Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
They Said It:
I don’t know what happens with Mr. Trump, but Trumpism? That’s here now — outlandish candidates backed by indignant, enraptured people who’ve lost their judgment. Congratulations to the leaders of both parties: The past 20 years you’ve taken us far. We’re entering Weimar, baby. The swamp figure is up from the depths.
Peggy Noonan, “The Three Presidential Primaries,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015.
As regular readers well know, we here at The Political Forum have always been fascinated by populist movements. From the medieval Millenarian revolutions that pitted the poor and dispossessed against the powerful, including or especially the Church; to the Progressive insurgency of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which promised to serve the people’s interests, but merely replaced their private overlords with those from the government, populists have long been both bellwethers of change and omens of doom. And today’s populists are, we’re afraid, not especially different from their predecessors in that they exemplify a powerful discontent with the status quo and a potentially dangerous incoherence with respect to the mollification of that discontent.
Like everyone, we have also been fascinated of late by Donald Trump and by the popular discontent he represents. Trump may be a straight-talking, get-it-done sumbitch, as some of his supporters believe. He may be a fraud, as others think. He may be purely a symbol of voter unhappiness, or he may be an attractive candidate in his own right. At this point in the process, he is everything to some and nothing to others. Whatever the case, though, we think it’s clear that he is but one of a handful indicators of rising populist anger. Walter Russell Mead, the eminent professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and professor of foreign policy at Yale, recently noted that, despite some surface paradoxes, Trump is unquestionably a populist, both in the traditional sense and in a new and fascinating sense. He put it this way:
Trump is very much a classic populist — in the following sense. Populism isn’t always about taking majority positions or cultivating economic solidarity with non-elites. In some populist movements, specific policy positions that don’t always or even often have majority support gain energy by hooking up with generalized dissatisfaction with elites and the status quo. Late 19th- and early 20th-century populism, from a policy standpoint, put a lot of stress on agrarian issues and crackpot economic ideas that, though there weren’t any opinion polls at the time, don’t seem to have had majority support. So while . . . hard-line immigration enforcement may not be particularly high on the agendas of a majority of voters, Trump can use the issue to signal his contempt for the establishment — and voters pay more attention to the tune than to the lyrics.
As for [Daniel] Drezner’s argument that Trump’s wealth and Ivy League credentials weaken his populist bona fides: Rich and successful men, from Catiline to Andrew Jackson to Ross Perot, have presented themselves as populists from time immemorial. The Donald’s high-flying, bombastic style, with its tasteless and vulgar flaunting of exactly the kind of wealth that populism resents, looks superficially like it ought to drive hoi polloi away. That’s not how it works. Populism is often a political tool for members of the elite who, for one reason or another, can’t make it to the top through conventional methods and have to play an outside game to realize their ambitions; elitists and men of the people have both played the populist card over the centuries.
Trump offers a different kind of “representation.” By flouting PC norms, reducing opponents and journalists to sputtering outrage as he trashes the conventions of political discourse, and dismissing his critics with airy put-downs, he is living the life that — at least some of the time — a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live. In this sense he’s not unlike Italy’s bad boy Silvio Berlusconi, who accumulated tremendous popular support by flaunting his refusal to abide by conventional rules of behavior.
For voters who’ve come to believe that both parties are owned and operated by the kind of people who pay Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars to make platitudinous speeches, who believe that the system is rigged and will never be reformed, that the candidates offering “real solutions to real problems” are fooling either themselves or, more probably, you, Trump at least offers the satisfaction of making the other rat bastards and pompous PC elites squirm. He laughs at them and makes them look small; he defies their hatred and revels in their pursed-lip disapproval. By incurring the hatred of the chattering classes, he seems to some voters to be signaling both that he hates the empty showmanship of the capital as much as they do and that, by making himself the enemy of the self-determined arbiters of the rules of the political game, he is throwing himself on the support of the American people.
