What’s Missing from the New Right Debate
'Replacing failed elites' and 'regime change' are synonyms
Tanner Greer’s post about the new right has kicked off an interesting debate. I don’t agree with all of it, and I’m skeptical categories like “Jacksonian” and “Puritan” in 21st-century American politics are all that useful. For instance, Greer is right that the political inclinations of most ordinary people are more a matter of instinct. But if it’s projecting refined intellectual ideas onto masses of people to privilege the ideas of Locke, Paine and the rest of the ideologists in the story of the American revolution, there’s probably a similar bit of projection going on when he describes the ordinary Trump voter as a libertarian.
Nevertheless, Greer’s highlighted an undeniable blind spot in a lot of new right writing and thinking: the matter of who exactly the constituency is for these sorts of ideas. One way to deal with this problem is just to say it doesn’t matter, that the winds are blowing in the new right’s direction, and eventually guys like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio will see the light, their generation will replace Mitch McConnell’s eventually, and the new right will be there to be their brain trust. To be fair, there are indications of change among some Republican senators, so it isn’t an unreasonable bet.
But the new right needs to understand what they’re saying when they talk about replacing failed elites, a concept synonymous with regime change. (To call for regime change in your own country is the definition of seditious behavior, so don’t be surprised by all the censorship.) So who are the current elites, and in what sense do they constitute a regime? The elites the new right is talking about rose to power in the 1930s, a class of administrators, civil servants, academics, think-tankers and rich people that have more or less governed the country since, with periodic failed provincial rebellions against their power. That means, among other things, the new right has the same enemy as the old right. Even people that are a part of this class will admit today that it’s a little worse for wear, which is why Trump got elected in the first place. I don’t dispute that these people have done a poor job, sold out the nation, all of that, but has the new right even begun to consider what it would take to replace them? Until they do, I don’t see any reason to think there’s more than one side in the so-called “Cold Civil War.”
It goes without saying that the Republican Party has no apparent interest in this kind of regime change. A lot has been said about the successes and failures of the Trump administration, one should consider the failures of the Republican Congress in the Trump years. It was probably at least in part the White House’s sense of what they would accept that caused Trump’s major legislative achievement to be a corporate tax cut. We also saw during the Trump years a total unwillingness by Republican senators to rein in rogue intelligence agencies that were overtly meddling in domestic politics, continuing a pattern of using scandals to feather their own nests while never getting to the bottom of anything, let alone enacting reforms. This is what they’ve done with every major scandal of the last decade, from Benghazi, where they refused to get into CIA arms trafficking, Fast and Furious, where we never got answers about how big this program actually was and how many gun dealers had been entrapped, to the use of the IRS as a political weapon, to Russiagate, where right up to the very end of the Trump administration, Mitch McConnell stood by thumbscrew Gina Haspel, making Trump unwilling to fire her. Even today, keeping Liz Cheney as conference chair is not the sort of thing a party ready to move boldly into the future would do. We had basically the worst of both worlds in the Republican Congress under Trump: they were unwilling to spend money and unwilling to exercise their oversight responsibilities.
Despite these disappointments, the GOP is also probably the only credible vehicle for the kind of regime change the new right contemplates. The GOP opposed installing this regime in the first place, so maybe it’d be good to get back to its roots. Eventually there will have to be a rebalancing away from today’s weak party structures, since they make it impossible to actually govern a country like this one, but that’s a longer-term conversation. For the time being, what we need is a big stick to hit the party with to get them to do the right thing.
The Tea Party basically failed at what they set out to do, but they did succeed in gumming up the works and putting a number of their issues at the forefront of the party’s agenda as a whole. The difference between them and today’s Trumpist insurgents is the latter can’t count on the support of Wall Street and the donor class. So what they need is a set of demands that 1) will be embraced by the party’s base more or less without reservations, 2) will be inherently unacceptable to the party’s leadership for policy reasons, and 3) that are simple and not easily mapped onto the politics of being for or against big government. Here’s a potential list, though the spirit is more important than the specifics, the point is to build a consensus in favor of a moderate nationalism and call into question the liberal state:
- A 10% import duty on all countries, like Nixon did
- Some kind of big immigration demand, a moratorium, end to the H-1B program, or nationwide e-Verify, or perhaps all three
- A declassification scheme for all government records before a certain point, maybe 1990. The specifics are negotiable, the principle is not, the principle is that we’ve been misgoverned by these executive agencies and we need to be given the truth
- An immediate end to foreign wars and arms exports to foreign countries
- An overhaul of antitrust law to make it easier to break up big tech
None of these things involve arguing about tax rates. Nor are any of them culture war issues, and that’s partly the point. Since Sarah Palin, the donor class has seen the value of pliable entertainers. Nobody from Wall Street or Lockheed Martin would have any reason to give a candidate who signs up for this program a single cent, which means if they get elected they are not owned by them. But all of these issues would be popular among Republicans today, and probably a lot of Democrats. Given some of the questionable endorsements by the Trump family, and the co-optation of the good name of America First, the need for specific demands is obvious.
If the arms export ban strikes you as extreme, consider this: As a matter of economic and political gravity, America is going to become a more isolationist country sooner or later. We are energy independent and the largest buyers of our goods are Canada and Mexico. The Republicans whose view of America’s national interests has been corrupted by their close relationships with defense contractors, like the Governor from Boeing, Nikki Haley, are keeping the party from adjusting to that future. As liberal hawks contemplate staying in Afghanistan for the sake of women’s rights and pride flags go up at U.S. embassies across the globe, conservatives are going to want an isolationist lobby in Congress.
From the point of view of the new right, something like this is probably the best way to get the GOP to change in the direction they’d want. For a start, you’d need legislators with these kinds of commitments to get the people’s house to start behaving, for instance, the way Republican congresses behaved when FDR was in office. Then, when the next GOP president comes along, who will almost certainly be more like Trump than Bush, they might even be prepared to help him govern.