Skip to content

Nationalist Self-Hatred

The culture war alone cannot explain the civic rot on the populist Right.

· 17 min read
Nationalist Self-Hatred
From Left, Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, Marjorie Taylor Greene.


Two days before the war in Ukraine officially began, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the “independence” of Luhansk and Donetsk—parts of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine that Russia had already carved off and occupied. Donald Trump described the seizure and recognition of these regions as “genius”: “So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’” Trump also described the invading Russian army as the “strongest peace force,” and at a fundraiser the next day, he said, “I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.” 

One of Trump’s favorite rhetorical tactics is the insistence that the United States’ authoritarian adversaries are run by brilliant strategic thinkers like Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un, while its own leaders are buffoons who are constantly being manipulated and outmaneuvered. But Trump goes beyond claims about competence and incompetence. “The greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia,” he declared last year. “It’s probably, more than anything else, ourselves.” 

This sort of observation has become commonplace on the Trumpist Right. On the same day that Trump lauded Putin’s “savvy” decision to recognize the Ukrainian territories he had stolen, Candace Owens said: “NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.” A month later, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that “NATO has been supplying the neo-Nazis in Ukraine with powerful weapons and extensive training on how to use them.” Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar declared: “Ukraine is not our ally. Russia is not our enemy. We need to address our crippling debt, inflation and immigration problems. None of this is Putin’s fault.” 

After Tucker Carlson conducted an obsequious interview with Putin last month, he wandered around Moscow marveling at the subway station, a supermarket, and other signs of civilizational triumph. When he discovered how cheap the groceries were, he reported that the shock “radicalized” him, and that it should have the same effect on all Americans: “Coming to a Russian grocery store, the heart of evil, and seeing what things cost and how people live, it will radicalize you against our leaders.” He didn’t bother to mention that GDP per capita in the United States is over six times higher than it is in Russia

Carlson’s propaganda tour was met with well-deserved outrage and derision in the American media. “The difference between our urinal-caked, chaotic subways and your candelabra’d, beautiful subways,” Jon Stewart observed, “is the literal price of freedom.” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said, “The Soviets had a term for people like Tucker: useful idiots.” The historian Anne Applebaum explained that Carlson “follows in a long tradition” of conservatives “who admire Russia because they don’t understand it, and because they hate their own country.” 

Many of Carlson’s most vehement critics disagree with Tillis’s characterization—he’s no “useful idiot,” they say, because he knows exactly what he’s doing. After observing how Carlson’s broadcast from Moscow concealed the truth about Putin’s brutal autocracy, misunderstood basic economics, etc., Stewart continued: “But here’s the reality: you fucking know all this.” He argued that Carlson’s dispatches from Moscow reflected the shifting terrain of global ideological struggle: “The old civilizational battle was communism versus capitalism. That’s what drove the world since World War II—Russia was the enemy then. But now, they [populist conservatives] think the battle is woke versus unwoke, and in that fight, Putin is an ally to the Right.” 

It’s true that Carlson’s pro-Russia propaganda can be partly understood in the context of the culture war. American conservatives have long been attracted to Putin for his cynical embrace of “traditional values” and the Russian Orthodox Church, and his insistence that he’s the defender of Christian civilization against the encroaching tide of wokeness and Western decadence.

When Putin compared cancel culture to Bolshevism in a 2021 address, there was a frenzy of adulation in the conservative media—the Daily Wire published excerpts from the speech, Rod Dreher wrote an essay in which he declared that Putin was “completely correct on the society-destroying nature of wokeness and postliberal leftism,” and so on. Right-wing pundits and politicians have a strange habit of fawning over Russian military recruitment ads, while conservative intellectuals like Jordan Peterson regard Putin as an ally in the grand civilizational battle against wokeness. 

But there’s something else happening on the nationalist, pro-Russia right. Anti-wokeness doesn’t tell us why Carlson would actually prefer a Russian victory in Ukraine. There’s no natural link between opposition to DEI, critical race theory, or gender neutral bathrooms and the Ukrainian conflict. The culture war isn’t enough to explain Carlson’s constant lectures about America’s malign role in the world—which he has been delivering since he was the star pundit at Fox News—or his conspiracism about the shadowy forces plotting to destroy the United States from within. There’s something more fundamental at work among members of the populist Right, where contempt for the defining features of their own societies has become ubiquitous. 

