Imagining Post-Trump Nationalism

The small conservative magazine First Things aims to reclaim what has become a dirty word in the Trump era.

infinity21 / Everette Historical / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

America is in a period of tug-of-war politics, with cultural elites fighting to determine which views should be excluded from public life. For decades, overt racism has been stigmatized in polite society and penalized by the government; while racial disparities persist everywhere from the prison system to public education, many Americans regard openly racist views with horror, and quickly move to marginalize the people who hold them.

Now, the question is what other views will be similarly classed as intolerable, justifying the loss of a job, inviting a public shaming, or earning the label of “bigotry.” Among activists on the left, the spirit of the day tends to favor purity tests and bans: The rare student or professor who openly criticizes same-sex marriage or transgender rights often faces backlash or, occasionally, is fired; conservative legal groups that oppose the expansion of LGBTQ rights are included on hate-watch lists alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Some public figures have pushed for similar treatment of those who oppose abortion. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator from New York, recently compared anti-abortion views to racism: “I think there are some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable,” she told the Des Moines Register. “There is no moral equivalency when you come to racism. And I do not believe there’s a moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women reproductive freedom.”

This impulse, according to some conservatives, represents an existential crisis in contemporary American political life—a systematic silencing of any dissent against what they see as the prevailing progressive views on identity. “I’m kind of scheduled for ejection from society,” Rusty Reno, the editor of the conservative journal First Things, told me in a recent conversation at the magazine’s office in New York. Much of elite conservative culture, especially in the world of essays and journalism, is focused on critiquing, mocking, and warning about identity-focused left-wing views. But Reno has lately been reflecting on the political project he would like to build, beyond what he feels bound to oppose. “We play so much defense that we don’t often discipline ourselves to say, ‘What are we for? What kind of society do we want?’” he told me. “It’s easy to know what you’re against, but harder to know what you’re for.”

First Things is the intellectual home for bookish religious conservatives in search of a counterargument to the consensus of progressive culture. The magazine’s readership is moderately sized, with roughly 30,000 subscribers, but its work has resonated in high-profile spaces: Tucker Carlson routinely invites First Things writers onto his show on Fox News and echoes their arguments in his monologues. A recent First Things piece, “Against David Frenchism,” inveighing against the supposed overattention to civility in certain neighborhoods of conservative politics, generated op-eds and conservative reactions for weeks. It won a personal note of appreciation from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who sent a message to the author, Sohrab Ahmari, congratulating him on the article.

First Things is slowly, tentatively laying out one path the conservative movement could follow after the chaos President Donald Trump has visited on the Republican Party. Reno, along with his team of editors and motley band of conservative friends and writers, believe that the tenuous coalition between free-market business types and socially conservative religious types is effectively over. He argues that the massive corporate influence on American politics and culture is pernicious, and wishes to reorganize the economy to promote the well-being of families. He maintains that a society without any belief in a higher power inevitably becomes cynical and consumerist, and he aims to build a collective sense of what he calls a transcendent horizon. Above all, he believes that Americans yearn for civic unity, and that nationalism should be viewed as a fact and an asset, rather than a swear word.

As a whole, the First Things project is an argument against cultural retreat: Religious conservatives should offer an alternative vision of the rightly ordered life, its writers argue, rather than publicly complying with progressive norms while privately seething with rage. In fighting for this vision, however, the magazine sometimes suffers from the moral hazards of opposition politics: writing with derision about its perceived enemies; using conspiratorial terms like “LGBT agenda”; and defending sweeping principles, like limiting immigration for the sake of national unity, while ignoring the particulars of how they have played out under Trump.

One of the great questions posed by the Trump era is how religious conservatives’ alignment with the president will affect the Christian witness in America—the faith’s reputation, and Christians’ ability to reach and persuade people with what they see as the good news of Christ. Among all but Trump’s most ardent admirers, the widely held perception is that full-throated support of the president has required moral and civic compromise. The First Things compatriots have made a slightly different bet: Rather than fighting against the current political moment, the magazine has evolved along with the GOP base toward a positive vision of nationalist politics. They hope that Trump’s popularity is the sign of an opening—for conservative orthodoxy, and for a nationalist movement to replace today’s progressive, globalized world order.