Trump is a sham, of course, but for many Americans in 2015 the whole political process is a sham. Trump, however, is an entertaining sham, and some voters think that if the establishment is going to screw you no matter what you do, you might as well vote for the funny one.
Now, some people actually make this case on Trump’s behalf quite coherently. The inimitable Mark Steyn, for example, has argued that Trump’s campaign is good fun and that there’s no real reason why anyone other than his opponents should want him out of the race – at least at this time. “For now,” Steyn wrote last week, “he’s the guy talking about the critical issue in less dishonest terms than anybody else, and he’s a lot more fun than George Pataki so why not let him run around a while longer?” Sounds reasonable enough to us, we suppose. And Steyn is hardly alone. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity – the radio and TV voices of pop conservatism respectively – share Steyn’s delight in the Trump Show. They think the whole thing is both fun and fitting, given the GOP establishment’s general historical uselessness.
We get it. We really do. And we agree that Trump has made this a far more interesting and entertaining campaign so far. We might, in fact, be bored to tears if he were, for whatever reason, to drop out of the race. We also get that Trump represents something important in his willingness – his aspiration, in fact – to annoy the political class and its media mouthpieces. We’ve been railing against the ruling class for three or four years now. We don’t mind one little bit that Trump has joined the fight. The more the merrier, we say.
What we do mind, however, and what we don’t get is the lack of concern in some corners about Trump’s appeal on ideological grounds. As we have said before and will certainly say again, the problem with Donald Trump isn’t what he is saying, necessarily, but what he isn’t saying. For all of Trump’s forthrightness about what he plans to do when he is king president, he has been exceptionally opaque about how he plans to do it. Even with the release of his immigration policy position over the weekend, we still have no idea how he thinks he’ll be able to force Mexico to pay for a border wall. He has a few ideas to raise some money, of course, but some of these are even more troubling than the vague generalities he’s otherwise been spouting.
Some people – again, like Steyn et al. – think that when conservatives criticize Trump’s ideology, they’re simply noting the fact that he is a conservative-come-lately, which is to say that he embraced liberal positions on many policy issues right up until the moment he announced his candidacy. Steyn doesn’t seem to mind Trump’s vacillations; he doesn’t even seem to mind the fact that Trump doesn’t appear to have any real ideological principles at all. NONE of the guys running for president has any real principles, Steyn reasons. They’re all just concerned with power for power’s sake and will thus compromise any principle they may now profess in order to accumulate power. Moreover, since they’re wrong on the sole issue that matters –immigration – then why should they get any credit at all for being better on the other issues than Trump? They may sound more conservative, but they’re not, not really. Or as Steyn put it:
As for Trump on the issues, yes, he’s all over the place. On abortion, he now wants to end the “bad” Planned Parenthood while continuing to fund the “good” Planned Parenthood. As I said the other day, this is as ridiculous as saying you want to punish the “bad” Major Hasan who stood on the table and opened fire but celebrate the heartwarming diversity of the “good” Major Hasan who provided all that wonderful counseling to American soldiers. Planned Parenthood should receive no public funding: That’s the minimum Republicans are entitled to ask of their presidential candidates.
On the Middle East, Trump apparently wants to seize all the oil fields for America. You go, girl! But I’ll believe it when I see it. . .
On health care, he thinks the system in Canada and Scotland is working “incredibly well”. (As for picking a “non-country”, in fairness to Trump there is a separate Scottish, English, Northern Irish and even Welsh NHS – although I’d be surprised if he was arguing that Scotland’s was the best of the four.)
That’s ridiculous. But what is the reality of the health-care debate in 2015? Most western nations have a genuinely public health system alongside a genuinely private health system. The unique genius of Obamacare is that it has abolished (in the sense of affordable insurance and market prices) private health care without instituting a public system. It’s a neither-of-the-above system, and ruinously expensive. Whatever replaces it – if anything ever does – is probably going to have to be, to some degree or another, both-of-the-above. Trump’s apostasy on this is less relevant than it would have been eight years ago.
