[S]ooner or later, as the globalist elites seek to drag the country into conflicts and global commitments, preside over the economic pastoralization of the United States, manage the delegitimization of our own culture, and the dispossession of our people, and disregard or diminish our national interests and national sovereignty, a nationalist reaction is almost inevitable and will probably assume populist form when it arrives. The sooner it comes, the better… [Samuel Francis in Chronicles]
Imagine giving this advice to a Republican presidential candidate: What if you stopped calling yourself a conservative and instead just promised to make America great again?
What if you dropped all this leftover 19th-century piety about the free market and promised to fight the elites who were selling out American jobs? What if you just stopped talking about reforming Medicare and Social Security and instead said that the elites were failing to deliver better health care at a reasonable price? What if, instead of vainly talking about restoring the place of religion in society — something that appeals only to a narrow slice of Middle America — you simply promised to restore the Middle American core — the economic and cultural losers of globalization — to their rightful place in America? What if you said you would restore them as the chief clients of the American state under your watch, being mindful of their interests when regulating the economy or negotiating trade deals?
That's pretty much the advice that columnist Samuel Francis gave to Pat Buchanan in a 1996 essay, "From Household to Nation," in Chronicles magazine. Samuel Francis was a paleo-conservative intellectual who died in 2005. Earlier in his career he helped Senator East of North Carolina oppose the Martin Luther King holiday. He wrote a white paper recommending the Reagan White House use its law enforcement powers to break up and harass left-wing groups. He was an intellectual disciple of James Burnham's political realism, and Francis' political analysis always had a residue of Burnham's Marxist sociology about it. He argued that the political right needed to stop playing defense — the globalist left won the political and cultural war a long time ago — and should instead adopt the insurgent strategy of communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Francis eventually turned into a something resembling an all-out white nationalist, penning his most racist material under a pen name. Buchanan didn't take Francis' advice in 1996, not entirely. But 20 years later, "From Household to Nation," reads like a political manifesto from which the Trump campaign springs.
To simplify Francis' theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots. But they are also threatened by conservatives who would take away their Medicare, hand their Social Security earnings to fund-managers in Connecticut, and cut off their unemployment too.
Middle American forces, emerging from the ruins of the old independent middle and working classes, found conservative, libertarian, and pro-business Republican ideology and rhetoric irrelevant, distasteful, and even threatening to their own socio-economic interests. The post World War II middle class was in reality an affluent proletariat, economically dependent on the federal government through labor codes, housing loans, educational programs, defense contracts, and health and unemployment benefits. All variations of conservative doctrine rejected these…
Yet, at the same time, the Ruling Class proved unable to uproot the social cultural, and national identities and loyalties of the Middle American proletariat, and Middle Americans found themselves increasingly alienated from the political left and its embrace of anti-national policies, and counter-cultural manners and morals. [Chronicles]
For decades, people have been warning that a set of policies that really has enriched Americans on the top, and likely has improved the overall quality of life (through cheap consumables) on the bottom, has hollowed out the middle.
Chinese competition really did hammer the Rust Belt and parts of the great Appalachian ghetto. It made the life prospects for men — in marriage and in their careers — much dimmer than those of their fathers. Libertarian economists, standing giddily behind Republican politicians, celebrate this as creative destruction even as the collateral damage claims millions of formerly-secure livelihoods, and — almost as crucially — overall trust and respect in the nation's governing class. Immigration really does change the calculus for native-born workers too. As David Frum points out last year:
[T]he Center for Immigration Studies released its latest jobs study. CIS, a research organization that tends to favor tight immigration policies, found that even now, almost seven years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, 1.5 million fewer native-born Americans are working than in November 2007, the peak of the prior economic cycle. Balancing the 1.5 million fewer native-born Americans at work, there are two million more immigrants — legal and illegal — working in the United States today than in November 2007. All the net new jobs created since November 2007 have gone to immigrants. Meanwhile, millions of native-born Americans, especially men, have abandoned the job market altogether. [The Atlantic]
The political left treats this as a made-up problem, a scapegoating by Applebee's-eating, megachurch rubes who think they are losing their "jerbs." Remember, Republicans and Democrats have still been getting elected all this time.
