Donald Trump’s performance in this year’s Iowa caucuses was identical to Pat Buchanan’s in 1996: second place, enjoying the support of approximately one in four Republican caucus-goers. Trump’s campaign, like Buchanan’s, is powered by the resentment and anxiety of the white working class.
Trump is this year’s celebrity mascot for the Buchanan boys.
The Buchanan boys are economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency. So they construct for themselves a story in which they have been victimized by elites and a political system based on interest-group politics that serves everyone except them. Trump is supported by so-called white nationalists, as Buchanan was before him, but the swastika set is merely an extreme example of the sort of thinking commonly found among those to whom Trump appeals.
If you want to understand the patron-client model behind the appeal of a man such as Pat Buchanan, then begin by consulting one of the keenest political minds of our time: Pat Buchanan. In a memo to Richard Nixon, he sketched out his model: “There is a legitimate grievance in my view of white working-class people that every time, on every issue, that the black militants loud-mouth it, we come up with more money. . . . If we can give 50 Phantoms to the Jews, and a multi-billion dollar welfare program for the blacks . . . why not help the Catholics save their collapsing school system?”
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The Jews Buchanan is writing about here presumably were those in Jerusalem rather than those in Brooklyn, but the conflation of overseas national-security projects with domestic interest-group politics is hardly restricted to self-conscious white nationalists. Bernie Sanders complains that money spent overseas ought to be spent servicing his constituents’ interests at home, and Trump dreams of turning our foreign adventures into a profit-making scheme, looting oil and other assets from foreigners to fund the British-style socialist health-care system of his dreams.
The European counterparts to Trump and Buchanan are much more forthright about being welfare statists, the marriage of xenophobic identity politics and an expansive welfare state being more familiar to Germans (and Europeans whose countries were occupied by Germans) than it is to New England fishermen or petroleum engineers in Texas. But the tariffs and trade restrictions that Trump dreams of are simply a very large tax on one group of Americans that would be used to provide economic benefits for other Americans. It is an odd line of thinking: If the government levies a tax on your neighbors in order to fund an earned-income tax credit for your family, then you’re a welfare queen; if the government levies a tax on businesses that is passed on to your neighbors in order to subsidize your earned income through higher prices, then that’s economic nationalism.
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If our economic elites were really as good at juking public policy for their own interests as they’re thought to be, they might support that. Under the current system, they’re the ones who pay most of the taxes. Under a Trumpkin tariff, economic benefits (to the extent that any were realized, which might very well be not at all) would be paid for by people who shop at Walmart. Automotive tariffs are a much larger burden on people who are shopping for economy cars than they are for people buying $90,000 European sedans.
There is some irony in the economics. The Buchananite vision would make most Americans worse off, with any increase in nominal money incomes being more than offset by an increase in prices. This is the opposite of the economics of immigration, which lowers prices and thereby raises Americans’ real incomes, even when nominal money incomes are stagnant or declining. Or so immigration activists tell us: The reality is that this immigration effect holds true only for the incomes of native-born Americans, excluding current immigrants, who constitute about 15 percent of the population. Include them in your numbers and the studies generally cited in service of the claim that immigration increases real incomes show the opposite.
EDITORIAL: Against Trump
Conventional conservatives are generally in favor of free(r) trade and hold mixed views on immigration, which is not entirely an economic matter. And they are perfectly happy (eager, really) to subsidize Buchanan’s hypothetical Irish Catholics who wish to send their children to private schools — just as they are happy to do the same for black families in Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. And that is the sticking point: American conservatives are rooted in classical liberalism, and their political philosophy is universalist: free enterprise and the rule of law for everyone. The jackbootier elements among the Buchanan boys demand the explicit servicing of white interests as such. (Never mind, for the moment, the argument from our progressive friends that conservative universalism is the servicing of white interests as such, inexplicitly.) Whether that leap lands you on so-called economic nationalism or explicit racism, it’s the same leap.There are all sorts of ways to draw the line between Us and Them. Sometimes it’s Us vs. Them Foreigners, and sometimes it’s Us vs. Them Jews, as in Buchanan’s unfortunate memo. Conservatives should continue to appeal to these voters, addressing the better angels of their nature with policy solutions to their problems, which are not imaginary. Confronting the stupidity and snobbery that holds in contempt those Americans who do work that does not require a university degree would be welcome, too, and Marco Rubio was well-advised to do so in his disquisition on welders and philosophers.
But it is unlikely that such voters can ever be entirely assimilated into the mainstream of American conservatism, the universalism of which provides them no Them — and they want a Them, badly. Some Republicans might finesse this to an extent, for example through all that risible ritual denunciation of “the establishment,” Ted Cruz and his “Washington cartel,” “Wall Street insiders,” etc. But that is not going to satisfy those who hunger for a fully expressed white identity politics, and we should expect that the occasional lunatic (Ross Perot), true believer (Pat Buchanan) or con artist (Donald Trump) periodically will find ways to tap into that energy. There’s a ceiling on that vote, but the numbers aren’t trivial.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.