One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege.
Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions....the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.
One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary.
How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally? If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid. To the extent that you are ever on the winning side of anything, it’s as sophists who help the Davoisie oligarchy rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless war.
It’s also why they treat open borders as the “absolute value,” the one “principle” that—when their “principles” collide—they prioritize above all the others. If that fact is insufficiently clear, consider this. Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent. And yet the Left and the junta are at one with the house-broken conservatives in their determination—desperation—not merely to defeat Trump but to destroy him. What gives?
Oh, right—there’s that other issue. The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes. Their reasons vary somewhat. The Left and the Democrats seek ringers to form a permanent electoral majority...The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige.
Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them. Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.
...When America possessed a vast, empty continent and explosively growing industry, high immigration was arguably good policy. (Arguably: Ben Franklin would disagree.) It hasn’t made sense since World War I. Free trade was unquestionably a great boon to the American worker in the decades after World War II. We long ago passed the point of diminishing returns. The Gulf War of 1991 was a strategic victory for American interests. No conflict since then has been. Conservatives either can’t see this—or, worse, those who can nonetheless treat the only political leader to mount a serious challenge to the status quo (more immigration, more trade, more war) as a unique evil.
...simply building a wall and enforcing immigration law will help enormously, by cutting off the flood of newcomers that perpetuates ethnic separatism and by incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace. These policies will have the added benefit of aligning the economic interests of, and (we may hope) fostering solidarity among, the working, lower middle, and middle classes of all races and ethnicities. The same can be said for Trumpian trade policies and anti-globalization instincts. Who cares if productivity numbers tick down, or if our already somnambulant GDP sinks a bit further into its pillow? Nearly all the gains of the last 20 years have accrued to the junta anyway. It would, at this point, be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice—only to ensure that it and eight of the other nine go first to the government and its rentiers, and the rest to the same four industries and 200 families.----Publius Decius Mus, The Claremont Review.
One of the the oddities of this year's Presidential elections is that no intellectual has been willing to articulate and own a defense of Donald Trump's outlook despite the fact that Trump is still quite capable of winning the election (according to Nate Silver the odds are 30% today--that's not negligible, and the race is still tightening.)+ The most interesting articulations of 'Trumpism' have been offered up under the cloak of anonymity by folk associated with the Journal of American Greatness and now this "Publius Decius Mus" (a nod to the heroic days of the Roman republic, and a further nod to the Federalist Papers)---hereafter PDM. Some of the funniest and harshest (as well insightful of) PDM's criticisms are directed at the Conservative intellectual class, but I ignore that here.
The underlying diagnosis of PDM of the rise of Trump is that his success is a consequence and symptom of a fundamental corruption of the body politic along moral, financial, physical, cultural and economic dimensions. It's hard not to agree with this diagnosis--Trump's whole campaign has been premised on a rejection of ordinary political rules of the last generation or two. Along the way, he has embraced forms of crassness and vulgarity that would have cost him the election in other times. When Hillary Clinton insists that a good chunk of Trump's voters are a "basket of deplorables" she tacitly agrees with this evaluation. A lot of my Liberal friends have defended the judgment because it's true that many of his voters are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Yet, politicized racism was not invented by Trump, and can't explain the full nature of his success at this day and age now (even if one can grant that it contributes to it)--Trump is an American nationalist not a (Dixiecrat) segregationist.
One need not accept PDM's false nostalgia for an age of "American unity" (what no civil war? no segregation? no crisis of the Republic in the 60s?) before the age of the "the bipartisan junta," which by PDM's lights promotes the two key planks of classical liberalism (free trade and free movement of people) and embraces permanent war, in order to take Trump seriously as a symptom of moral and political rot and thereby to question the status quo in a fundamental manner.* (If Bernie Sanders had campaigned as if he believed he could win from the start, one could probably have written the same sentence about him.)
