An Unhealthy Obsession with National Strength

Conservatives used to understand that a strong state would put personal freedoms at risk.

Donald Trump gestures after being sworn in as president of the United States in Washington DC, January 20, 2017
Donald Trump gestures after being sworn in as president of the United States in Washington DC, January 20, 2017 (Hillel Steinberg)

Writing about the immigration debate in the United States, Jonah Goldberg worries about the two sides’ obsession with “strength”.

Progressives believe diversity makes America stronger. Reactionaries believe it’s homogeneity.

But stronger to do what, exactly? Goldberg asks.

Obsession

Nobody is more obsessed with strength than Donald Trump.

He constantly extolls strength, at home and abroad. He praised the Chinese government for showing strength at Tiananmen Square. He admires Vladimir Putin’s strong leadership. On the campaign trail, he upended the traditional conservative critique of big government by decrying the “weakness” of America’s political leaders and institutions.

Goldberg is correct that “strength” is the priority of nationalism — and fits uncomfortably with the American idea. The men who founded the republic understood that a “strong” national government would conflict with the liberty of its people. That is why they designed a system of checks of balances.

National will

Trump and his supporters believe in something else.

To them, the state is the embodiment of the nation; the expression of a “national will”.

Conservatives used to understand there is no such thing.