The latest transfixing document for our time is a public-relations video for the Central Intelligence Agency. It features an unidentified 36-year-old Latina officer who speaks of her ascent through the ranks of the Company in a hybrid language, partly the traditional American narrative of immigrant success, partly something more contemporary and ideological: “I’m a woman of color. … I’m a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise. … I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”
Thus is a career in service to the American imperium, at an institution dedicated to spycraft, drone strikes and the occasional coup d’état, now packaged as the fulfillment of a certain kind of cultural leftism and sold with buzzwords that almost nobody outside the academy would have recognized in the first term of Barack Obama. Whatever this change ultimately means for left-wing politics — the death of the antiwar left? the completion of progressivism’s march through the institutions? just the usual C.I.A. tricks? — it’s pretty remarkable to watch.
In my weekend column I wrote about the political challenges that the rise of so-called wokeness poses for the Democratic Party: the surmountable challenge created by its academic style of rhetoric, and the more substantial challenge should the new progressivism preside over policy disasters in the cities where it rules.
But it would take more than just an electoral setback to reverse the ideological shifts that have given us the intersectional, anti-patriarchal, cisgender-and-all-genders Central Intelligence Agency video. Indeed, the striking thing about the new progressivism’s advance is that it was seemingly accelerated by electoral defeat — the shocking defeat of 2016, specifically, which by making Donald Trump president made a progressive revolution possible.
Or at least that’s the implication of an analysis that made the rounds a little while after the “woke C.I.A.” ad first appeared, in which Richard Hanania, who runs the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, tried to explain why “everything” — meaning institutions that used to be seen as neutral or conservative, from corporate America to the intelligence bureaucracy — has recently become so much more progressive in positioning and rhetoric.
Hanania argues that it’s not simply that the millennials and Gen Z are more liberal, or that the Democrats are the professional-class party and so liberalism dominates the professional spheres. These tilts are real, but there are still enough conservative-leaning consumers, enough young and wealthy and well-educated Republicans, to create incentives for institutions to be apolitical or politically neutral.
The key difference, he argues, isn’t sheer numbers but engagement, intensity and zeal. Liberals lately seem to just care a lot more about politics: They donate more, they protest more, they agitate more, in ways that change the incentives for public-facing institutions. Some of these gaps are longstanding, but others have opened only recently, with 2016 as the crucial turning point. That was the year when “the mobilization gap exploded,” creating irresistible pressure “from both within and outside corporations for them to take a stand on almost all hot button issues.”
Why 2016? Well, probably because of Donald Trump: In Hanania’s data, his nomination and election looks like the great accelerant, with anti-Trump backlash driving liberal hyper-investment in politics to new heights, enabling progressives to achieve “true mass mobilization in a way conservatives never have in the modern era.” That mobilization has consolidated progressive norms in almost every institution susceptible to pressure from activists (or activist-employees), and it’s pulled the entire American establishment leftward, so that conservatives are suddenly at war with Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola instead of just Harvard and the Ford Foundation, and the custodians of the national security state are eager to prove their enlightenment by speaking in the argot of the academic left.
To some extent this is an obvious point to anyone who watched the Trump era unfold, but, as a Trump-skeptical conservative, I like the sharpened emphasis in Hanania’s analysis because it seems to vindicate a point I made myself: that the many conservatives who hoped to find in Trump a bulwark against progressivism were fundamentally deceived.
Instead, his administration’s mix of haplessness and menace was a great gift to progressivism, inspiring an anti-conservative reaction that extended through every walk of elite life, turning centrists into liberals and remaking liberalism into exactly the kind of progressive orthodoxy that conservatives most fear. Republicans got control of the Supreme Court out of the bargain, but in almost every other institution that matters, from Langley to the corporate boardroom, their position got much worse.
And yet I also wonder if this narrative is a little bit too pat in its anti-Trumpism, and if it gives too little credit to the specific ideas currently showing up in C.I.A. public-relations videos. That the rise of wokeness was accelerated by Trump I have no doubt. But if you look at public opinion data, the liberal shift leftward, on social issues and especially race, begins midway through Obama’s second term, meaning that when Trump kicked off his campaign the Great Awokening was already taking shape.