First Things’ place in the conservative firmament is immediately clear from its office’s interior decorating. Dozens of black-and-white photos featuring the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the conservative commentator George Weigel, and the magazine’s influential founder, Father Richard John Neuhaus, sit slightly askew in small wooden frames on an entry-hall wall, as inviting as family portraits. The space is modestly sleek: fancy building in New York City’s Flatiron District, sliding glass doors and track lighting. It’s also a living experiment in pro-natalist policies: Matthew Schmitz and Julia Yost, two senior editors who met and married during their tenures at First Things, pass their smiley six-month-old, Hugh, back and forth between their offices while they work. It is here, as a neighbor to some of the giants of New York City’s literary establishment, that First Things wages its war on America’s leadership class of corporate and cultural elites.

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Reno, who worked as a theology professor in Omaha before taking up his current post at First Things in 2011, cuts a dapper figure: silver-brown hair neatly trimmed, light-gray wing-tip shoes, a lavender tie to match his purple-spotted socks. He looks uncannily similar to Bill Nye the Science Guy. In conversation, Reno toggles easily between personal stories and grand pronouncements, much like the narrative style of his magazine.

Reno has spent his life as a traveler. Like Neuhaus, the magazine’s founder, he converted from a liberal Protestant tradition to Roman Catholicism as an adult. Although he is a devout Christian, he married a Jewish woman, Juliana, whom he met while in graduate school at Yale. The couple raised their children as Jews and discovered the challenges of interfaith marriage: In a 2007 essay, Reno described his daughter’s anger and frustration, and his pain, when he was barred from standing beside her as she read from the Torah during her Bat Mitzvah.

Reno has made choices, in other words, that have forced him to linger in the spaces of in-between identity. And yet his personal beliefs and political project are dedicated to the pursuit of settled-ness and unity. “People say, ‘Oh, it must be great, children growing up in two different traditions,’” he told me. “No, it’s not great. It makes it hard for them. They do strongly identify as Jewish. But one of the things we want is … to have a home in the world. A spiritual home, as well as a home-home.”

The magazine has had a consistently socially conservative identity since it was founded in 1990, but it has also adapted to various eras of American conservatism. Neuhaus served as an informal adviser to President George W. Bush on bioethics, and “the whole circle around the magazine were very much in communication with the White House on a fairly regular basis,” Damon Linker, a senior correspondent at The Week who was an editor at First Things in the early Bush years, told me.

Since then, First Things has traveled a different road from Bush-administration evangelical leaders, such as Pete Wehner, who worked with Karl Rove in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter who is now a Washington Post columnist: Wehner, Gerson, and others have pledged opposition to Trump on moral grounds. Conservative writers at mainstream outlets range in their sympathies for the First Things project, but mostly stop short of alignment. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is in some ways a kindred spirit, but has written about his skepticism of the publication’s brand of anti-Trumpism; his colleague Bret Stephens, meanwhile, recently wrote a scathing condemnation of what he described as the Trump-style illiberal impulses on display in the “Against David Frenchism” article. As right-wing outlets have formed new post-Trump teams in the Little League of conservative politics, First Things has found itself in bitter feuds with stalwarts such as the National Review and newcomers such as The Bulwark, the webby reincarnation of the Weekly Standard. Even ex-staffers like Linker have been involved in spats: His 2006 book, The Theocons, harshly criticizes Neuhaus’s project as essentially theocratic.

Throughout its history, the magazine has fostered a freewheeling, ecumenical debate about God, publishing Lutherans, Jews, Catholics, and occasionally even Muslims on the nature of their religious faith. Collectively, this kind of conversation is important for society, Reno maintains: “If you don’t have some sense of a transcendent horizon, young people really will become slaves to the relentless competition for wealth and status.”