As to amnesty, I’m with Ann Coulter on this. Trump surged because his view of the border contained a raw, visceral, recognizable truth that those Americans in non-gated communities live with every day. The integrity of a nation’s borders and the privilege of its citizenship is certainly a “truly conservative” principle. More practically for this election, it may be the one on which all the others depend. That’s to say, if America as a whole undergoes the demographic transformation California has undergone in the past 40 years, no “true conservative” will be elected to Washington ever again. In that sense, being conservative on immigration is more pressing than being conservative on, say, Common Core or taking federal money for Medicare or anything else.
For our part, we’re a little dubious about the criticality of immigration. We think there are a great many issues that have been ignored for the last six-plus years, and immigration is just one of them. More to the point, we don’t think that any of it really matters anyway, at least not where Trump is concerned. You see, the real problem with Trump’s ideology isn’t that it’s amorphous or capricious. Rather, the problem is that Trump’s ideology is, on the whole, statist.
Trump doesn’t believe in making government smaller. He doesn’t believe in making people freer or rebuilding the nation by rebuilding liberty. He doesn’t have any particular affection for markets or private-sector competition. He wishes to replace the existing liberal government elite with a different government elite, one that would use the power of the government to do a “better job” than the existing one. And “better job,” of course would be defined as simply favoring a different segment of the population.
Above, you may note that Steyn dismisses Trump’s comments on health care, saying that they are, more or less, irrelevant, given the mess that has already been made of health care in this country. And, as a practical matter, Steyn may well be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that when asked about health insurance in the first Republican debate, Trump’s instinct was to insist that single-payer systems – which is to say government-provided health care – work just fine in some places. Never mind that a single-payer system will never work in the United States, at least at a cost that the government and taxpayers can afford; and never mind the fact that government health care in the rest of the Western world only works in any sense because the United States remains the global provider of last resort and delivers the market capitalization for medical advances in technology and pharmaceuticals; even given all of this, government systems are still bloated, wasteful, of generally lower quality, and riddled with long wait times. Trump sings the praises of places like Canada and Scotland, apparently ignorant of the fact that this country already has a similar single-payer system. It’s called the Veterans’ Administration, and it’s deadly.
Trump also generally likes the idea of government taking property from one private entity and transferring it to another private entity, in the belief that such a taking constitutes a “public good.” Not only has Trump attempted to convince government entities – in Atlantic City for one – to take private property and transfer it to him, ten years ago he also told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto that he “agrees” with the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Kelo v. City of New London “100 percent.”
Even on his signature issue – immigration – Trump’s instinct is to expand government, to expand the power of the state, to take private property, all in the name of “enforcing the law.” In his policy paper released over the weekend, Trump declares that he will force Mexico to pony up for a wall, and he will do so by violating free trade agreements and confiscating the earnings of private individuals. To wit:
Mexico must pay for the wall and, until they do, the United States will, among other things: impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards – of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays); increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays); and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options]. We will not be taken advantage of anymore. [emphasis added]
Donald Trump just happens to be running as a Republican and therefore his candidacy is considered a “conservative” candidacy of some sort. But it’s not. Trump is no conservative. Indeed, in many ways, Trumps positions on most issues, but especially immigration, are indistinguishable from liberal, pro-labor, protectionist arguments. As the Left sees it, free trade, and globalization force American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage labor around the world, which has caused massive job losses in the United States, and shut down of tens of thousands of factories. Trump makes a similar case against immigration – but he is hardly alone in doing so.
Consider, if you will, the following rant on immigration delivered just over a month ago:
It [increased immigration] would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.
You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?
I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.
The ranter in question here wasn’t Donald Trump. Nor was it Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Scott Walker. It was Bernie Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont and the great white hope of the non-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party.