The populist Right may identify with Putin’s opposition to cancel culture and applaud when he declares that the woke Left is more authoritarian than the Soviet Union, but this can’t account for the enmity they display toward their own country, its democratic allies, and the threatened democracies (particularly Ukraine) that it supports. The infatuation with the culture war is just one aspect of this civic rot, which is becoming deeper and more widespread all the time.


Recall Applebaum’s observation about the long tradition of American conservatives who “hate their own country.” Like his intellectual hero Pat Buchanan (who he has described as a “genius”), Carlson isn’t just opposed to certain aspects of US foreign policy, the Democratic Party, or anything else within the normal confines of American politics. Buchanan was the “America First” candidate (he actually used the slogan) of the immediate post-Cold War era: isolationist, illiberal, hostile toward free trade and immigration, dismissive of diversity and pluralism, and ultimately anti-democratic. This is the political model Carlson has adopted—Buchananism has moved from the cranky edges of the American Right to the center. 

As with Trump, Carlson, and other populist nationalists, the inevitable terminus of Buchanan’s political development was disgust with his own country and admiration for authoritarianism. “The democracy worshipers of the West,” he wrote in 2018, “cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis”:  

Our democracy boasts of a First Amendment freedom of speech and press that protects blasphemy, pornography, filthy language and the burning of the American flag. We stand for a guaranteed right of women to abort their children and of homosexuals to marry.

We offer the world a freedom of religion that prohibits the teaching of our cradle faith and its moral code in our public schools.

Our elites view this as social progress upward from a dark past.

To much of the world, however, America has become the most secularized and decadent society on earth, and the title the ayatollah bestowed upon us, “The Great Satan,” is not altogether undeserved.

Carlson’s political project is built around a similar narrative of inexorable national decline. When he was still at Fox News, he delivered monologue after monologue about what he viewed as rampant and unchecked criminality in American cities, anti-democratic forces that control the government and legal system, and elites in Washington who are fleecing the rest of the country. He told his millions of viewers that immigrants are stealing their jobs at home while greedy corporations and globalist politicians in Washington ship the remainder of the jobs overseas. He warned Americans that immigrants are corrupting their culture, exploiting their public services, filling their streets with crime, and diluting their votes. At a rally in New Hampshire in December, Trump said that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” 

According to Carlson, every major American institution has been captured by nefarious actors—from sinister globalist oligarchs to woke cultural revolutionaries. He believes the legal system has been weaponized against Trump and despoiled by progressive DAs and judges who allegedly let crime flourish in the name of racial equity. He says universities are training grounds for a new generation of woke authoritarians. He argues that corporations have been captured by progressive orthodoxies like concern about climate change and DEI. He tells viewers that elites in Washington are importing new voters through large-scale immigration to expand their political power. Carlson even claims that “there’s something profoundly wrong with the US military … it’s corrupt, it’s inefficient, it may in fact be a danger to our country. And by the way, it hasn’t won a major war in over 80 years.”

Carlson viewers and Trump supporters will tell you their democracy has been hijacked. They may still express reverence for the Founders and the Constitution, but their view of the United States as it exists today is relentlessly bitter and pessimistic. Whatever strengths they believe their democracy has, they’re convinced that these strengths have been smothered under what Trump describes as the “sick and corrupt establishment.” Trump speaks for millions of Americans when he lists all the ways their country is being destroyed: 

It’s the abolition of our national borders. It’s the failure to police our own cities. It’s the destruction of the rule of law from within. It’s the collapse of the nuclear family … It’s the Marxists who would have us become a godless nation worshiping at the altar of race and gender and environment. And it’s the globalist class that has made us totally dependent on China and other foreign countries that basically hate us. These globalists want to squander all of America’s strength, blood, and treasure chasing monsters and phantoms overseas while keeping us distracted from the havoc they’re creating right here at home. These forces are doing more damage to America than Russia and China could ever have dreamed.

