In the summer of 2015, Donald Trump came to FreedomFest in Las Vegas – an event for conservatives and libertarians – as an eccentric outsider. Almost a gate crasher. People wondered why he was there. He presented his message of protectionism and immigration restrictionism, while railing against Iran and China. Only a strong leader can save us from them, was his message. So far from Reaganism was his message that it was surprising that he received even a smattering of applause.
The next year, it was different. True, a “Never Trump” movement had developed in conservative circles but it didn’t have legs. Mostly, the activists were coming around. I spoke from the FreedomFest stage with warnings that Trump’s ideology is neither libertarian nor conservative but from a different tradition altogether, one that was historically and philosophically statist. I was booed by perhaps two thirds of the audience.
I did the same the next year – Trump was now president – and I was basically shouted down. I’m glad no one in the audience was carrying vegetables.
I get that people like a winner. His political victories are legendary. They also fear the left, which seems to have lost all rational moorings. Trump has indeed been an entertaining slayer of left-wing goofballism. I, however, naively believed his nationalist ideology would remain a personal eccentricity. I could imagine that the hoi polloi might buy in. But surely, Trumpism would not lure the intelligentsia. His electoral triumph would be a political flash in the pan with no grander implications for the world of ideas.
I was wrong.
In the same way that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the 1980s profoundly shaped the belief structures of American conservatism – free markets and strong defense became the core doctrines – so too have Trump’s successes come to shape the thinking of conservatism in the culture at large.
There are emerging magazines, journals, books, and endless podcasts pumping Trumpism in one form or another, many by highly intelligent and educated people. We’ve seen it in the apostasy against free-market theory from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Marco Rubio, in addition to innumerable elected officials. But the waves of influence are now extending further, to the point that certain ideas that would have been unthinkable five years ago – for example, the call for breaking up big tech, imposing tariffs against long-time trading partners, and completely giving up on controlling government spending – are now accepted ideas on the right.
I just returned from two high-end conferences where several main speakers (serious people) had drunk so deeply from the Trump well that they didn’t even feel the need to lay out their nationalist priors: they were baked into the way they now think about the world.
It’s common that mainstream venues attribute Trumpist ideology to working-class whites without advanced education. This is now a caricature. There is an emerging brain trust forming out there, which suggests to me that the nationalist/protectionist/restrictionist mindset is spreading and entrenching itself. As in markets where success speaks for itself, and attracts imitators, so too in politics. The remarkable rise and persistence of Trump as politician has caused a shift in thinking among serious-minded people. The thinking is leaning against liberalism (classically understood) and for a new version of statism: what I’ve called right-wing collectivism.
Meanwhile, philosopher George Will, something of a guru in conservative circles in the early part of my career, is now the outlier, an isolated dissident in the Trumpization of conservatism. His mighty treatise The Conservative Sensibility proves that the only American conservatism worthy of the name is but an elaboration of the great liberal conviction that society manages itself better than it can ever be managed by state authority. It’s a book for the ages; it has to be because it has made no dent in the march of Trumpism in our own time.
You can call this a tribute to the power of politics to manipulate the public mind, or you can think of it as a disreputable case study in the malleability of the minds of public intellectuals. To me, it is a disappointment to see how and to what extent the intellectual class is trapped into a state-dominated mindset, flinging left then right without considering classical liberalism as a viable option.
There is this pattern I’m seeing far and wide, in which some important thinker or public figure becomes disgruntled with the preposterous antics and belief structures of the left, and so turns away from them all in a fury. That’s the good part. The bad part is that they don’t throw off the statism of the left, just the ethos and goals.
In the 1970s, they turned toward neoconservatism and its Wilsonian longings. Today, they go to full-blown right-wing nationalism to give the state meaning and infuse their own ideological lives with purpose. They become celebrators of the nation-state and further builders of it, hoping to turn its powers from welfare and global concerns to building up national community, restriction, censorship, mercantilist-protected industry, and racial/religious cohesion. That books celebrating the nation state becomes bestsellers and award winners on the right tells you all you need to know.
