Notes on the Origins and Future of Trumpism

Originally published as the first post on the Journal of American Greatness in February, 2016.

It may seem absurd to speak of Trumpism when Trump himself does not speak of Trumpism.  Indeed, Trump’s surprising popularity is perhaps most surprising insofar as it appears to have been attained in the absence of anything approximating a Trumpian intellectual persuasion or conventionally partisan organization.  Yet, Trump’s unique charisma notwithstanding, it is simply impossible for a candidate to have motivated such a passionate following for so long by dint of sheer personality or media antics alone.

Whatever might be said of the media’s treatment of Trump, it has been remarkable in at least one respect: Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week, along with Rush Limbaugh, actually uncovered the closest thing to what could be described as the source of Trumpian thought in the writings of Sam Francis.  This discovery is most importantly a rediscovery of themes quite prevalent in both academic and political discourse not many decades ago, specifically a critique of the managerial economy and global bureaucratic elite.  Despite their conspicuous absence from political discussion in recent years, these ideas, especially in Francis’ writing, not only clarify the significance of Trump’s popularity but provide the best explanation and justification for the broader disaffection underlying politics today.

The briefest perusal of Francis’ work will attest to the fact that he was the most talented member of the faction that has come to be called the paleoconservatives.  The article most referenced with respect to Trump is “From Household to Nation,” which is a recapitulation of Francis’ efforts to define Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in opposition to multicultural leftism, global capitalism, and liberal/neoconservative interventionism on the basis of a particularist American nationalism.  It also contains many delicious lines about the worthlessness of Republican campaign consultants, institutions, and other movement apparatchiks and hangers-on.  In short, “From Household to Nation” strikes today’s reader as a remarkable prophecy of the Trump campaign’s popularity, specifically in its apparent disdain for the old conservative movement and in its message of an American nationalism that does not fit conveniently into either party’s platform.

“From Household to Nation” adequately summarizes the implications of Francis’ oeuvre, but the core of his thought was articulated in a series ofessays for Chronicles Magazine from 1989-1991.  These works were later overshadowed by his more topical, outwardly provocative—though less intellectually radical—and, in some cases at least, deservedly criticized statements on race.  Undeniable lapses in judgment and decency notwithstanding, however, the mere fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists Francis as a hate peddling extremist alongside the likes of AEI’s Charles Murray(!) ought not to preclude a careful study of his thought.  In his early work especially, Francis develops a perceptive political theory, admittedly inspired by James Burnham but elaborated with greater cogency and liveliness, that deserves attention in its own right but even more so if Trumpism is poised to have a role in electoral politics.

Contrary to his association with paleoconservatism, Francis’ writing makes no meaningful appeals to traditionalism per se nor does it contain anything even remotely predicated on historicist or Burkean overtures.  He goes so far as to assert that the old political categories of right and left, conservative and liberal, are no longer meaningful.  His is a fundamentally revolutionary doctrine, and the target of this revolution is the global “managerial class” or post New Deal bureaucratic government and corporatist professional elite.  This managerial class, increasingly separated from any national body or interest, from any historical community, metaphysics, or morality, is inevitably impelled by its internal logic to seek the destruction of any intermediating institutions, ultimately and especially the family, the homogenization, de-legitimization, and eradication of culture, and the levelling, regimentation, and dehumanizing of all society.  Francis’ neo-Marxist universe is governed by class and power, with the managerial class allying with proletarians of every kind in order to seize power and reduce the remaining independent citizenry to a global, dependent, thoughtless, and spiritless underclass over which it dominates.

Francis, of course, was neither the first nor the only writer to develop such ideas.  His unique contributions lie more in diagnosing the difficulties of challenging the managerial elite, of which more below, and the precision with which he situates contemporary politics in such a theoretical framework.  For Francis, the true animating spirit of any “conservative” political action is not lower taxes, lighter regulation, banning abortion or even constitutionalism strictly speaking.  These causes are at best symptoms of and at worst a sort of false consciousness obscuring the defining struggle of resistance against the managerial class and its depredations.  The true task is the destruction of the soulless managerial class, a task inseparable from the assertion of a healthier culture and a stronger elite in its place.

