A Class War the Right Can Win
Among the many untruths told about Donald Trump is the claim that his is not a movement of ideas. As a candidate in 2016, Trump may not have spoken the language of the policy wonks. But unlike those Republicans who did, his view of the world was not a stale ideological cliche. It was instead refreshingly frank: about a foreign policy that couldn’t win the wars it waged, an economy that imperiled middle- and working-class America, and an immigration regime only the employers of illegal nannies could love. Trump recognized reality, and that drew to his cause independent-minded intellectuals who had also done so. The Trump movement suffers not from a dearth of ideas or thinkers, but a dearth of institutions. It has thinkers but no think tank.
F.H. Buckley, Foundation Professor at George Mason University’s Scalia School of Law, is one of its thinkers. His new book, The Republican Workers Party, comes from a publisher—Encounter—led by another, Roger Kimball. Buckley is no relation to William F., who as writer, editor, and Firing Line host did more than anyone to make conservatism a byword for eloquence in the latter half of the 20th century. But much as the other Buckley remade the Right by founding National Review in 1955, this one aims to bring about a profound change of heart and mind among conservatives. He wants to make good on the promise of the GOP as a party for American workers.
It was a promise made right from the beginning, when in the mid-19th century the Republicans were the party of free labor against the slavocracy. But the GOP and the country lost their way. Today, in Buckley’s telling, a self-perpetuating “New Class” of administrators and mandarins runs the country from perches of privilege in the academy and nonprofit sector, as well as the media, government, and much of the business world. Republicans of the Never Trump variety are as much a part of this ruling caste as Clinton-Schumer-Pelosi Democrats are. And if you might wonder whether someone in Buckley’s position isn’t part of the same professional stratum, his answer is that he very much aspires to be a traitor to his class, just as Donald Trump is.
Trump, writes Buckley, is “unlike anything we’ve seen before, for the simple reason that he’s up against something that we’ve never seen before: a liberalism that has given up on the American Dream of a mobile and classless society.” Those who today style themselves as progressives are nothing of the sort—they are not revolutionaries but the new aristocrats: “They are Bourbons who seek to pass themselves off as Jacobins. They have bought into a radical leftism, while resisting the call to unseat a patrician class that leftists in the past would have opposed.”
This is an eloquent explanation for an inversion that has puzzled many observers. Today’s Left, at least the mainstream Left represented by the Democratic Party, is now establishmentarian. The Republican Right is now populist, if not downright revolutionary. “When the upper class is composed of liberals who support socialist measures to keep us immobile and preserve their privileged position,” Buckley argues, “class warfare to free up our economy by tearing down an aristocracy is conservative and just, as well as popular.”
Buckley came to these conclusions before the rise of Donald Trump. They are at the heart of his last two books, The Way Back and The Republic of Virtue. He recognized in Trump a force for salutary change. So in early 2016, he signed up as a speechwriter for the candidate and his family. At one point, this attracted unwanted attention: a speech delivered by Donald Trump Jr. was found to have plagiarized an article in The American Conservative. Except it wasn’t plagiarism: Buckley was the author of both. I was editor of the magazine at the time, and Buckley is correct when he says in The Republican Workers Party that I enjoyed the non-scandal—because it brought attention to an essay I thought deserved a brighter spotlight than it had initially received.
A further disclosure or two is in order: I also published some of the material that appears in The Republican Workers Party in the journal I now edit, Modern Age, and I’m thanked in the book’s acknowledgments. My warm words for Buckley’s last volume are quoted on the dust jacket of this one. The review you’re reading now is honest, but subjective—I’m a part of the story. Only a small one, however: Buckley reveals many details of the Trump campaign and post-election transition that I had never heard before, including how Michael Anton came to be hired and fired.
The campaign memoir is intriguing in its own right, but it’s in the service of the book’s larger purpose. I’ve known Buckley to refer to himself as an economic determinist, and he’s also said that the future will be decided by a fight between the right-wing Marxists and the left-wing Marxists. But those are exaggerations, and The Republican Workers Party isn’t primarily about economics: quite the contrary, it’s about solidarity, humanity, and the Christian spirit of brotherhood. The book is informed by a religious sensibility as much as it is by policy acumen. But it’s a religious sensibility that addresses the soul through material conditions. Buckley is critical of attempts at a “moral rearmament crusade” that amounts to shaming the poor and blaming them for their own condition.
On this, Buckley is at odds with what movement conservatism has promoted over the last 30-odd years, which is a pure moralism alongside a theoretically pure free-market economism, each restricted to its own categorical silo. An economic conservative or libertarian might thus approach Buckley’s book with the trepeditation of a holy Inquisitor fearful that a friend will be found committing heresy. But there is little in these pages that a free-market conservative can quibble with at the policy level: rather it is the spirit in which economic conservatives conduct politics that Buckley criticizes. He is even on the side of conservative orthodoxy, more or less, when it comes to tariffs. He’s a free trader at heart, though not a dogmatic one.