So if the consolidation of the new progressivism was Trump-driven, its original appeal was not. Instead, you need to analyze that appeal on its own terms. Just as the reactionary turn among conservatives is understandable given the loss of things that the right was supposed to be conserving, the new progressivism is understandable as a response to previous trends in elite liberalism, to failures and successes both.
Thus the zeal of the new antiracism is a response to the longstanding failure of liberal policymaking to actually close racial gaps. The moralism of #MeToo feminism, the desire to rethink or redefine the contours of consent, reflects a sense that in championing sexual individualism liberalism had ended up enabling predation. The spiritualizing side of wokeness, from the martyrology of police-shooting victims to the confessions of privilege and the zealous witch hunts, seems like an attempt to restore a sense of the sacred that a secularized liberalism sorely lacks. And the progressive skepticism of old-fashioned liberal appeals to free speech and free debate, the sense that certain arguments (whether on immigration, race or gender identity) should be simply ended once an activist consensus is established, seems to treat the swift and sweeping success of the movement for same-sex marriage as a model for how to win on more controverted issues.
In many of these impulses, but especially the last one, there’s an embedded promise that progressive change can happen as a kind of moral awakening within elite institutions rather than through any kind of dramatic revolt against them. (Neither Harvard nor Coca-Cola nor the C.I.A. had to give up anything when Obergefell v. Hodges was handed down.) Which explains, in turn, why this cluster of ideas has advanced so fast within the key precincts of American power. Even though the new progressivism takes a dire view of our great institutions’ history, it also seems to promise that those same institutions can endure unchallenged in their power, if only they confess, repent and convert — and recruit their new members more intersectionally than before.
The tension between this institutionalism and the promised radical change may eventually be the new progressivism’s undoing. (Can Ibram X. Kendi permanently sustain his radical chic while being an academic recipient of Silicon Valley largess?) Or alternatively, as I suggested in my last column, the actual application of radical ideas outside the protected spaces of the elite, to issues of crime and policing especially, may lead to breakdowns that cost progressives not just an election but their commanding position within the establishment as well.
But for now, the story Hanania tells shouldn’t be seen as just a story of Trumpism radicalizing liberalism, as important as that story is. When an ideology carries all before it so successfully that the C.I.A. decides it’s time to start cribbing from its script, even its enemies should acknowledge that it’s winning, in some sense, on the merits: not just from good fortune or from backlash, but because its gospel persuades people to convert.
After the Capitol Hill riot, the divide between reality and fantasy may become too wide to bridge.
For a long time, people have predicted the crackup of American conservatism, the end of a Republican Party dominated by the conservative movement as one of the major powers in our politics. Demographic trends were supposed to permanently marginalize the right. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was supposed to signal conservatism’s eclipse. The rise of Donald Trump was supposed to shatter Republican politics the way that slavery once broke the Whigs.
Conservatism survived all these prophecies, always clawing back to claim a share of power, maintaining unity and loyalty by offering a bulwark against liberal ambition even as its own agenda became more and more threadbare.
So it would be a foolhardy prophet indeed who looked at the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and assumed that this time, under this pressure, the conservative coalition will finally break apart, sending the Republican Party deep into the wilderness and reshaping American ideological debates along new lines.
But breaking points do come, and the violent endgame of the Trump presidency has exposed a new divide in the conservative coalition — not a normal ideological division or an argument about strategy or tactics, but a split between reality and fantasy that may be uniquely hard for either self-interest or statesmanship to bridge.
At the same time, it has cast the key weakness of conservatism into even sharper relief: the growing distance between right-wing politics and almost every nonpolitical power center in America, from the media and culture industries to the old-line corporate suites to the communications empires of Silicon Valley.
But the implicit bargain of the Trump era required traditional Republicans — from upper-middle-class suburbanites to the elites of the Federalist Society — to live with a lot of craziness from their leader, and a lot of even crazier ideas from the very-online portions of his base, in return for denying Democrats the White House. And it’s not clear that this bargain can survive the irruption of all that crazy into the halls of the Capitol, and the QAnon-ification of the right that made the riot possible.
Even before Jan. 6, the difficulty of balancing normal Republican politics with an insistence that Mike Pence could magically overturn a clear election outcome helped cost the party two Senate seats in Georgia. Even before the riot, finding post-Trump leaders who could bridge the internal divide, bringing along his base but also broadening the party, was going to be an extraordinary challenge.
