TAC’s own Rod Dreher recently highlighted an American professor’s exchange with an African diplomat, who compared Donald Trump to Mikhail Gorbachev. Just as the last Soviet premier unwittingly became “the man who destroyed a superpower,” Trump in this view is recklessly squandering the United States’ global position. But upon reflection, the analogy holds for another reason: Whatever Trump’s own mixture of “irritable mental gestures,” Trumpism—as articulated by Steve Bannon, Laura Ingraham, Michael Anton & Company—can be read as a sort of perestroika for the American Right.
A reader may naturally look warily at the comparison. Can one discern a link between the rhetoric of Breitbart and Gorbachev’s exhortation, “to reject obedience to any dogma, to think independently, to submit one’s thoughts and plans of action to the test of morality”? However reaching, the comparison may allow us to discern why debates over immigration and trade now capture the conservative imagination in a way not reducible to “white identity politics” or reflexive loyalty to the president.
The reasoning of Gorbachev’s program of perestroika—as an attempt to both transcend tired Soviet orthodoxies while remaining loyal to the underlying assumptions of the regime—also explains the attraction of Trumpism to many conservative intellectuals, voters, and activists. Trumpism gives its followers the allure of reckoning with the conservative movement’s inadequacies while remaining faithful to its underlying assumptions about economics and the role of the state. The appeal of nationalist rhetoric is not reducible to nativism, though it might be for some. Instead, Bannon’s program offers conservatives a safe exit ramp from self-critical thinking, allowing them to both grapple with an erosion of work and community among America’s economic losers, while maintaining most of an existing right-wing economic program.
In a 1987 message to the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Gorbachev flaunted the Soviet order for its “conservative inclinations, inertia, and desire to brush aside everything that didn’t fit into habitual patterns.” This is the same critique offered by the Jacksonian Right of the conservative establishment. “The whole enterprise of Conservative Inc.,” wrote Michael Anton in his famous “Flight 93 Election” essay, “reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation.”
For all its recklessness, it is this faction of Right that has indeed grappled with a nation whose poor- and lower-middle class face the erosion of both wages and a formerly rich institutional fabric. Laura Ingraham’s description of “a working class hammered by globalization” would not seem foreign to readers of Our Kids, Hillbilly Elegy, or Janesville. At its most tone-deaf, the Right responds with incantations to “rekindle the rugged individualism of America’s founding, frontiers, and Constitution.” But even those on the center-right with sincere empathy frequently offer only small-ball politics. For all their merits, a modest increase of the Child Tax Credit, repeal of occupational licensing, vouchers for improved geographic mobility, and moral exhortations for coastal elites to escape their bubble do not match the gravity of the moment. In a certain way, the Bannonite call for the wall and ripping up trade agreements is a rebellion against a purely technocratic politics without boldness of purpose. When Bannon calls for Americans to understand themselves as citizens with “certain responsibilities and obligations,” it’s a subtle—if incomplete and disingenuous—recognition that the vocabulary of “liquid modernity” cannot rescue us from the very fruits it created.
Trade and immigration are becoming the signature benchmarks for this new movement. Yet the Jacksonian shift allows conservatives to still maintain their aversion to a strong, active welfare state, an institution all other Western center-right parties have come to terms with. Limiting the fluid movement of goods and people, in this view, will accomplish the same goals as a state modeled on social or Christian-democratic purposes: We do not need to expand child tax credits or pursue ambitious investments of retraining and vocational education. All our struggling labor markets demand is “stopping the importation of cheap labor.” At the same time, we can press ahead to repeal Obamacare and the tentacles of the administrative state, for economic nationalism can ameliorate our social problems far better than any program arising out of the Washington cesspool. Perhaps this strategy explains why, according to Pew Research, the president maintains far more support among “Core Conservatives” than “Country First” and “Market Skeptic” Republicans. The Trump revolution is ultimately not a decisive schism from old-time William F. Buckley-style fusionism, no matter what both supporters and Never Trumpers allege.
Systematic free-marketers may point out accurately how Trumpism can be just as economically redistributive as any welfare program. This is all true, but to most conservative activists, all this subtle redistribution and subsidizing looks far more hidden than paid-family leave or public investments in early childhood or prenatal care. In other words, Trumpism’s attraction derives not from its wholesale rejection of traditional American conservatism, but its potential to keep its core tenets of the right alive—even as neoliberalism’s inadequacies suggest what is needed is a more vigorous discussion of what conservatism means in the public sphere.
If Trumpism’s fundamental attraction to most conservative writers and activists derives from its ability to revise but sustain their movement, it is difficult to see how it will be to evolve into a credible governing program. This is not because a more hawkish line on immigration and trade is a fundamental betrayal of the “liberal world order.” Indeed, one need only read Paul Collier, George Borjas, Michael Lind, Peter Skerry, or Dani Rodrik to find sustained, reasonable critiques of the establishment consensus on these matters.
But none of these authors would present their heterodox dissents as singular solutions for restoring the American (or Western) social contract. Just as Gorbachev’s ambition was not to revitalize Russia but the Soviet Union, so is Trumpism not a program to save the Republic, or even a more narrow “Middle America.” Despite the Jacobin rhetoric, the Trumpism of Bannon, Anton, and Ingraham is ultimately a rearguard maneuver to preserve a conservative movement whose even devoted partisans recognize has not aged gracefully since 1989. To keep it alive, wrecking the “globalist” consensus on immigration and trade must be pursued, regardless of the absence of any discernible benefit for the white working class.
What would a true revolution for American conservatism look like? It should start with the (early) thought of George Will, who wrote in the New Republic that, “if conservatism is to engage itself with the way we live now, it must address government’s graver purposes with an affirmative doctrine of the welfare state.” Conservatives must “come to terms with a social reality more complex than their slogans,” where equality of opportunity is assumed as given. The Hayekian claim that any language of social justice commences a perilous journey towards serfdom was perhaps necessary to combat midcentury sirens of collectivism. But today it is more often representative of an age fearful of placing demanding claims upon our lives. The Right must again recover the wisdom held by Disraeli, Churchill, and the (early) domestic neoconservatives, in which the state is again recognized as a limited but essential expression of our shared life together, where we are members not just of a market but a “great common enterprise” in which solidarity and justice are indeed tangible things. Accepting this truth will be a harder project than tightening the border and combating Chinese mercantilism, worthy though such things may be. But it will be far more revolutionary, even historic, than anything the present Trumpian revolution offers.
David Jimenez, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College and a Fulbright Scholar in Romania, works on campus outreach at a Washington think-tank.