Despite the absence of hyperinflation, I take the possibility that the Republic is dying seriously. I was alerted to this possibility, not out of some nostalgia to reliving the Weimar age, but due to the fact that illiberal ideas associated with the street (Occupy), rule by experts, and luck (sortition) are attracting considerable intellectual firepower among those attracted to a moral conception of politics. If you really think that a good chunk of the voters are essentially deplorables, it is not at all obvious how one can redeem representative democracy.
Alas, the very idea that our species of representative democracy can be, at least in part, a moral enterprise is seen as laughable given that it is corrupted by the power of money or ignorant and immoral voters (or both). These days liberal democracy rarely attracts a genuine, compelling defense that speaks to the unease of our times, while modern technologies are quickly eroding (and making a mockery of) liberal conceptions of privacy and public reason. Mediating institutions -- e.g., parties, unions, religions, universities, etc. -- are nearly all in retreat or turning illiberal. These same technologies promise enormous further dislocations in the nature of employment. Yet, if idealists expect any moral progress within our political system it is through un-elected courts and international conventions.
PDM's analysis is fundamentally demographic. But one may argue that PDM understates the dangers ahead: we have entered an age of rising temperatures, flooding, natural disasters, and spread of (tropical) diseases. Even if North America is spared civil war and conflict over scarce energy/food resources (not a guarantee), there are huge challenges ahead that will require collective responses and long-term planning, including almost certainly global, demographic planning.** If the rise of Trump is an expression of our near collapse, then we can't afford to be sanguine about his defeat, if it happens, in November. By historical standards we are already in a long expansionary economic phase, but a general sense of prosperity and optimism is (despite some financial bubbles) absent. The next crises will only produce worse options.
If a large chunk of Trump's voters are indeed “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic,” and are willing to vote for a candidate that encourages this, then this is just another indication of a deep-seated malaise in America (not just America, of course, we are dealing with broader trends all over the Western world).*** Traditionally, modern liberals have suggested that in addition to the clubs and mid-level institutions (beloved by Pragmatists as much as by Burke and his followers), mass education is needed to prepare individuals into citizens. By this I do not mean that education is needed to combat immoral views. For, liberal democracy does not rely on the moral virtue or intellectual capacities of the electorate; rather it relies on the citizens's willingness to elect programs, parties, and representatives/leaders that, in addition to defending their (factional) interests, also work by way of discussion and bargaining toward a better, common good that improves us all. In a healthy democracy we project pleasing images of ourselves onto a better future. This is why, as was noted at the start of representative democracy in the eighteenth century by Hume with annoyance even alarm (and with increasing outrage by modern rational choice theorists), that ideology and principle mattered so much to parliamentary, political parties.
This idea is indirectly grasped by PDM who promotes Trumpism not just in order to reduce "ethnic separatism" and "incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace," [is this code for white privilege?] but also to align "the economic interests of" and to foster "solidarity among, the working, lower middle, and middle classes of all races and ethnicities." Trump himself has not been notable in promoting solidarity, and it is to be doubted that solidarity is the outcome of illiberal, growth-reducing economic policies in the context of race-baiting and active xenophobia (and contempt for the rule of law). But by treating Trump's voters as deplorables, rather than attacking particular ideas or policies, Clinton, even if "truthful," does not facilitate a public good; she facilitates the de-legitimation of part of the citizenry and, thereby, undermines the very core of liberal democracy. (To say this is not to urge a vote for Trump who clearly is no friend of representative democracy or a common good.) So, if PDM is right that the status quo is heading us off the cliff, then it seems we are given the choice to step off the cliff quickly (Trump) or in slow motion (Clinton).
+I am not claiming it is a surprise (recall): Trump is anti-intellectual and often contradictory.
*I ignore here the genuine possibility that permanent war is itself a consequence of liberalism.
**I thank Ingrid Robeyns for reminding me of the significance of demography in thinking about policy in light of climate change.
***There are local variations. I mention two: (i) Trump defines himself as a deal-maker and this strikes me as quintessentially American; (ii) because in Western Europe local versions of Trumpism are defined against Islam, in particular, acceptance of homosexuality is now seen as a sine qua non of being civilized/western (etc.).