While Francis’ doctrine is not in itself wholly original, it has, along with its predecessors, been curiously forgotten today, in both politics and academia, rendering its inchoate expression through the vehicle of Trump new and exhilarating.  This forgetfulness, moreover, is responsible for the all too apparent incomprehension of the “establishment” at the popularity of Trump and his campaign.

For there is no doubt that Cruz, Rubio, and most of the other candidates are more ideologically conservative than Trump in their policy prescriptions, longstanding affiliation with the party and the movement, and broader theoretical orientations.  Everyone knows this.  But Trump’s popularity has nothing to do with conservatism of this kind or conservatism strictly speaking at all.  It has everything to do with opposition to the managerial elite, the world it has created, and the world it is ruthlessly destroying.  The true test in this election is not whether a candidate checks various boxes on issues or voted for the right legislation.  It is not whether a candidate supports amnesty or not, eminent domain, abortion, or even political correctness.  These are at most metonymies signaling one’s stand on the fundamental question: opposition to the global managerial elite.

Thus the much touted establishment versus non-establishment divide is delineated by one’s perceived commitment to the opposition against the managerial class and not the stringency of any particular policy proposals.  And there is simply no question that however fastidiously Cruz, Rubio, et al. may worship at the altar of “conservative” policy, every aspect of their careers as well as campaigns indicates that they are thoroughgoing products and proponents of the rules of the managerial system.  Both Trump’s career and campaign, in contrast, probably out of sheer Caesarist egotism, have been marked by rebellion against this elite and its culture.  He has opportunistically exploited various aspects of the system, to be sure, but at every point he has revealed his utter if often vulgar contempt for it.

Herein lies the primary, if typically unconscious, motivation behind Trumpism and the essence of its appeal.  It also explains the failure of attacks on Trump to resonate with his supporters.  Criticizing his campaign for its lack of “seriousness” is especially counterproductive.  To Trump’s supporters, combating the ceaseless quest of the managerial elite to control and destroy their way of life is deadly serious, far more important than any wonkish debate over specific policy.  Even aside from the fact that the “serious” policy now being offered, such as “forming an Arab coalition to fight ISIS,” is almost always patently ridiculous, the primary question for voters is of ends and not of means.

Similarly, appeals to principles such as limited government ring hollow without a deeper understanding of the cultural transformations behind our political transformation.  Another new tax plan does not herald a return to classical limited government in any meaningful way, and appointing some nicer people to the bureaucracy will not in itself bring us any closer to the republicanism of 1789 or even 1989.  The venerable principles of the Founding, however admirable, are empty if not accompanied by a serious challenge to the current elite and culture.

From a different perspective, some have interpreted Trump’s rise as the capture of the “Reformicon” agenda in the imperfect though flashier vessel of Trumpism.  This interpretation ignores, however, the “Franciscan” radicalism underlying Trump’s appeal.  The Reformicon proposals—a child tax credit here, an earned income tax credit there—smack of attempts to ameliorate the destructive impact of the managerial economy rather than replace it.  If Reform Conservatism is to achieve the impassioned popularity of Trumpism, it will have to represent something more than managerialism with a human face.

Trump’s core message—tariffs, immigration restriction, limiting tax inversions—offers a radical departure from the policies and partisan divides of the last several decades and is intuitively linked with the dismantling of the global managerial economy.  What is perhaps most curious at the policy level is how few and feeble have been the attempts to actually attack these basic pillars of his message.  For all the complaints about the lack of substance in the campaign, no other candidate has honestly or effectively attacked the central substance of Trump’s platform—though many from both parties have claimed to agree with it—and those few attacks have occurred exclusively at the level of rote ideology or political correctness, which stands as perhaps the clearest evidence of how thoroughly the alternatives have been discredited.

Nevertheless, the slight but not entirely inconsequential overlap between Reform Convervatism and Trumpism reveals a rather surprising element of Francis’ thought.  Namely, despite all the hostility between so-called paleocons and neocons, the essentials of their doctrines, at least in their highest articulations, are remarkably convergent.  At risk of offending all involved and no doubt inviting criticism from both sides, to someone with no history in the intramural rightwing squabbles of the 1980s, the disputes appear to center more on regional and personal animosities rather than actual ideas.