There comes a time when criticism of your own country degrades into what Applebaum rightly described as hatred. This is particularly true when the demagogue who keeps yelling that the country has been “stolen” actually tried to steal an election he lost. It has always been clear that “America First” really means “Trump First,” but the poison of Trumpism has now spread so far that it’s difficult to see how even the antidote of his defeat in November could work. As trust in institutions collapses and political tribalism explodes, America’s shared civic culture—including the basic commitment to liberalism, pluralism, and even democracy—is falling apart. 

Trump’s brand of populism elevates anti-democratic behavior in the name of the people. This behavior has generated resistance, including 91 felony charges, the January 6 Committee, and judicial efforts to disqualify him from the ballot. Even though much of this resistance is grounded in reality and law, it has dumped fuel on an already-combustible set of right-wing grievances about the deep state, anti-Trump “lawfare,” and so on. While some voters applaud the efforts to hold Trump accountable, others view these efforts as evidence of an elite plot to undermine the will of the people. This is why Trump has just one goal if he returns to the White House: “Evicting this sick and corrupt establishment is the monumental task for the next president, and I’m the only one who can do it.” 

The United States has been riven by internal conflict many times throughout its history, but Trumpism is uniquely capable of setting Americans against one another. There were Republican and Democratic presidents during the Cold War, but none of them told Americans that their own government or the opposing party represented a graver threat than the Soviet Union. 

While nationalism as a response to external threats creates its own set of challenges (from McCarthyism to militarism), at least it organized Americans around a common enemy and shared purpose. Now that the leader of one major party insists that the democratically elected government is “doing more damage to America than Russia and China could ever have dreamed,” the shared purpose for millions of Americans is defeating the enemy within.  


Unlike Trump, some nationalists claim to have a positive vision for their countries. Consider the statement of principles published by National Conservatism, an influential intellectual movement that has accelerated the spread of nationalism and populism in the United States and Europe. The statement calls for national sovereignty, family-oriented public policy, and even the expenditure of “large-scale public resources on scientific and technological research.” Rod Dreher was one of several conservative intellectuals who drafted the statement, along with Yoram Hazony (the founder of National Conservatism), R.R. Reno (the editor of the religious journal First Things), and Christopher DeMuth (the former president of the American Enterprise Institute). 

National Conservatism is an attempt to reclaim nationalism from its historical associations with racism, imperialism, and dictatorship. The movement seeks to “recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought,” which stands in “stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” While any political movement that offers preemptive assurances that it isn’t explicitly racist should be suspect from the outset, it’s clear that National Conservatism is meant to cleanse nationalism of the stains of the 20th century. The movement wants to be in the mainstream, which demands the exposition of a kinder and gentler form of nationalism.  

Nationalist leaders like Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Trump have mobilized huge proportions of voters in their own countries and created a powerful populist movement around the world. But the positive nationalist vision outlined by conservative luminaries like Hazony has proven to be far less galvanizing than the brutal, exclusionary, and anti-democratic nationalism espoused by figures like Trump, Orbán, Carlson, and even Putin. And National Conservatives are happy to ride these darker nationalist currents if it means securing political power for their movement. 

In an era of surging partisan antipathy, the hateful and divisive side of nationalism has decisively overtaken what National Conservatism describes as the “power [of nationalism] to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” America Firstism isn’t characterized by an inclusive sense of national solidarity—it’s driven by scorn for immigrants, feelings of zero-sum hostility toward allies and trading partners, and the widespread conviction that the country is being destroyed from within by the “deep state.” National Conservatism’s statement of principles declares that “We believe in the rule of law,” but Trump (the most powerful nationalist in America) attempted to overthrow an election, claimed that he shouldn’t be bound by any law, and even demanded the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” to reinstall him in the Oval Office.

