Trump vs. the New Class
The falcon cannot hear the falconer, wrote William Butler Yeats. Political leaders, like the falcon, were meant to obey their minders, but Yeats’s falcon had soared above them and loosed mere anarchy on the world. Today, Donald Trump’s campaign soars above our conservative elites, who in their foundations, their little magazines, their think tanks, define what conservatives may do or say. Trump ignores them, they tell us, and disorder and chaos must follow.
Mere anarchy is a fair description of the state of the Republican Party, at least amongst those who purport to be its falconers. Mimicking the vulgarity they decry in Trump, they employ every vile epithet to describe him and his followers. National Review’s Rich Lowry enthused that Carly Fiorina had “cut his balls off.” For Lowry’s colleague Kevin Williamson, Trump is a “witless ape … not just an ass, but an ass of exceptionally intense asininity.” As for Trump’s followers, George Will calls them “invertebrates,” while John Hood describes them as “a motley crew of simpletons, bigots, and cynical manipulators.” In their hatred of Trump, they have come to resemble the man they despise.
It’s not hard to see a little wounded self-love in all this. The conservative elites thought they had ownership rights to the Republican Party, at least to its thinking component, and it’s a psychic shock to be quite ignored. Trump boasts that he is a winner, but the party had settled into a comfortable second-class status, more concerned with the purity of its policies than with winning anything. In 2012 George Will said that if the Republicans lost that year’s election they should get out of the business, but that showed that he didn’t understand the party of beautiful losers. Romney lost, but let’s not forget that he had a very pretty 59-point plan.
There is, I fancy, one more thing that troubles our falconers. Worse still than Trump is the fact that so many Americans like him, ripping apart the imagined America of the elites, a preppy, mid-Atlantic country south of Iceland and east of The New Yorker. Their America has no monster-truck races, no hip-hop, no reality TV, no Donald Trump; and yet Trump is authentically American. He is Sam Slick the Clockmaker, Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s fast-talking, Yankee peddler, whom Haliburton’s Canadian and British readers saw as the archetypal American. He is, like Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali, a person who could only be American, and whom Americans will recognize as one of their own. At some level, our elites must recognize this too, and in their anger experience the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the mirror.
The Republican race is far from over, and the choice seems to have settled between Trump and Ted Cruz, between raw emotion and pure reason, between the heart and the head. Cruz is the perfect intellectual embodiment of deep conservatism, of free-market policies championed by the Republican Party every two years and betrayed just as often. This time it’s different, promises Cruz. With me we’ll return to a constitution of separation of powers and of libertarian principles, and we’ll not surrender.
Trump attracts—and repels—voters through his remarkably forthright personality. By contrast, Cruz’s appeal is based upon everything but his personality. He inspires little affection and has made enemies of all of his colleagues in the Senate, Democrat and Republican alike. A Bush alumnus explains why people take an instant dislike to Cruz: “It just saves time.” Psychologists tell us that he is unable to reproduce the Duchenne smile that signals sincere amusement and friendship. As with Nixon, you wouldn’t want to buy a used car from this man.
For the flint-eyed ideologues on the right, none of that matters. Cruz is a true conservative and Trump a liberal in disguise. In truth, Trump’s policies are not a little flexible, to use his word. So too is conservatism, however, and the conservative champions of today might do well to remember how closely their policies resemble those of yesterday’s liberals. I am thinking here not of the McGovern liberals but of an earlier generation of Democrats, the party to which Ronald Reagan said he belonged before it left him. This was the party of the Americans for Democratic Action, of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and of Lionel Trilling. They were strongly anti-communist and fought hard to expel the Marxists from their party. Of economics they were ignorant as swans, but then so too were the Republicans of the day. During the Eisenhower administration the highest marginal income tax rate was 91 percent, and it took Democrat John F. Kennedy to recognize that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and propose a tax reform that brought marginal rates down. Before Arthur Laffer, it was JFK who said that “it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.”
My good friend Bob Tyrrell wrote a great book called The Death of Liberalism. He was half right. Liberalism did die, but only in the Democratic Party. There it became progressivism, the bastard child of the New Left and identity politics, the perversion of liberalism’s every noble instinct. But liberalism itself did not die. Instead, it was incorporated into the Republican Party, through leaders such as Reagan, and now is almost mainstream conservatism. Like Reagan, today’s conservatives are yesterday’s liberals. What they are not are yesterday’s conservatives.