But the Republican Party that lost Georgia a week ago still looked competitive enough to count on holding, say, 47 Senate seats even in a tough election cycle. A week later, it seems the party could easily break harder, and fall further.
Here’s how it could happen. First, the party’s non-Trumpist faction — embodied by senators like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, various purple- and blue-state governors and most of the remaining Acela corridor conservatives, from lawyers and judges to lobbyists and staffers — pushes for a full repudiation of Trump and all his works, extending beyond impeachment to encompass support for social-media bans, F.B.I. surveillance of the MAGA universe and more.
At the same time, precisely those measures further radicalize portions of the party’s base, offering apparent proof that Trump was right — that the system isn’t merely consolidating against but actively persecuting them. With this sense of persecution in the background and the Trump family posturing as party leaders, the voter-fraud mythology becomes a litmus test in many congressional elections, and baroque conspiracy theories pervade primary campaigns.
In this scenario, what remains of the center-right suburban vote and the G.O.P. establishment becomes at least as NeverTrump as Romney, if not the Lincoln Project; meanwhile, the core of Trump’s support becomes as paranoid as Q devotees. Maybe this leads to more empty acts of violence, further radicalizing the center right against the right, or maybe it just leads to Republican primaries producing a lot more candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, to the point where a big chunk of the House G.O.P. occupies not just a different tactical reality from the party’s elite but a completely different universe.
Either way, under these conditions that party could really collapse or really break. The collapse would happen if Trumpists with a dolchstoss narrative and a strong Q vibe start winning nominations for Senate seats and governorships in states that right now only lean Republican. A party made insane and radioactive by conspiracy theories could keep on winning deep-red districts, but if its corporate support bailed, its remaining technocrats jumped ship and suburban professionals regarded it as the party of insurrection, it could easily become a consistent loser in 30 states or more.
Alternatively, a party dominated by the Trump family at the grassroots level, with Greene-like figures as its foot soldiers, could become genuinely untenable as a home for centrist and non-Trumpist politicians. So after the renomination of Trump himself or the nomination of Don Jr. in 2024, a cluster of figures (senators like Romney and Susan Collins, blue-state governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan) might simply jump ship to form an independent mini-party, leaving the G.O.P. as a 35 percent proposition, a heartland rump.
None of this is a prediction. In American politics, reversion to the gridlocked mean has been a safe bet for many years — in which case you’d expect the MAGA extremes to return to their fantasy world, the threat of violence to ebb, Trump to fade without his Twitter feed and the combination of Biden-administration liberalism and Big Tech overreach to bring the right’s blocking coalition back together in time for 2022.
But if Biden governs carefully, if Trump doesn’t go quietly, if MAGA fantasies become right-wing orthodoxies, then the stresses on the Republican Party and conservatism could become too great to bear.
I woke up last Wednesday thinking that the G.O.P. had survived the Trump era, its power reduced but relatively stable, with some faint chance to redeem itself — by carefully shepherding it supporters back toward reality, while integrating elements of populism into the reality-based conservatism that our misgoverned country needs.
A week later, that hope seems like as much of a fantasy as QAnon. Instead, it feels as if the Republican Party survived Trump’s presidency, but maybe not his disastrous and deadly leaving of it.
The Suleimani assassination is the kind of tactic Trump promised his voters — but without a strategy to match.
There’s a witticism that makes the rounds on Twitter whenever Donald Trump does something particularly plutocratic or corrupt, a variation on the following: Look, this is what all those folks in Midwestern diners voted for. The sarcastic point being either that
- Trump’s populism was a con with blue-collar voters as its mark, or else that
- Trump’s supporters professed to care about his populist promises only as a means to own the libs.
But with the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, I’m afraid that I must deploy the one-liner seriously: This was, in fact, exactly what a certain kind of Trump supporter voted for — including both the downscale, disaffected conservatives who turned out for him in the primary and the blue-collar Obama-Trump moderates who tipped the Midwest in the general election.
Not the killing of Suleimani specifically; like Trump himself on the campaign trail, some of these voters wouldn’t be able to tell the Quds Force from the Kurds. But the strategic spirit behind the killing, the preference for a single act of vengeance over more ambitious forms of intervention, the belief in the hardest possible counterpunch, the dismissal of norms and rules and cautious habits that constrain the violence that America deals out … all this is what Trump promised in the 2016 campaign, with his simultaneous dismissal of both neoconservatism and liberal internationalism and his pledge to crush America’s enemies by any means.