Does Sanders sound more than a little like Trump? You bet! Is he slightly more politic in his comments? We suppose. In any case he and the Donald are on the same side of the issue here, and that’s no coincidence. Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin, and not just because they both represent popular dissatisfaction with the establishment wings of their respective parties. The Socialist from Vermont and the alleged Republican from . . . well . . . wherever he’s from . . . are playing the very same nationalism card against immigrants and immigration. The type of restrictive, nationalist sentiment both men embrace is diametrically opposed to the traditional conservative position on free trade and free and open markets. It is, almost by definition, anti-liberal, in the classical sense of the word. Trump and Sanders are the heirs to the economic nationalist fusion once represented by Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, on the Right and Left respectively.
Last month, Kevin Williamson, one of the keenest minds in political journalism today, penned a cover story for National Review that was somewhat controversial. And the reason it was so contentious was that he described, clearly and explicitly, what you get when take a statist and make him a nationalist as well. Specifically, he put it this way:
In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. But there is no other way to characterize his views and his politics. The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” and victimizing his class allies is nothing more than an updated version of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “yellow peril” rhetoric, and though the kaiser had a more poetical imagination — he said he had a vision of the Buddha riding a dragon across Europe, laying waste to all — Bernie’s take is substantially similar. He describes the normalization of trade relations with China as “catastrophic” — Sanders and Jesse Helms both voted against the Clinton-backed China-trade legislation — and heaps scorn on every other trade-liberalization pact. That economic interactions with foreigners are inherently hurtful and exploitative is central to his view of how the world works.
Sounding more than a little like Donald Trump — and that’s not mere coincidence — Bernie bellows that he remembers a time when you could walk into a department store and “buy things made in the U.S.A.” Before the “Made in China” panic, there was the “Made in Japan” panic of the 1950s and 1960s, and the products that provoked that panic naturally went on to be objects of nostalgia. Terror of the Asian Economic Superman is a staple of modern American politics: A quarter century ago, the artist Roger Handy published a book of photographs titled Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s. We all remember Captain Lion Mandrake’s account of being tortured in a Japanese prison-of-war camp: “I don’t think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.
Like most of these advocates of “economic patriotism” (Barack Obama’s once-favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people — Asians, Latin Americans — but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is not much different from our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn’t rail about the Canadians and Germans stealing our jobs — his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Latin Americans, as when he demanded of Herself, in the words of the old protest song, “Which side are you on?” The bad guys, or American workers “seeing their jobs go to China or Mexico?”
But for the emerging national socialist, dusky people abroad are not the only problem. I speak with Bernie volunteer McKinly Springer, an earnest young man whose father worked for the UAW local hosting the rally. He’s very interested in policies that interpose the government between employers and employees — for example, mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave. He lived for a time in Germany, first studying abroad and then working for Bosch, an automotive-parts company. He is a great admirer of the German welfare state, saying: “I ask myself: Why do they have these nice things, and we can’t?” I ask him to answer his own question, and his answer is at once familiar and frightening: “Germany is very homogeneous. They have lots of white people. We’re very diverse. We have the melting pot, and that’s a big struggle.”
Donald Trump has some thoughts on that.
Now, Williamson offers a caveat of sorts about Sanders, writing that “Bernie Sanders, to be sure, is not a national socialist in the mode of Alfred Rosenberg or Julius Streicher.” We should, of course, do the same here for Trump. He is not a Nazi. He is not going to round up all the Mexican immigrants and put them into internment camps. He is not, as so many on the Left seem to fantasize, an American Hitler. Nevertheless his rhetoric is extraordinary, blending elements of nationalism in a way that is both unmistakable and anathema to the conservative beliefs about the benefits of free trade, free markets, and the free movement of both labor and capital to their most productive sites.