In Kennedy’s day, Republicans worried more about budget deficits than economic growth and therefore opposed his tax cuts. When the legislation came up for a final vote in the House of Representatives, only 48 Republicans supported it and 126 voted against it, and it passed only because 223 liberal Democrats voted for it. Remember, we are talking about a top marginal rate of 91 percent, which the bill reduced to a still very high 65 percent.
In the 1960s, conservative Southern Democrats aligned themselves with Republicans in voting against Kennedy’s tax cuts and also opposed civil-rights legislation aimed at ending racial segregation. So too did many conservative thinkers of the time, including William F. Buckley. But for the support of liberal Republicans in the House and Senate, the 1964 Civil Rights Act would not have passed, and we can thank Ripon Society types in the Republican Party for this. They were right, the conservatives were wrong, and only the strictest of today’s “constitutional conservatives” such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz would question the law. No one would dissent from Martin Luther King’s vision of racially neutral laws, except today’s progressives with their race and gender triumphalism.
Kennedy’s Democratic Party was the natural home for ethnic voters, who felt uncomfortable in a white-shoe Republican Party. Ronald Reagan helped change that, but African-American and white ethnic Republicans will tell you that much of the older party remains. Of the recent success of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich, Republicans have much to be proud. And Trump, while he is not the poster child of inclusiveness when it comes to immigrants, has nonetheless revived the old Reagan coalition by bringing formerly Democratic voters to the voting booths to support him. They have left a Democratic Party whose leaders think them ignorant rednecks who cling to their guns and religion, and they’re not made to feel especially welcome when Cruz supporters call them invertebrates and bigots: that’s a good way to win an election, said no one ever.
If Donald Trump is something of a liberal, then perhaps that’s not so bad. Indeed, it’s his departures from liberalism that are more troubling.
While I’ve not read it, I believe that Mitt Romney’s 59-point plan was every bit as good as anything Ted Cruz has come up with. I wouldn’t fault the 2012 nominee for having left anything out—for failing to come up with a 60- or 61-point plan. But then nobody paid any attention to the plan. Here’s what they heard instead:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for [Obama] no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
Romney’s talk, to a group of right-wing donors, became the defining moment of the campaign when it was published in Mother Jones. It revealed a contempt for ordinary Americans and seemingly conceded the election. The 59-point plan was ignored, and what voters listened to was Obama’s 2011 Osawatomie speech. America’s grand bargain, the president said, was that those who contribute to the country should share in its wealth. That bargain had made the country great, the envy of the world, but now it was betrayed by the “breathtaking greed” of the super-rich.
In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. … And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent. … Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent. That is the height of unfairness. It is wrong.
In a troubled economy, Obama told voters that he had their back. Romney came across as the boss about to hand you the pink slip. And Obama won.
What Obama had spoken to were the classically liberal themes of equality and mobility, of the promise of a better future. The Republicans weren’t interested in inequality—but inequality was interested in them. The conservative elite told us that we were a center-right country, that we didn’t do class warfare, that envy was un-American. But the voters, invertebrates that they are, disagreed. In fact, they thought Obama was on to something when he said that secretaries shouldn’t have to pay a higher tax rate than their billionaire bosses.
While the left had complained of inequality, the far greater problem is immobility, especially the idea that it results from a set of unjust rules that advantage a new class of aristocrats. We might be prepared to accept the fact of deep income inequality if we thought that everyone stood the same chance of getting ahead and that people were sorted out by their abilities. That indeed is the American Dream. But now the countries of high mobility are Denmark and Canada. Must we then speak of the Danish and not the American Dream? If so, the core understanding of American exceptionalism will have been lost.
Table 1 reports on how countries rank on a measure of mobility, the correlation between the earnings of fathers and sons. With a ranking of zero there is perfect mobility, and perfect immobility with a ranking of one. It will come as a surprise to realize that the U.S. is one of the most immobile countries in the developed world, that children in other such countries are better able to climb the economic ladder. Through a broken educational system, insane immigration laws, a regulatory state on steroids, a disregard for the rule of law, we have created an aristocracy and betrayed the promise of America.
Presented with these findings, the conservative intellectual is apt to deny that anything can be done to make us more mobile. It’s all because of the technological revolution, he tells us, and we’re not about to give up our iPhones. Or else it’s a result of globalization. Or maybe there’s a genetic explanation. If Lady Gaga was born that way, why not the rich?
It takes but a moment, however, to realize that none of these explanations can account for cross-country differences in mobility. The technological revolution? People like Robert Gordon tell us it’s an illusion, and in any event it can’t explain why other countries are more mobile. The Danes aren’t exactly living in the Stone Age.