In keeping with the Trump zeitgeist, the magazine has promoted the idea of civic nationalism, or, to borrow a phrase, the civil religion that has long been at the heart of American identity. Reno argues that the progressive gospel of diversity mistakenly elevates difference as a good unto itself, missing the shared qualities of American identity that actually bring the country together. “Pluralism—it all sounds great on paper,” he told me. “But in fact, especially in times of crisis or tension—and I think we live in a time very polarized and divided—the imperative is unity.”

“The big question is: ‘What is the problem that we face in the 21st-century West?’” he said. “Is the problem one of insufficient solicitude for people on the margins? Or is the problem one of lack of consolidating and unifying forces?” He and his cohort come down firmly in favor of the latter. Reno wants to assure his readers that “they’re not crazy, and in fact, this theologically informed, socially conservative view of the world makes sense, and there are other people who share it.”

This condensed summary of the First Things project is too simplified—the magazine’s writers gamely argue among themselves about the right direction for the country—and perhaps too generous. “You’ve been pressing me on this, and precisely showing how sketchy this vision is,” Reno told me. “It’s not altogether clear.”

It might also be too sanitized. Alongside calls for unity and transcendence, First Things is prone to harsh barbs about the people its writers perceive to be working against its project. The magazine devotes significant space to bemoaning same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and what its writers refer to as “transgender ideology”; Reno recently wrote that American society has been fragmented by identity politics, including the forces of “LGBT jihadism.” This single-minded focus on LGBTQ issues is necessary, Reno says, because men and women and their ability to bear children together is the central story of creation; in a society where gender and sexuality are unsettled, everything else becomes disordered. “We live in a society of inclusion, and the strategy of inclusion is to make people feel better by being celebrated,” Reno told me. “In celebrating [transgender people] we wind up disrupting—and, in some cases, dismantling—these inherited mechanisms for young people … to be at peace with who they are.”

The magazine has weathered some embarrassing gaffes—most notably a 2018 article defending the Vatican’s notorious 1858 kidnapping of a Jewish 6-year-old, Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptized by his nanny. Conservatives and liberals alike expressed shock that First Things had published the piece. Reno later wrote several columns discussing his decision to run the article, admitting that the kidnapping “is a stain on the Catholic Church” and apologizing for bringing “unnecessary anguish” to readers who value the magazine’s long commitment to fostering dialogue between Christians and Jews.

[Read: The evangelical reckoning over Donald Trump]

More substantively, the magazine has opened a spirited debate about Trump’s war on immigration. When I asked Reno about the president’s comments referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and the family-separation policy that left dozens of migrant children stranded in government vans for 24 hours or more, Reno replied, “I don’t do policy, but if we don’t gain control of the border, it’s going to be a serious problem for the entire generation.” There are “sociological limits” to how many immigrants can be assimilated into the United States, he said. When I asked him whether he would be as concerned if there were a surge of migrants at America’s northern border, he admitted that this would be less worrying: “Canadians are so similar,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the cultural fit.”

Room for dissent exists among First Things’ ranks: Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, an online columnist, Pete Spiliakos, wrote that the president was “insufficiently nationalist” because his vision of making America great again “leaves out African Americans for whom America was not noticeably greater in the past” and the “huge number of first- and second-generation Americans who are part of the post-1965 immigration wave.”

This frank treatment of conservative blind spots on race is an exception to most First Things coverage, which—when it deals with race at all—tends to promote a view of color-blind unity in God over what it sees as racialized identity politics. The magazine’s editors have worked to disassociate themselves from the white-identity wing of Trump’s nationalist coalition—Schmitz once wrote a trollishly titled piece, “Christianity Is for Cucks,” basically as a literary middle finger to the so-called alt-right—but Reno, at least, does not think white-identity politics are much of a threat. “People in America are very anxious that they’re going to lose their country,” he said. “People want to interpret that as a coming minority status of whites, and it’s a nostalgia for white America, and okay, maybe there are people who think that way. I certainly don’t, and the people I talk to don’t. They’re worried that the people who lead this country have no interest in being a country where we’re all together.”