On immigration, he favors a more Canadian-like, points-based system that would prioritize skills, with a view toward providing maximum benefit for our current citizens, especially the least well off among them. The present system “admits people who underbid native-born Americans for low-skill jobs, while refusing entry to people with greater skills who would make life better for all Americans.” Canada lets in many more immigrants in proportion to its population than the United States does, but “Canadians see an immigration policy designed to benefit the native-born, so they don’t think their government wants to stick it to them,” even when it comes to generous admission of refugees.
Buckley speaks from experience about immigration and Canada—he was born, brought up, and lived most of his life there before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014. Like Alexander Hamilton, whose Caribbean origins gave him a view of America’s national economy unprejudiced by sectional interests, Buckley’s Canadian background gives him an independent vantage from which to consider our characteristic shibboleths unsparingly. The separation of powers, for one, is a dismal failure that “has given us two or more different Republican parties: a presidential party, which today is the Republican Workers Party, but also congressional Republican parties rooted in the issues and preference of local members. There’s the Freedom Caucus composed of Tea Party members, the more moderate Main Street Partnership and whatever maverick senators were thinking this morning.” Federalism too is a mixed bag. These are themes touched lightly upon here but worked out in detail in such earlier Buckley books as The Once and Future King.
That’s not to say there’s something alien about Buckley’s ideas. He’s an heir to Viscount Bolingbroke, as were many of the Founding Fathers. (He contrasts Bolingbroke’s disinterested ideal of a patriot king, for example, with the identity-driven politics of the Democratic Party.) But Buckley is also an heir to George Grant and the Anglo-Canadian tradition of Red Toryism, a form of conservatism that does not bother itself with anti-government formulas that never seem to reduce the size of government one iota anyway. Buckley’s heroes are “leaders such as Disraeli, Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) and even Winston Churchill himself.” “They were conservative” but “they supported generous social welfare policies.”
The policies that Buckley is most concerned about, however, are those that generate social mobility. Education is thus high on his agenda. He is a strong supporter of vouchers and school choice and points again to Canada as a success story for private schools receiving public funds. But America is a rather different country, and as popular as vouchers are on the Right, some of us can’t help but wonder whether they would lead to the same outcome in primary and secondary education that federal financial aid has produced in higher education. With the money comes regulation, and usually soaring prices, too.
But Buckley is right that the defects of our present education system go a long way toward explaining the rise of the new status class, and other countries have found answers to the questions that perplex American politics—or some of them at least. More adventurous thinking is required if anything is to be saved of the American dream of mobility, in place of the nightmare of division into static castes of winners and losers.
Libertarian economists and blame-the-poor moralizers are not the only figures on the Right Buckley criticizes. He has no patience for the barely disguised Nietzscheanism of certain “East Coast” Straussians, who imagine themselves to be philosopher-princes, educating a class of obedient gentlemen who will in turn dominate a mass of purely appetitive worker bees and cannon fodder.
Buckley’s book is an argument against right-wing heartlessness. Its title may conjure in some minds phantoms of the National Socialist German Workers Party or America’s own penny-ante white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party, on which the media has lavished a certain amount of attention in recent years. But fascists are not traditionalists, workers, or even, properly speaking, socialists—they simply steal whatever terms happen to be popular. Buckley refuses to concede their claims and appease them.
He is eloquent in his American—not white—nationalism. “There isn’t much room for white nationalism in American culture,” he writes, “For alongside baseball and apple pie, it includes Langston Hughes and Amy Tan, Tex-Mex food and Norah Jones. You can be an American if you don’t enjoy them, but you might be a wee bit more American if you do.” It’s populism, not nationalism, that he considers a toxic term, its genealogy tracing to figures like “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a Jim Crow proponent and defender of lynch mobs.
He is right to defend the honor of nationalism, but Buckley may be mistaken in his animus toward “populism,” a word that for most people is more likely to bring to mind William Jennings Bryan than the Ku Klux Klan.
Buckley’s project in The Republican Workers Party parallels on the Right the task taken up by Mark Lilla on the Left in last year’s The Once and Future Liberal. Like Lilla, Buckley wants to see a revival of mid-20th-century liberalism. For both, politics is ultimately class-based, not identity-based. Lilla trains his fire on the identity-parsing Left, while Buckley rebukes the Right for failing to fight the class war—or rather, for fighting on the wrong side, that of the self-serving New Class, the aristocracy of education, connections, and right-thinking opinion.
This may seem nostalgic, but it’s not: Buckley does not expect a return to JFK or Camelot, even if, like Lilla, he once borrowed a title from T.H. White. The 21st century can only give us a new and very different Kennedy or Disraeli—an insurgent from the Right to retake the center. In Donald Trump, F.H. Buckley found such a figure, but a movement needs a program as well as a leader, and the program has to be grounded in an idea of humanity and the limits of politics. The nation defines those limits, and while not every Trump supporter will agree with Buckley’s policy thought in all its specifics, the spirit of Buckley’s endeavor represents what is finest in the Trump moment, and what is best in conservatism, too.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.