Trump has no ideology beyond his lust for personal power, but he realized that a commitment to nationalism is the best way to secure that power. Carlson’s ideology is similarly opportunistic. His self-conscious agitprop in Moscow was supposed to generate apoplectic headlines in the liberal media. He’s a right-wing ideologue, but he’s also a troll who knows how to ignite maximum controversy and attract attention. He’ll say whatever is necessary to remain relevant, no matter how disingenuous it might be. For example, he has spent years shilling for Trumpism, even though he regards Trump as “disgusting,” a “demonic force,” and a “destroyer.” Two days before the January 6 assault on the Capitol, he wrote to a staffer: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait. I hate him passionately.” (We know this thanks to the disclosure of Carlson’s text messages during the Fox-Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit, which resulted in a $785 million settlement paid by the network.)

Unilateral Illiberalism
Tucker Carlson’s fawning interview with Vladimir Putin shows that he will never pose a threat to despotism.

Unlike the intellectual nationalists with their lofty desire to restore a “public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice,” Trump is only interested in the power he can accumulate by trafficking in hatred. Trump voters don’t support him because he’s a paragon of patriotism, courage, honor, loyalty, wisdom, reason, or justice. They support him because he hates all the same people they do: coastal elites, globalists, “deep state” bureaucrats, progressive activists and professors, establishment politicians, and so on. 

This hatred supersedes all other principles and commitments. Trump can insult war heroes, suggest that an American general be put to death, and mock slain and wounded American soldiers with impunity in a party that has always claimed to be fervently pro-military (there was a time when it would have been inconceivable for a popular conservative commentator to sneer at the military the way Carlson does). Trump can cheat on his wife with a porn star and pay for her silence without upsetting the evangelicals who overwhelmingly support him (National Conservatives who trumpet the importance of family don’t seem to mind, either). He can defend the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, beat up cops, and trashed the halls of Congress as “political prisoners” to the cheers of the “law and order” party. 

Republicans have long claimed that they’re the only ones who take illegal immigration and border security seriously. But when they were offered a highly restrictive immigration bill that would also include funding for Ukraine and Israel, they rejected it because Trump doesn’t want to hand President Biden a political victory. The same people who scream about the nefarious left-wing plot to “replace” native-born voters (a mainstay of Carlson’s politics) opposed a sweeping set of measures that would have significantly curbed immigration. 

Lifelong foreign-policy hawks like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have buckled under pressure from Trump, too. Despite presenting himself as a staunch defender of Ukraine, Graham was one of the Republicans who held desperately-needed aid to Kyiv hostage for the sake of the border deal that his colleagues in the House leadership had no desire to pass—or even bring to the floor. Although Graham was initially supportive of the immigration-Ukraine funding deal, he eventually backed away from it as Trump’s criticism intensified. He then decided that any aid to Ukraine must be a loan (another Trump-influenced policy) and ultimately refused to support the funding package. As one House Republican put it: “Going against Trump [on Ukraine] right now is a death sentence.”

But going along with Trump is a death sentence for the principles Graham has claimed to observe for many years. This is always the case with Trumpism—sooner or later, it forces its supporters and enablers to elevate Trump’s interests above all other values and institutions: liberalism, pluralism, internationalism, the rule of law, and even democracy. 

Trumpism offers no positive vision for the country or the world—it’s organized around nothing more than retribution and hatred. The intellectual nationalists who believe Trump is an instrument for achieving their ends are making the same mistake his supporters have always made—they assume he can be managed. They assume he has principles to which they can appeal. They assume he cares about his country.


“There’s nothing inherently wrong with nationalism,” Carlson told attendees at the National Conservatism Conference in 2019. “In fact, it should be the default setting for a nation, right?” The crowd laughed. Like Carlson, many nationalists in the United States have embraced the concept of “America First” in a way that seems superficially common-sensical—of course a country’s leaders must prioritize what’s in the national interest. 

Why are we spending billions to protect the borders of Ukraine when we can’t secure our own southern borderWhy are we helping people abroad when there’s homelessness, joblessness, addiction, and countless other problems right here at home? These are politically powerful questions, particularly at a time when many Americans feel angry and unheard. There’s a reason nationalism meshes so well with populism—it appeals to our tribal instincts and sense of self-interest at the same time. The problem is that these instincts and feelings can easily be inflamed by demagogues who want Americans to take their frustrations out on their compatriots. 

