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
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
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
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
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
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 unaware 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
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.
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