I made a pledge not to talk about Donald Trump about a month ago. I felt that he was getting too much media coverage, and since I believed he had no chance to win the nomination, I felt that every person discussing him was to his benefit…and to the detriment of everyone else on Earth. I made that prediction based on a few factors (Nate Silver does a good job talking about them here), mostly that Trump has no campaign infrastructure, no party support, terrible favorability ratings, and early polling is essentially meaningless. Of course, he also doesn’t have any cohesive platform and the ideas he does have are atrocious, but because the conversation about Trump never died down, his terrible ideas have stuck around despite his inevitable campaign collapse.
And despite 538 posting piece after piece about political fundamentals, and my continued ignoring of Trump, we are still talking about him. So at this point, it seems better to deal with Trump rather than ignore him and put my vehement opposition on record as soon as possible. But how to show that opposition?
Firstly, my initial reason for ignoring Trump still holds true; he has no chance of winning. If you think I’m wrong, go ahead and buy a contract at Predictious. Trump contracts are currently at long 25% / short 17%. Or contact me if you know me personally; I’ll put up $80 if Trump gets the nomination, you only have to pay $20 if he doesn’t get the nomination.
But if the market agrees he can’t win, why is he still leading the polls? One point is that everything 538 has said is still true, after all it’s still over 6 months until the nomination is really decided, and most candidates leading in the polls at this point in the race didn’t win their nomination. Polls are meaningless now. But still, with the amount of unpopular things Trump has said, it’d make more sense if he was lagging.
Scott Alexander wrote a couple weeks ago that perhaps Trump is doing so well because he is the clearest anti-establishment candidate out there, and as the political world has become more polarized, the more crazily anti-establishment you can be, the better. And the more that “respectable” people denounce him, the more power he has. Matt Welch, at Reason, makes a related observation, that while mainstream conservatives vilify Trump, they actually largely agree with him on immigration. Since (A) immigration has been the driving campaign topic in August, and, as Matt Welch has said, (B) Trump is simply taking the most anti-establishment / hardline version of the agreed-upon conservative position, then Scott’s model seems to be accurate.
But this just seems very odd to me. The American Right is a broad alliance of all sorts of groups: foreign policy hawks, Christian social conservatives, and free market groups (like libertarians, businesses). These groups all hold some conservative positions, but the argument could be made that any single group isn’t “truly” conservative since they are likely to have some stances that fall outside the conservative mainstream. For example, libertarians are economic conservatives but also tend to be for drug policy reform. Libertarians may argue that they have as strong a claim to membership of the Right as other groups, but the fact is they are simply one group out of many. But while libertarians have a whole swath of policy goals they share with the mainstream Right, Donald Trump has, as far as I can tell, one, maybe two. In contrast to what Scott Alexander writes, he is decidedly less conservative than any other Republican candidate.
I don’t usually take this approach, but I’m going to actually identify myself as an ideologue. I usually advocate for moderately libertarian reforms when I can, because I feel like incremental improvements are the most politically viable way to better society. But my core beliefs can be extremely conservative. For example, I agree with many conservatives on Obamacare, and I think government involvement in the healthcare market is causing big problems with price distortion and rising costs. I think government involvement in education creates poorer results at a more expensive rate, and I think private schools subject to market forces could do just as good a job as centrally run government districts at big discount. And I also agree with conservatives that many groups on the cultural Left have pushed their beliefs to the point where deviation from social justice orthodoxy results in witch hunts and accusations of thought crime. So I can be a crazy conservative, and I say that Trump is not only a fake conservative who holds views anathema to right-wing ideals, his economic and social stances have weird nationalistic and socialist undertones.
Forget Obama being a socialist, and take a harder look at close-the-border-start-a-trade-war-socialist Donald Trump.
And I’m not the only one saying this. As George Will writes (pretty much THE authority on Conservativism), Donald Trump is a counterfeit Republican. He has switched stances on abortion, health care, and the Democratic Party to make himself more appealing to Republicans. His protectionist trade policy is anathema to free market conservatism. The only actual position he holds isn’t even a solid Republican position, as plenty of business interests are interested in a more fluid labor market including easier immigration and less E-Verify.