The original expression of “America First” was Charles Lindbergh’s movement to keep the United States out of World War II. Like Trump, Lindbergh was paranoid about what he saw as the enemies within. “Three important groups have been pressing this country toward war,” he said during a speech on September 11, 1941. “The British, the Jewish, [and] the Roosevelt administration.” Lindbergh continued: “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” This warning contained a threat—either stop advocating for American involvement in the war, or prepare for an antisemitic backlash. “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength,” Lindbergh said. “History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation.” Lindbergh spoke about American Jews as if they weren’t every bit as American as he was:  

No person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. … I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. 

According to Lindbergh, American Jews who supported the United States’ involvement in World War II did so “for reasons which are not American.” “They” represented a threat to “us.” The exponents of a friendly and inclusive nationalism should recognize that it has a tendency to degenerate into self-serving essentialism, prejudice, and even violence. Buchanan recognizes the authoritarian tendencies of nationalism, but he embraces them: “Modern liberals and progressives see nations as transitory,” he wrote in 2018. “The autocrats, however, have plugged into the most powerful currents running in this new century: tribalism and nationalism.” Nationalists like Carlson and Trump share this belief, and they have capitalized on it. 

But let’s assume the National Conservatives are right that it’s possible to build a nationalist movement around patriotism, courage, honor, loyalty, and so on. The first step toward the creation of such a movement would be the immediate abandonment of the brutal, anti-democratic form of nationalist populism espoused by figures like Trump and Carlson. Instead of celebrating figures like Orbán—who openly touts what he describes as “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, and who has long been the EU leader most sympathetic to Putin and opposed to supporting Ukraine—National Conservatives should reject them. The same goes for demagogues like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. 

Of course, this is a perfect inversion of what has actually happened. National Conservatism has fully embraced Trumpism as the vanguard of its global movement. In addition to Carlson, a long list of prominent Trumpists have been speakers at annual “NatCon” events: Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Josh Hawley, J.D. Vance, and Rick Scott, Michael Anton, Vivek Ramaswamy, and many others. The movement has close ties with a wide range of publications, intellectuals, and think tanks focused on providing intellectual justifications for Trumpism. 

The president of the Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts, has made several appearances at NatCon events in which he celebrates the ascendance of nationalist populism as the future of conservatism in the United States and Europe. Heritage doesn’t just offer intellectual cover for Trumpism—it is also preparing the ground for a second Trump term through its Project 2025. The administrators of Project 2025 (which encompasses over 100 conservative organizations) are compiling a long list of loyalists Trump can install right away and creating the legal and political framework for Trump to “deconstruct the out-of-touch and weaponized administrative state,” as Project 2025 director Paul Dans puts it. Trump has already explained what this “deconstruction” will look like: a sprawling purge of the Department of Justice, federal agencies, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and a vast array of other institutions to “fire the deep staters and put America First.” 

National Conservatives are working with Trumpists to prepare for a second term. John O’Sullivan is the founder and president of the Danube Institute, a state-funded think tank in Budapest created to develop and spread nationalist ideas (where Dreher is a visiting fellow), as well as one of the authors of National Conservatism’s statement of purpose. On February 13, the Institute hosted an event with former Trump administration official Troup Hemenway, who now works on “personnel placement” for Project 2025. As noted above, Trump has made no secret about what “personnel placement” will look like in his administration—he’ll gut the government and install an army of lackeys. 

There have always been demagogues who mask their tribalism and paranoia with slogans like “America First.” Even the word nationalist—despite its negative connotations today—implies that its adherents are primarily concerned with protecting the national interest. But as nationalists line up behind a would-be dictator who has repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for democracy and the rule of law, it’s time to drop this fiction. Just like their America First progenitors, today’s nationalists have allowed hostility to their own government and fellow citizens to blind them to the most urgent threat their democracy faces. They have exchanged patriotism for hatred, and they won’t realize their mistake until it’s too late.

On Instagram @quillette