The critique of the managerial economy and the ambivalence toward global capitalism at the center of Francis’ work were equally the focus of early neoconservative writings, nor did their conclusions, to this reader, differ in any meaningful respect.  And while Francis overtly indulges various Southern nostalgias, some more thoughtful than others, it cannot be forgotten that among the more memorable writings of Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were direct discussions on race, as politically incorrect as they were intellectually honest.  Both sides brought a renewed attention to culture, alarmed at its evisceration by both global capitalism and the multicultural left as well as the difficulty of effective political action without concomitant cultural power.  Even on foreign policy, as both Ted Cruz and Benjamin Netanyahu have had occasion to remind audiences, the first generation of neoconservatives, at least, expressed a profound skepticism of internationalist abstractions such as human rights, while understanding that foreign policy was much more than simply economic policy.

Francis shares with the most thoughtful neoconservatives an idiosyncratic appreciation of founding myths, in which the reader finds perhaps the most significant philosophical divergence between them amid striking similarity.  Francis writes:

Post-Hamiltonian American nationalism offered no public myth of the nation, and the ultimate price of its failure to do so was the collapse (and subsequent redefinition) of the nation in the Civil War.  Only when Lincoln invested American nationality with a quasi-religious mythology was nationalism politically and popularly successful.  But Lincoln’s nationalist myth, drawn from a universalist natural rights egalitarianism, justified national unity only as an instrument of “equality of opportunity” and the acquisitive individualism that follows from it.  Lincoln’s nationalism soon degenerated into the wolfish egotism of the Gilded Age and the naked imperialism of McKinley and Roosevelt, and ultimately its universalist, egalitarian, and individualist premises contradicted and helped undermine the particularity that a successful nationalism must assert and the subordination of individual ambition that nationalism demands.  If a new nationalism is to flourish and endure, it must do more than offer a merely narrow, pragmatic, and largely economic definition of the national identity and the national interest.”

At issue is primarily Francis’ objection to the Lincolnian vision of a “creedal” nation, distinct only in its dedication to a proposition, in favor of a sort of ‘constitutionalism in one country’ more reliant on the unique history and culture of its people.  And, indeed, there is unfortunately no doubt that however thoughtful the neoconservative re-elevation of Lincoln may have begun, the doctrine degenerated over the decades into an empty sloganeering that in the mouth of George W. Bush not only failed to motivate but gave rise to all manner of Wilsonian fantasies.

The important question raised by this dispute, however, is not who was right fifty years ago or refighting the Civil War or Iraq, but rather what the failure to resolve this question implies.

The simple fact is that both sides know that the other contains some truth.  On the one hand, however admirable the Lincolnian creed might be, many nations today espouse—some quite genuinely—more or less the same principles.  Yet while the U.S. is and ought to be a friend and ally of the U.K, Poland, France, and, yes, Mexico, Israel and others, there is no question that an authentic American nationalism must remain distinct from French nationalism.  Even at the height of Bush era democracy promotion, no one sincerely conflated American nationalism with mere democracy, though that was often the implication of Bush’s rhetoric and policy, which only reinforced the power of global managerialism.  On the other hand, as Francis himself readily acknowledges, a nation utterly bereft of principle will possess no nationalism above arid antiquarianism or inspire loyalties beyond a geographically organized gang of thieves.

Thus the great failure of the American right has been the failure to define an American nationalism at once grounded in binding, necessarily particularist, traditions and institutions while at the same time leavened by a creed worthy of the name.  And this failure is inseparable from the right’s failure, even in periods of electoral power, to offer any effective resistance to the ever conquering globalist managerial class or attain any effective cultural significance.

Trump’s success, then, is attributable in large part to his awakening in his followers an appreciation for such a nationalism of American greatness opposed to the managerial elite, even if they do not yet know what the content of that nationalism is.  Trump’s avoidance of policy specifics belies a more fundamental avoidance of any direct confrontation with either particularism or creedal principle.  If Trump or a new nationalism is to be genuinely successful, however, it will eventually have to take a stand on these questions and ultimately resolve them.