Remember that statism is what left and right have in common: the determination to mold society according to some pre-determined end; they only differ on their end-of-history eschaton. The means of obtaining it are the same: capture the prize of power and impose one’s view on everyone else.
The trouble is that this right-wing longing for control of the centers of power normalizes what should never be considered normal in a free society: a state that knows no limits to its power. When you build power, you cannot know or control how it is used. You yourself become reckless in deploying it in ways that contradict every principle of freedom.
Turning from the abstract to the tactile, consider the Trump administration’s opinion on Apple’s desire to secure users’ data from invasion by the state. The administration is demanding that Apple hack its operating systems and hardware to make more state intervention and surveillance possible. It treats Apple as the enemy here, even though tech companies’ resistance to government has been a heroic enterprise for decades, and one essential to protecting our liberties and privacy.
Note too that it is under the Republican president that we see fulfilled an ominous push for internal passports that was begun by a Democratic president. Any president genuinely concerned about freedom would have made it a priority to stop this outragel a president focussed on collectivizing the population and united its against feared outsiders would be delighted to preside over its imposition.
Another case concerns China. Five years ago, Trump sounded like an eccentric with a bee in his bonnet by constantly warning against China. After all, what precisely has China done to the U.S. besides sell us great stuff at low prices? Back then, there was nothing approaching a trade war brewing. But through his personal persistence and use of executive privilege, he prevailed to bring one about, causing supply-chain disruptions and higher prices for many American consumers and producers. Now we face a strange new world in which two separate systems of technology are emerging, one for the West and one for the East. Nothing is right or market-based about this; its a result of government intervention with market processes.
Today, one might think that this reversal of a 70-year old trend toward global free trade would be opposed by anyone who calls himself a conservative. Free trade has been an unquestioned doctrine on the political right for decades now. But nope: in what seems like an instant, opinion has shifted. Every important public intellectual on the right these days decries China as an existential threat, invoking a pre-modern view of the nation as some kind of living thing with a life of its own that engages in a zero-sum competition with other nations.
For most of the century in the United States, statism has been built within a leftist, redistributionist ethos. To back and build the state, a rightist American state has to draw not from a deeply native tradition of political thought but one borrowed from European politics. It means turning to thinkers like Frederic List, Joseph De Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, and Carl Schmitt, and their anti-liberal historical context of putting up barriers to progress in favor of the throne-and-altar/blood-and-soil ethos of the old world that the founders decried for its illiberality.
The sense I’m getting from this shift is that it is not always conscious in the direction it is taking. It’s almost as if the proponents of Trumpism are not even aware of the extent to which the roots of this worldview are opposed to the liberalism at the heart of America’s founding as well as the principles that made America great in the past. Reaganism at least paid some obeisance to this tradition of thought; Trumpism ignores it almost entirely.
Meanwhile, there is an alternative to left and right that embraces the freedom of the individual and the self-managing structure of society. It has deep roots in Western philosophy, economics, law, and religion. To understand and champion it requires independence of mind. It means breaking away from the despotism of political fashion and the partisan tug-of-war to see the world as it is and could be.
Turning away from either the left or the right and still failing to believe in pure freedom is a tragically missed opportunity, one that results from the terrible reality that classical liberalism as a philosophy has apparently failed to make a compelling restatement of itself in our times. This can happen in time, with persistence, courage, and indefatigable commitment to realizing the great goal of emancipating society from the grip of the overweening state.
The first step in the birth of a new and serious liberalism will require that intellectuals resist political winds from either right or left, stop dreaming of a state powerful enough to impose one’s artificial ideology on the world, and instead make a stand for freedom, human rights, and pluralism as the first principles of social and political organization.
The total state does not have to be the new normal. The best lesson of the astonishing triumph of Trumpism is that trends can change. The bipartisan consensus for government-controlled everything can be vanquished and replaced by authentic freedom. The intellectuals need to lead the way rather than falling in line with whatever the chief executive happens to believe at the moment.