This combined promise was not a contradiction; it was an expression of a practical philosophy of foreign policy, usefully called Jacksonianism, that many Americans and especially many white and rural and working-class Americans have always tended to embrace.
- Jacksonian and
The worldviews are simplifications (“intended to be suggestive and evocative,” in Mead’s words), and they inevitably frustrate many scholars; nonetheless, they remain a useful way of thinking about how, in our imperial era, American foreign policy tends to work.
The Hamiltonians are the business-minded internationalists, cold-eyed and stability-oriented and wary of wars that seem idealistic rather than self-interested.
The Wilsonians are the idealists, whether neoconservative or liberal-humanitarian, who regard the United States military as a force for spreading democracy and protecting human rights.
- Most foreign policy elites belong to one of these two groups,
- both political parties include both tendencies in their upper echelons, and
- most recent presidencies have been defined by internal conflicts between the two.
But far more American voters are either Jacksonians or Jeffersonians.
The Jeffersonian impulse, more common on the left than on the right, is toward a “come home, America” retreat from empire that regards global hegemony as a corrupting folly and America’s wars as mostly unwise and unjust. (“No blood for oil” is the defining Jeffersonian attitude toward all our Middle Eastern misadventures.) The Jacksonian tendency, more common on the right than on the left, is toward a pugilistic nationalism that’s wary of all international entanglements but ready for war whenever threats arise. (“More rubble, less trouble” is the essential Jacksonian credo.)
Since neither tendency has that much purchase in the imperial capital, it’s a safe bet that at any given moment in Washington, D.C., elites in both political parties will be trying to mobilize Jacksonian or Jeffersonian sentiment to achieve Hamiltonian or Wilsonian ends.
But when elites of both persuasions preside over too many calamities, you can get Jeffersonians and Jacksonians as important presidential contenders in their own right — think of George McGovern and George Wallace when the Vietnam War went bad. And when one party’s elite loses control of the electoral process entirely, it turns out that you can get an actual Jacksonian in the White House.
Yes, not everything Trump has done fits Mead’s paradigm — but a great deal of what makes him different from previous presidents is plainly Jacksonian.
- A Hamiltonian wouldn’t have saber-rattled so wildly against North Korea;
- a Wilsonian wouldn’t be so subsequently eager for a deal with such an odious regime.
- A Hamiltonian wouldn’t be as eager for an extended trade war with China;
- a Wilsonian would speak out more clearly against Beijing’s human rights abuses instead of just treating them as one more bargaining chip.
- Trump’s bureaucracy-impeded attempts to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan are patently Jacksonian;
- likewise his disdain for his predecessor’s negotiations on climate change. His
- eagerness to pardon war criminals and
- threaten war crimes, meanwhile, are Jacksonianism at its worst.
What is the best of Jacksonianism? I would say it’s the capacity to identify and prioritize threats, an area where Wilsonians get way too expansive and ambitious (“make the world safe for democracy,” “an end to evil”), while Hamiltonians sometimes let realpolitik blind them to ideological enmities that can’t be negotiated away.
To the extent that Trump’s foreign policy has been a useful corrective to his predecessors, and better than what other Republican candidates might have offered, it’s been because of his attempts at just such a prioritization. The execution has been, inevitably, Trumpy, but the goals —
- drawing down in Syria and Central Asia,
- confronting China while de-escalating with North Korea,
- burden-shifting to other NATO powers in Europe while
- keeping our relationship with Russia cool but short of Cold War hostility — are more strategically reasonable than the Bushian and Clintonite forms of interventionism that Trump campaigned against.
But in Trump’s Iran policy we may be seeing the limits of Jacksonianism, or at least a Jacksonianism that operates in strategic contexts that its own impulses did not create.
The Iranian government is indeed our enemy, to an extent that the Hamiltonians in the Obama administration sometimes underestimated, and in that sense Trump’s hawkishness toward the mullahs fits with his Jacksonian approach. But the Tehran regime’s capacity and inclination to cause problems for America also reflect our regional presence, posture and alliances, which mostly exist to advance a kind of mixtape of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian grand strategies —
- access to Middle Eastern oil, the
- promotion of democracy and human rights, and
- regime change in Tehran itself.