Perhaps Francis’ greatest contribution to political writing is his understanding that the difficulty of formulating such a nationalism is necessarily connected with the difficulty inherent in resisting the managerial class.  Drawing on Machiavelli, Francis recognizes that the “Middle Americans” who constitute the last remaining opposition to the managerial elite represent a class that only seeks not to be ruled, whereas the managerial class seeks to rule.  As such, the “Middle American” resistance to managerialism has expressed itself as either a defensive crouch or an unappealing bunker mentality, neither capable of resisting, much less replacing, the managerial elite.  The political project of supreme importance is therefore the transformation of passive Middle Americans into a new ruling elite, while the ideological project of supreme significance is the formulation of a new nationalism which will justify that political project.

For the last several decades, however, the right has operated under a further debilitating false consciousness in defining itself as a conservative movement.  The reality is that the modern right, in both its self-styled neoconservative and paleoconservative strands, is not conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.  It merely inherited the mantle, language, and intellectual framework of the old conservatism, a constellation of institutions and attitudes dominant from the Civil War to World War I.  But after the New Deal and World War II, this order had been decisively shattered and replaced by managerialism, to the point where there was nothing left to conserve.

The purposes and principles of the modern right are necessarily revolutionary.  This is true as a historical fact inasmuch as its leading thinkers have been Catholic, Jewish, ethnic, and in all essential respects outsiders from cultural and political power.  And it is ideologically true insofar as its chief intellectual and political project is the replacement of the global managerial class with a new elite.  The failure of the right’s thinkers and politicians to recognize or admit its revolutionary aspect, even and perhaps especially today, only impedes effective political action.

The Republican party “establishment” finds itself continually disappointing its base because it is incapable of conceiving of itself as the revolutionary movement it must become.  And it will continue to disappoint even if Republican politicians become more successful at winning legislative victories.  Overturning Obamacare will mean nothing if it is not part of a larger dismantling of the managerial elite.  Counting up state governorships will achieve nothing if it does not produce a transformation of elite culture.  And a transformation of the current culture is impossible without a convincing nationalism to challenge it.

Indeed, the situation would be entirely hopeless were it not for the fact that the managerial elite has lost all confidence in itself.  As it continues its withdrawal from all attachments to living communities, interests, or faiths, it loses any ability to justify itself, even to its own members.   Without a coherent understanding of its purpose, it ossifies into a rigid mandarin class, distinguished by increasingly meaningless credentials, and blindly dedicated to stale dogmas that it can no longer even discuss.  Ever more adrift with respect to its ends, it becomes increasingly incompetent with respect to means.

The abject vapidity of both the Clinton and Bush campaigns testifies to the elite’s degeneration.  Floundering between poll-tested positions to focus-grouped slogans contrived by consultants as detached from the people as their decrepit dynasties, they inspire hardly anyone but the next generation of job seekers.   Their campaigns exist to offer little more than citations of inequality data or GDP growth, as if national or individual greatness were matters of arithmetic.  More generally, the basic policies of both parties have hardly changed in at least thirty years, the desiccated outgrowths of sterile foundations.

Meanwhile, what is the recent wave of college protests but a futile grasping for meaning amid a sea of intellectual and moral bankruptcy?  What is the super-rich’s fixation with the much publicized “giving pledge,” itself untethered to any specific principle or purpose—never mind mawkish publicity stunts like Mark Zuckerberg’s—but an implicit admission that everything else they have done is worthless.  Cecil Rhodes was many things, but never so pathetic.

While current economic conditions are not particularly robust, the country has endured far worse.  Although facing a number of security threats, the nation has survived situations far more perilous.  Is the widespread disaffection roiling both parties merely the result of Americans being “fearful” of external threats?  Or is it the increasing realization among the public that its elites not only have no idea what they are doing, but no longer even believe in themselves?  That the managerial class’s soulless destruction of human attachments has been undertaken for nothing more than its own mindless self-replication?

One of Marx’s most clarifying statements was his observation that the Mexicans lost California because they did not know what to do with it.  They may yet get it back, for the same reason.  But this principle also operates on a broader plane.  Those presently occupying the commanding heights of culture, the economy, and politics clearly have no idea what to do with them.

For the right, the question is, do we?

— Plautus


1 thought on “Notes on the Origins and Future of Trumpism

  1. Pingback: A New Trumpist Magazine Débuts at the Harvard Club – The New Yorker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s