis.

I don't care whether one explains the stagnation of working class wages and accelerating wealth of the top end as an "inevitable" consequence of "capitalism," or ascribes it to misguided "government meddling" in "free markets." The growing gap between winners and losers has become the preeminent problem afflicting our country. An American conservative with nationalist priorities is a populist because he insists on standing up for the losers, not kowtowing to the winners.

No political party deserves to govern in the 2020s unless it has a plan for restoring middle class prosperity to the median-skilled, median-educated American. The American people are not stupid. They will not elect a party without a plan.

The American Left favors redistribution. I predict that the Democratic Party will consolidate around the idea of universal basic income, or perhaps some other means of buttressing middle class consumption. The Republican Party needs to take a more appealing tack—that of providing productive work and high wages. Americans wish to provide for themselves. But they will vote for the government dole if the Republican Party gives them no alternative.


Nationalism also requires restoring clarity to foreign policy: It needs to serve American interests.

The United States led the way in constructing the global system after the end of the Cold War. We have spent trillions of dollars sustaining a military to defend it. Thousands have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too long, our global strategy has been justified as necessary in order to defend the "rules-based international order."

Yes, America has an interest in that order. But the "rules-based international order" is not the same as America's interests.

American flag waving
American flag waving Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood are hubs of the global economy. They have strong economic interests in the global system, as it is currently configured. These power centers are therefore tempted to collapse America's interests into the singular goal of sustaining the international order—which is likely to happen in the upcoming Biden administration, as it did in the Obama administration. A conservative with nationalist inclinations is a populist because he resists the efforts of the richest Americans to define the nation's interests in terms of their own interests.


Nationalism does not mean xenophobia. It is neither insular nor aggressive. Instead, nationalism aims to unify the country around a shared American identity. It is perfectly possible to be Chinese-American, Irish-American and African-American. The American identity is capacious, precisely because that's the kind of country we are.

But political wisdom resides in knowing what to emphasize. We are living in a time of fragmentation and balkanization—not over-consolidation and homogeneity. Our loftiest educational systems often teach young people that they should be ashamed of their country, not proud of it. At Yale and Harvard, displays of patriotism are frowned upon. Elite institutions preach contempt for our traditions.

Good leadership requires the courage to stand up against political correctness, a cancer metastasizing across our body politic. We need strong and clear patriotic affirmations in the public square. The exaggerations and lies of initiatives such as The New York Times' "1619 Project" must be called out. The virtues of our great country need to be championed.

And not just championed, but strengthened. A patriot is anguished by the torn fabric of life in America—broken families, abortion, divisive identity politics, drug addiction, crime and deaths of despair. It is a sign of the culpable misgovernment of our country that our elites respond to a half-million heroin overdose deaths by voting to decriminalize marijuana. The refusal of our leaders to stem the flood tide of pornography is damning.

A nationalist-inspired conservative need not be censorious. Unlike P.C. tyrants, he hopes to share our country with those who think otherwise. But he knows that if the Republican Party wishes to have any right to govern our country, it must clearly ally itself with patriotic ardor and cultural renewal.


Populism is a political phenomenon. In its essence, it is a politics of anger, even rage, born of the frustration of the many against the indifference and arrogance of the few. Trump is a populist politician. He stirs up and focuses the anger of his ardent supporters. He was almost successful a second time, and more than 70 million people voted for him—doing so against the censure of nearly the entire elite establishment of our country.

In my estimation, the paladin of their anger may have been imperfect, but their rage is entirely justified. The Great and the Good of our country have overseen the evolution of an economy that has hollowed out the middle class. They have overreached abroad and mired us in unnecessary wars. They have allowed (and in some cases encouraged) a corrosive identity politics that tears the country asunder. They retreat into rich suburbs and send their children to private schools, rather than addressing the moral decay surrounding them.

I urge Republicans to leave to Democrats the ugly habit of denouncing our fellow citizens ("racist," "bigots," etc.). Let us be nationalists—which is to say, citizens who are proud to share this great country with the more than 330 million others who, while often misguided and wrongheaded, and sometimes just plain crazy, are our fellow Americans.

And let us be populists. There's a lot to be angry about—not the least being the arrogance of our ruling class, which, when it faces the ruin that has occurred under its watch, blames the country and derides very nearly half the nation as "takers" and "deplorables."

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.