None of these are naturally Jacksonian goals, especially now that America is more energy independent than when the Carter Doctrine was formulated or the first Iraq War fought. Were America’s Iran policy fully Jacksonian we might still be at loggerheads with Tehran, but we wouldn’t be nearly so invested in projecting power in the Persian Gulf, and there would be fewer natural flash points and fewer targets for Iranian attacks.
But so long as Trump is working within an inherited Hamiltonian-Wilsonian strategic framework, his Jacksonian tactical approach — in the Suleimani case, picking the most surprising and dramatic option on the military board of retaliatory options — is unlikely to serve his official goal of escaping endless Middle Eastern entanglements. Instead, it points to either
- a permanent retaliatory cycle with the Iranians — we hit hard, they hit hard, we hit a little harder, ad infinitum — or else
- disastrous ground war in a nonessential theater, the least Jacksonian of ends.
Precisely because I think Trump’s Jacksonianism is fundamentally sincere, I don’t think the full-scale war scenario is particularly likely. And since I’ve written numerous columns, before his election and since, about Trump as geopolitical destabilizer without anything as bad as Obama’s still-unfolding Libya folly yet ensuing, it’s important to stress that the fallout from the Suleimani gambit could be less dramatic than the panicked punditry expects. Indeed, if the dead general was really the Islamic Republic’s Stonewall Jackson, its asymmetric strategy’s indispensable man, then over the long run his death might benefit American interests more than any subsequent escalation hurts them.
But the most likely near-term consequence of Suleimani’s death is an escalation in hostilities that looks to most Americans like more of the endless war that Trump campaigned against. In which case some war-weary voters might decide that if they really want out of futile Middle Eastern conflicts electing a ruthless Jacksonian is not enough; only a peace-seeking Jeffersonian will do.
And it just so happens that a genuine left-wing Jeffersonian, Bernie Sanders, is currently near the top of the Democratic field, contending with Joe Biden, the embodiment of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian elite dialectic despite his blue-collar lingo, in an increasingly spirited foreign policy debate.
If the establishment’s follies gave us Trump’s Jacksonian presidency, in other words, the question before the Democratic electorate is whether the perils of Trumpism require that we give that establishment another chance — or whether putting a Jeffersonian in charge of an empire built by Hamiltonians and Wilsonians is the only reasonable option left.
How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
His race-baiting is impulsive and unpopular, not a brilliant strategy to win white votes.
Some columns spring from inspiration, some from diligent research. And some you’re prodded into writing because of what the other columnists are arguing about.
This is the third kind. With the Democratic debates in the spotlight, there has been a lot written on this op-ed page about the Democratic Party’s ideological evolution, its leftward march on many issues, and how this might help Donald Trump win re-election. Which in turn has prompted a recurring argument from certain of my liberal colleagues that anyone writing about the supposedly extremist Democrats should be writing about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity instead.
So this will be, as requested, a column about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity. But it’s not going to be a mirror image of the columns about the Democrats’ move leftward, because I don’t think policy substance matters as much to Trump’s prospects as it might to the party trying to unseat him.
It matters less because Trump in 2020 won’t be a change candidate. Instead, like every incumbent, he’ll be a candidate of the policy status quo — only much more so in his case, because his legislative agenda dissolved earlier than most presidents and the prospects for continued gridlock are obvious.
That means Trump probably won’t be campaigning on what he promised across 2016 — the kind of infrastructure-building, “worker’s party” conservatism whose ambitions vanished with Steve Bannon. But he also won’t be campaigning on the Paul Ryan agenda that the Republican Congress pushed in his first year, or reviving unpopular Ryan-era ideas like entitlement reform on the 2020 trail.
Instead Trump’s policy argument in 2020 will be, basically, let’s keep doing what we’re doing. That status quo includes a
- deregulatory agenda,
- a tariff push and a
- harsh border policy that are all unpopular.
But it also includes:
- free-spending budgets,
- easy money and a more
- anti-interventionist (for now) foreign policy than past Republicans, all of which are relatively popular.