Our conservative elites would have us believe that none of this matters, that only socialists worry about income equality and mobility. That gives the issue away to the left, and is a good way to lose elections. The left would only make things worse, however. They want higher taxes, but we’re already one of the most highly taxed countries. When we compare our income, capital gains, and corporate tax rates with those of other countries, we have nowhere to go but down. As for our welfare policies, we’re among the most generous countries in the world. But that’s not to say that we have to leave things as they are. Instead, conservatives should begin by admitting that income mobility is the defining political issue of our time, that we lost the 2012 election because we ignored it, that anger at the class society we have become explains the rise of Donald Trump, and that the way back lies in the pursuit of socialist ends through capitalist means.
Our mobility problem results from departures from and not our adherence to capitalism. Rising inequality in America has been blamed on the “1 percent,” the people in the top income centile making more than $400,000 a year. They alone don’t explain American income immobility, however. Rather, it’s the risk-averse New Class—the 1, 2, or 3 percent, the professionals, academics, opinion leaders, and politically connected executives who float above the storm and constitute an American aristocracy. They oppose reforms that would make America mobile and have become the enemies of promise.
The New Class is apt to think it has earned its privileges through its merits, that America is still the kind of meritocracy that it was in Ragged Dick’s day, where anyone could rise from the very bottom through his talents and efforts. Today’s meritocracy is very different, however. Meritocratic parents raise meritocratic children in a highly immobile country, and the Ragged Dicks are going to stay where they are. We are meritocratic in name only. What we’ve become is Legacy Nation, a society of inherited privilege and frozen classes, and in The Way Back I explain how we got here and what we can do about it.
The most obvious barrier to mobility is a broken educational system. Our K–12 public schools perform poorly, relative to the rest of the advanced world. As for our universities, they’re great fun for the kids, but many students emerge on graduation no better educated than when they first walked in the classroom door. What should be an elevator to the upper class is stalled on the ground floor. Part of the fault for this may be laid at the feet of the system’s entrenched interests: the teachers’ unions and the higher-education professoriate. Our schools and universities are like the old Soviet department stores whose mission was to serve the interests of the sales clerks and not the customers. Why the sales clerks should want to keep things that way is perfectly understandable. The question, however, is why this is permitted to continue, why reform efforts meet with such opposition, especially from America’s elites. The answer is that aristocracy is society’s default position. For those who stand at America’s commanding heights, social and income mobility is precisely what must be opposed, and a broken educational system wonderfully serves the purpose. As such, the New Class will oppose school choice, vouchers and parochial schools, anything that smacks of competition to a broken system.
America prides itself on being the country of immigrants. There’s a bit of puffery in this, since there’s a much higher percentage of foreign-born residents in Australia and Canada, and America ranks only a little ahead of Great Britain and France. Still, the country historically has been the principal haven for waves of immigrants. Before the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the new arrivals added immeasurably to the country’s economy, culture, and well-being. Since then, however, the quality of the America’s immigrant intake has declined. We’re still admitting the stellar scientists of years gone by, but on average immigrants are less educated than they were in the past, or even than Americans are today—not the highest of bars. We’re also incurring the opportunity costs of a broken immigration system in the high-quality immigrants we don’t admit and who either stay home or move to more immigrant-friendly countries. That burdens the country and makes us more unequal, but it’s heaven for an American aristocracy that can hire cheap household labor without worrying about competition from high-skilled immigrants.
For the Ragged Dicks who seek to rise, nothing is more important than the rule of law, the security of property rights, and sanctity of contract provided by a mature and efficient legal system. The alternative—contract law in the state of nature—is the old-boy network composed of America’s aristocrats. They know each other, and their personal bonds supply the trust that is needed before deals can be done and promises can be relied on. We’re all made worse off when the rule of law is weak, as it is in today’s America, when promises meant to be legally binding are imperfectly enforced by the courts. But then the costs of inefficient departures from the rule of law are borne disproportionately by the Ragged Dicks who begin without the benefit of an old-boy network.
For all these barriers to mobility we can thank the members of the New Class, who dominate America’s politics and constrain our policy choices. It is they who can be blamed for the recent run-up in American income inequality. The economy has become sclerotic, and the path to advancement over the last 40 and 50 years has been blocked by a profusion of new legal and regulatory barriers, all of which they have supported. They tell us they’re upset by inequality and immobility, but we shouldn’t believe them. You can’t suck and blow.
The falcon, that bird of prey, knows not to foul its own nest. But then for our New Class, the falconers, it’s not their own nest. It’s the nest of the invertebrates, the bigots, the Other.
F.H. Buckley is a professor at George Mason Law School and the author of The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America.