The writers and editors at First Things are part of a group attempting to create scaffolding for a nationalist movement that will outlast Trump’s presidency: Later this summer, Reno will join figures including Tucker Carlson, the libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel, and the freshman senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, in speaking at a summit on nationalism in Washington, D.C. In the event’s promotional materials, the organizers explicitly state their desire to develop a conservative, nationalist movement “in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”

And yet, this remains the greatest challenge to the nascent conservative-nationalist revival. The reality remains that Trump’s movement, and the discontent behind it, cannot easily be untangled from racism. “It’s very easy for intellectuals in general, and the ones we’re talking about in particular, to sort of live in castles in their minds that are very elegant and beautiful, and not fully grasp that the real-world analogue to what you’re talking about is actually a kind of white-supremacist political order,” Linker said. “You have to bridge that, somehow, and face the consequences.”

While some conservative subcultures can become hermetically sealed, purposefully isolated from the liberal enemies they oppose, the compatriots of First Things lean into the tensions of their beliefs, surrounding themselves with friends and family whose lives are open challenges to their first principles. Reno told me he has a gay brother-in-law who adopted a child with his partner, and a sister who supports abortion rights. The day I visited the First Things office, I accompanied Yost, Schmitz, and baby Hugh to a nearby restaurant for lunch. A rainbow sandwich-board sign promoting LGBTQ Pride month sat propped in the entryway.

Everyone I met, from the interns up to the top editors, seemed untroubled by their secular, progressive surroundings. “I’ve never felt embattled,” Yost told me. She spent years at Yale pursuing a doctorate in English; Schmitz got his undergraduate degree at Princeton. The couple has liberal friends, who are essentially good people, Yost said. Their main objection to elite culture, left and right, is what they see as snobbishness.

This has become a major line of contention among conservatives: whether those who oppose Trump on the grounds of his uncouthness are really just looking down at uncivilized America. This was one question raised during the recent First Things fight over “Frenchism” (a truly clunky and unfortunate coinage referring to David French, the National Review writer): whether conservatives should prize civility in discourse and continue playing by gentlemen’s rules of politics, or whether they should embrace the kind of no-holds-barred rhetoric that won over Trump voters. “When niceness … is elevated in this way, I don’t really like the result,” Yost said. “It becomes a way of stigmatizing the contributions of people who don’t have elite manners. And those people have been, perhaps, neglected and stigmatized for long enough.”

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As Schmitz and Yost would have it, elites—from politicians to CEOs—are the truest targets of their ire. “When Hillary says ‘basket of deplorables,’ that’s a very dangerous form of rhetoric,” Schmitz said. “People like Romney replicated that on the Republican side with his ‘[47] percent.’ So you get it from both sides.”

These two editors, who are both in their mid-30s, have not joined the Trump train. They are frustrated by the president’s penchant for pitting Americans against one another, and don’t necessarily see their preferred political agenda being enacted by his administration. They are discontent with the state of American politics generally: “We need leaders who see themselves as leaders of all of America,” Schmitz said. “Not everyone in America feels that Trump is their leader, obviously. He’s a very polarizing figure. We need someone who at least aspires to lead the country. I don’t think our liberal elites aspire to that at all.”

What they do see is an opening for new arguments, especially among conservatives. “What Trump has shown is that the people who thought they were leading the conservative intellectual movement … were generals without armies,” Schmitz said. The kinds of arguments First Things is interested in line up with the sensibilities of most Americans, he said: family oriented, generally patriotic, at least vaguely religious, and supportive of moderate government social-welfare spending.

Yet for all this talk of unity and sticking up for the trampled underclasses, there are still flashes of fear close to the surface of the First Things project. Reno, in what I hope was a joking moment during our conversation, told me his wife would claw my eyes out if I came after him in this article.

And so the challenge stands, for First Things as for post-Trump America: whether those who decry the politics of grievance can get beyond grievance-churning themselves. First Things fashions itself as a defender of the common good against a vindictive elite that wishes to erase its kind from society. But power, as it happens, often serves as a mirror. “We’re not going to get out of our current situation just by being nice to each other,” Reno told me as he leaned back in his chair, regarding me with equal parts amusement and skepticism. “Some people are going to have to lose.”