As you may know, one of the greatest resources for the study of populist movements throughout the ages is British historian Norman Cohn’s magnum opus, The Pursuit of the Millennium, which traces populist uprising throughout medieval Europe and ties them to the populists totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. Cohn notes that these movements tend to occur in the midst of great social and economic upheaval – periods characterized, for example, by massive recessions, painfully slow recoveries, breakneck technological advancement, sizable migration, and so on. In his conclusion, Cohn tied the far Left to the far Right and tied them both to the Utopian social and economic movements that have characterized Western civilization for the last 1000 years or more. Specifically, he wrote:
The story told in this book ended some four centuries ago, but is not without relevance to our own times. The present writer has shown in another work [Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion] how closely the Nazi phantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the phantasies that inspired Emico of Leningrad and the Master of Hungary; and how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonization of the Jew in this as in much earlier centuries. The parallels and indeed the continuity are incontestable.
But one may also reflect on the left-wing revolutions and revolutionary movements of this century . . . Those who are fascinated by such ideas [egalitarian Millennarianism] are, on the one hand, the populations of certain technologically backward societies which are not only overpopulated and desperately poor but also involved in a problematic transition to the modern world, and are correspondingly dislocated and disoriented; and, on the other hand, certain politically marginal elements in technologically advanced societies – chiefly young and unemployed workers and a small minority of intellectuals and students . . .
During the half-century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, and on an ever increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once joined the Taborite priests or Thomas Muntzer with the most disoriented and desperate of the poor, in phantasies of a final exterminatory struggle against “the great ones”; and of a perfect world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.
Donald Trump, naturally, considers himself to be one of “the great ones.” Unlike those other great ones, however, Trump understands the keys to righting the wrongs of contemporary society. He understands, as his campaign slogan declares, how to “Make America Great Again.” What is most troubling in his meteoric rise to the top of the GOP primary polls is the fact that so many self-proclaimed conservative voters seem to agree with him and seem to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to increase the size and the power of the state, as long as it is being put to the proper uses. They’re not really conservatives, in other words, but reactionary statists.
When George W. Bush was president, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg labeled him a “preservative,” rather than a “conservative,” which is to say that he wanted to “preserve” a certain, traditional way of life, but wanted to use the power of the state to do so. Donald Trump is George W. Bush on steroids. He wants to take the power currently held by “the great ones” and expand it, using it to create his own perfect world. And he is not alone. Bernie Sanders wants to do the same. And to a lesser extent, so does Hillary Clinton, who also couches her campaign rhetoric in terms of “us against them,” “the people vs. the powerful,” despite the fact that no two people have ever secured more wealth and power for doing less than she and Bill.
What we see in all of this is the very real and potent risk posed by populism. Populism in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. As we note above, we have long made the case that the “elites” who dominate the American political and cultural systems are narrow-minded, aggressively self-interested, and uniformly concerned with the maintenance of their own power rather than the expansion of freedom and opportunity to those over whom they purport to rule.
The difference between the good populists, if you will, and the bad ones – or at least those who may, eventually, break bad – is the difference between former’s belief that the elite usurpers should be replaced by a hearty embrace of tradition and the institutions of republican governance, and the latter’s belief in their own righteousness and their own, unique ability to replace the current elites with an unspecified but “better” elite.
As Cohn notes above, populism constantly threatens to tip over into Utopian or Gnostic demagoguery. Opposition to the ruling elites based on their usurpation of the historical and natural rights that properly belong to the people is truly conservative in the Burkean sense. Opposition to the ruling elites based on the belief that they’re just not doing it right and you could do a better job is not conservative. It is radical. It is Rousseauian. It is Jacobin. It is Millenarian. And it is dangerous in that it will lead, all but certainly to excesses of some sort.
Now, we are not trying to make a case here against Trump. We are simply saying that while his attack on the liberal establishment is both welcome and overdue, it contains elements that should raise eyebrows among traditional conservatives. That his critique shares so much in common with Bernie Sanders’ leftist version should do more than raise eyebrows. It should, we think, raise concerns about potential excesses and the dangers of populist sentiment disconnected from tradition and what Burke would call “prejudice.”