And in the context of a strong economic expansion, a Trump re-election effort that rested on this record while warning against Democratic radicalism could be plausibly favored.
Except that this isn’t the kind of campaign that Trump himself wants to run. He wants the
- racialized Twitter feuds, the
- battles over Baltimore and Ilhan Omar, the
- media freak-outs and the
- “don’t call us racist!” defensiveness of his rallygoing fans.
He feeds on it, he loves it, and he’s as obviously bored by the prospect of a safe, status-quo campaign as he is obviously uninterested in the conservative intellectuals trying to transform Trumpism into something intellectually robust.
And here I agree with the left that there’s a media tendency to give Trump’s race-baiting impulses more credit as a strategy than they actually deserve. After each Twitter outburst his advisers try to retrofit a strategic vision, to claim there’s a master plan unfolding in which 2020 will become a referendum on Omar’s anti-Semitic tropes or the Baltimore crime rate. And the press gives them credence out of an imprinted-by-2016 fear that the president has a sinister sort of genius about what will help him win.
But this is paranoia, and the retrofitting is Trumpworld wishful thinking. There was, yes, a sinister genius at work when Trump used birtherism to build a primary-season constituency in 2016. But since then, his race-baiting has clearly contributed to his chronic unpopularity, and his re-election chances would almost certainly be far better if he talked like George W. Bush on race instead.
Second, in 2016 Trump won many millions of voters who disapproved of him. But in recent 2020 polling, Trump is performing below his job approval rating in many head-to-head matchups, which suggests that voters who would be responsive to the “policy status quo” argument keep getting turned off by the president’s rhetoric. The supposedly-brilliant strategy of racial polarization, then, is probably just a self-inflicted wound.
None of this means that Trump cannot be re-elected. But it means that if he wins again, it will likely be in spite of his own rhetoric, not as the dark fruit of a white-identitarian campaign.
In this sense both NeverTrump-conservative and liberal columnists can be right about the basic situation. The liberals are right that Trump is defiantly outside the mainstream — that every day, in a particular way, he proves himself extreme.
But this is a fixed reality for 2020, and the NeverTrump side is right about the variable: The campaign may turn on how successfully the Democrats claim or build an anti-Trump center, as opposed to appearing to offer an unpalatable extremism of their own.
What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.
In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.
This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.
Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.
In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”
I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.
Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.
Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.
But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.
Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.
This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.
An inflexible agenda and a global retreat.
But what if American liberals, while unfortunate in the Electoral College, are luckier than they think in other ways? The fact that populism is flourishing internationally, far from the Electoral College and Fox News, suggests that Trump’s specific faults might actually be propping up American liberalism. If we had a populist president who didn’t alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-center mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
.. The strategic flaw in this reading of the liberal situation is that politics isn’t about casually held opinions on a wide range of topics, but focused prioritization of specifics. As the Democratic data analyst David Shor has noted, you can take a cluster of nine Democratic positions that each poll over 50 percent individually, and find that only 18 percent of Americans agree with all of them. And a single strong, focused disagreement can be enough to turn a voter against liberalism, especially if liberals seem uncompromising on that issue.
A pattern of narrow, issue-by-issue resistance is also what you’d expect in an era where the popular culture is more monolithically left-wing than before. That cultural dominance establishes a broad, shallow left-of-center consensus, which then evaporates when people have some personal reason to reject liberalism, or confront the limits of its case.
None of this needs to spell doom for liberals; it just requires them to prioritize and compromise. If you want to put climate change at the center of liberal politics, for instance, then you’ll keep losing voters in the Rust Belt, just as liberal parties have lost similar voters in Europe and Australia. In which case you would need to reassure some other group, be it suburban evangelicals or libertarians, that you’re willing to compromise on the issues that keep them from voting Democratic.
Alternatively, if you want to make crushing religious conservatives your mission, then you need to woo secular populists on guns or immigration, or peel off more of the tax-sensitive upper middle class by not going full socialist.
But the liberal impulse at the moment, Buttigiegian as well as Ocasio-Cortezan, is to insist that liberalism is a seamless garment, an indivisible agenda that need not be compromised on any front. And instead of recognizing populism as a motley coalition united primarily by opposition to liberalism’s rule, liberals want to believe they’re facing a unitary enemy — a revanchist patriarchal white supremacy, infecting every branch and tributary of the right.