So why is Trump pretending to be a conservative and what the heck is he actually? The answer to the first question is not very interesting; it’s some combination of Trump’s ego and the desire by the Republican base for political “outsiders”. The second question is far more interesting. Clearly Trump has no overlap with libertarianism, and thus also no overlap with economic conservatism. This points to a vaguely socialist, but somehow still right-wing populist movement which strikes me as completely incoherent. Libertarian Jeffrey Tucker provides some dark insight into what we are actually seeing:
It’s time libertarians get serious about realizing that there exists such a thing as Brown-shirted socialism. It masquerades as patriotism. It seeks national greatness. It celebrates the majority race and dehumanizes the other. It is violently protectionist. On cultural matters, it is anti-leftist (“politically incorrect”). It is unapologetically authoritarian.
Even given all this, we are mostly mystified by it. It doesn’t strike us as a coherent ideology. It seems like a string of bad policy ideas (and some not terrible ones too) rather than a real political tradition. This is because we, as libertarians, are well-schooled to fear the socialist left but have little preparation to understand the threat from the other side.
Events of the last weeks should heighten our consciousness. There really is a brown-shirt movement in the U.S. It’s been building for many years. They have their organizations, books, websites, and splits within splits. The neo-Nazis are the most extreme variant. But fascism has many other types of expression, each reflecting a special interest, but each of them leading to a special kind of authoritarianism.
Why is this neo-fascism seeing a resurgence right now? Well, it still might be coincidence. It could be that Trump just happens to be ingeniously obnoxious to the Left which is driving his popularity, and then by accident he’s also got a vague national socialism thing going on. Not very satisfying, but candidates rise and fall pretty quickly and it could still be a fluke.
But supposing it isn’t, and Jeffrey Tucker is correct that the “brown-shirt movement” is real. Why is it popular? I have a theory. Take Scott Alexander’s view of politics as inherently tribal. We identify ourselves as part of a group, and consequently see our social foes (the outgroup) as irrationally awful. We put aside logic and discussion to defend our side to the bitter end. This may have been helpful in small human groups millennia ago, but today it supercharges political polarization. A follow-up post by Scott has even more evidence of this politicization and ominously ends with “I don’t know how to fix this”.
Then add in a couple of Clarkhat’s points in his post last year on GamerGate and the culture wars:
The problem I have is that the blue alliance has been on a winning streak, and with recent Blue success in gay marriage, immigration of client populations, university-and-media roll-up, etc. I feel like the culture war is over and the victors are going around (metaphorically) humiliating and shooting survivors of the losing side, and conducting mop-up operations.
I tend to agree with that sentiment. Up until recently, I sort of identified myself with the cultural Left (if also the economic Right); I’m pro gay rights and gay marriage, I think it’s worth changing cultural norms to push more women to be primary income earners as well as work in a variety of fields, I want to raise awareness for the terrible racial issues in the justice system, and so on. While the Left is still generally for those ideas, many positions push too far, like punishing people for not making wedding cakes, making up misleading rape statistics / writing a story about a gang rape at UVA with no fact checking, and even trying to censor professors who dare to criticize this absurd state of affairs.
Now even if I find these accusations damning, the above examples may be cherry-picked mischaracterizations of the Left with some bad apples creating an illusion disguising otherwise reasonable and honest activism. However, the actual truth is irrelevant; what matters is that conservatives agree with me and then some. They see the Left as not only having a crazy cultural view, but pushing it forcibly onto them. And when pushed into a corner, I think some conservatives have embraced anyone fighting back in the culture wars, no matter what their tactics are.
But hasn’t this always been the nature of the culture wars? Has the Left really gotten worse? Or has the Right just gotten crazier in their paranoia? Probably both. As CGP Grey points out in his excellent video, the internet has allowed us to increase our outrage and give voices to more ridiculous people. This has both increased the perception of politicization and desperation, but also increased the actual polarization of views, all to the detriment of moderate constructive dialogue.
Like Scott, I’m not sure how to fix this, but step one would be to stop listening to the crazy people. This includes a candidate who thinks international trade is a zero-sum game, who wants to protect special interests from free trade markets, who thinks it’s fine to bully homeowners with the state to steal real estate, and who wants to raise taxes, and then calls himself a conservative.
Instead we should take a deep breath, realize we have a lot more in common than we think and then talk about problems and the solutions we can implement to fix them. Let’s start by getting rid of Daylight Savings Time.
*Picture credit: Gage Skidmore, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0