But the response of the predominantly white class that Francis was writing about has mostly been one of personal despair. And thus we see them dying in middle age of drug overdose, alcoholism, or obesity at rates that now outpace those of even poorer blacks and Hispanics. Their rate of suicide is sky high too. Living in Washington, D.C., however, with an endless two-decade real-estate boom, and a free-lunch economy paid for by special interests, most of the people in the conservative movement hardly know that some Americans think America needs to be made great again.
In speeches, Trump mostly implies that the ruling class conducts trade deals or the business of government stupidly and weakly, not villainously or out of personal pecuniary motives. But the message of his campaign is that America's interests have been betrayed by fools.
The huge infrastructure of the conservative movement in Washington, D.C., is aghast at Trump, and calls him an economic illiterate for threatening China with tariffs. They can't understand that this is not primarily an economic measure, but a nationalist one. It's a signal to voters that one man is here to fight for them, not to school-marmishly tell them that capitalism is helping them when in fact it manifestly helps others a lot more. Trump has attracted his coalition of supporters among those who are the most weakly attached to the Republican Party as an institution.
Plenty of others have noticed the parallels between Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump. Some have seen that Trump is attracting the "radical middle" social base and taking on the Caesarist, almost Latin American-style populism that Francis recommended. Buchanan was recently asked about why Trump was having all the success that he did not enjoy, when he is running on so many of the issues Buchanan did 20 years ago. Buchanan said that it was because the returns are in on the policies he criticized 20 years ago. All of this is true.
The Trump phenomenon does seem to be sui generis. There are not squadrons of Trumpistas in the Republican Congress. And his celebrity persona, his extremely unusual and independent financial power, his felicity for not just recognizing but channeling the grievances of his supporters is unmatched. It's hard to imagine anyone else rebuilding his coalition of Middle American radicals and fringier, race-obsessed "alt-right" nationalists.
The Republican Party is incredibly powerful as an institution. It will have the power to recover and return things to a sense of normality someday, even if Trump wins the nomination.
But the Trump phenomenon also seems global and inevitable. America's elite class belongs to a truly global class of elites. And everywhere in Europe that global class is being challenged by anti-immigrant, occasionally protectionist parties who do not parrot free-market economic policies, but instead promise to use the levers of the state to protect native interests. In Russia, Putin's populist nationalism has taken over a major state apparatus, precisely to avenge itself on the paladins of the free market.
What is so crucial to Trump's success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy. He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do. And in this, he is following the advice of Sam Francis to a degree almost unthinkable. Here's the concluding flourish of Francis' 1996 essay:
I told [Buchanan] privately that he would be better off without all the hangers-on, direct-mail artists, fund-raising whiz kids, marketing and PR czars, and the rest of the crew that today constitutes the backbone of all that remains of the famous "Conservative Movement" and who never fail to show up on the campaign doorstep to guzzle someone else's liquor and pocket other people's money. "These people are defunct," I told him. "You don't need them, and you're better off without them. Go to New Hampshire and call yourself a patriot, a nationalist, an America Firster, but don't even use the word 'conservative.' It doesn't mean anything any more."
Pat listened, but I can't say he took my advice. By making his bed with the Republicans, then and today, he opens himself to charges that he's not a "true" party man or a "true" conservative, constrains his chances for victory by the need to massage trunk-waving Republicans whose highest goal is to win elections, and only dilutes and deflects the radicalism of the message he and his Middle American Revolution have to offer. The sooner we hear that message loudly and clearly, without distractions from Conservatism, Inc., the Stupid Party, and their managerial elite, the sooner Middle America will be able to speak with an authentic and united voice, and the sooner we can get on with conserving the nation from the powers that are destroying it. [Chronicles]
Trump embodies this in nearly every letter. He doesn't have people from the traditional Republican power structure advising him. He doesn't say he'll direct the existing members of the managerial class to make a little tweak here or there; he says he'll send his friend Carl Icahn and threaten China with a tariff wall that could repel a tsunami of cheap goods.
What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump's success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn't need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. Have they made you more free? Have their endless policy papers and studies and books conserved anything for you? These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don't need them, and you're better off without them.
And the most frightening thing of all — as Francis' advice shows — is that the underlying trend has been around for at least 20 years, just waiting for the right man to come along and take advantage.