‘Progressive” is a funny word. It is what the self-consciously center-left element in American politics started calling itself after the word “liberal” was made into a term of abuse by the center-right element in American politics, which is made up mainly of liberals. Funny little eccentricities of the language: There are among our so-called liberal Democrats few surviving liberals and a rapidly declining number of democrats. And, thanks to the efforts of such excellent gentlemen as Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck in explaining the ugly history of American progressivism, “progressive” has become a term of abuse, too, especially on the talk-radio/cable-news right, which is why some people get so very upset when you point out that Donald Trump is a progressive.
The anti-Trump Right has an interest in establishing that conservatism is not Trump-ism, but there is more to it than that. Trump’s progressivism has to be understood in the context of his political and ideological forebears, many of whom our contemporary self-proclaimed progressives do not wish to claim, among them George Wallace and the segregationist Southern Democrats who lorded over American domestic politics between the Great Depression and the Reagan era.
But the fact that a candidate pushing classic progressivism rubs most progressives the wrong way does not alter his commitment to progressivism, which is to say, to the preference for the political regimentation of society over laissez-faire economic policies and organic social development. The central public-policy question of American progressivism, as Walter Nugent puts it in his useful Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (part of an Oxford University Press series of “Very Short Introductions”) from the beginning has been: “How could economic life be made fair again?” Classical progressives, he writes, “favored using some form and degree of government . . . to regulate economic problems, ameliorate social ills, and reconcile change with tradition.” The first two are still very much the central concerns of progressives, though reconciling change with tradition has been thrown overboard in these days of prosecuting nonconformist bakers as civil-rights villains.
Woodrow Wilson, the father of American progressivism, would no doubt have vexed modern progressives with his backward and primitive racial views — views that were backward and primitive even by the standards of his time. Those “conservative” Southern Democrats were in the main recognizable as modern progressives, as indeed was George Wallace: They were supporters of social insurance and welfare-state programs; minimum-wage laws and much (but not all) other pro-labor regulation, with Wallace being an energetic opponent of right-to-work laws; they supported the trust-busting and anti-monopoly projects and generally favored a strong regulatory hand on business, particularly on international trade and banking; Southern segregationists such as Wallace and Theodore Bilbo were notoriously fond of extravagant public-works spending, and, as governor, Bilbo was a notable champion of progressive measures such as compulsory education, bank regulation, and public-health projects. This stands in broad contrast to the conservative Republicans of the era, who were for their part mainly recognizable as modern conservatives: anti-tax, anti-spending, anti–New Deal, small-government men, including arch-conservatives such as “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft, who also attempted to put together a far-reaching civil-rights bill in 1946 — a project scuttled by progressives.
Progressivism is not a set of cultural inclinations but a body of public-policy views.
The point of all this is not to argue that modern progressives ought to be tarred with the racism of their intellectual forebears, much less to suggest that modern progressives are in the main racists, covertly or otherwise. Rather, the point is to establish the opposite: Progressivism is not a set of cultural inclinations but a body of public-policy views, mainly economic, along with related assumptions about the role and capacities of government. The contemporary Left’s attempt to define “conservative” as bigotry and “progressivism” as liberation from such bigotry is juvenile, and it is historically illiterate.
The American Left is for all practical purposes entirely progressive, which is to say, entirely committed to a managerial view of the role of government rooted in implacable, indeed irrational, hostility to the laissez-faire posture. But there is a progressive element within the Right as well: William F. Buckley (himself no stranger to the practical uses of populism) and National Review opposed Wallace energetically, but not all conservatives did. And the same dynamic played out with Trump, with one important difference.
But we should try to understand where it is we find ourselves on the political spectrum. Trump may be culturally attached to the Right — or, more precisely, the Right may be culturally attached to Trump — but everything he has said and done thus far points to his being a progressive in the ancient mold of Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and, yes, George Wallace and Theodore Bilbo. He means to put trade, and probably much more than trade, under political discipline. He means to stand between buyers and sellers with his hand out, making demands. He has expressed a longing for Keynesian stimulus projects, mercantilism, income redistribution, Bismarckian welfare-statism, and the consolidation of political power within the executive. He may talk like Archie Bunker, but politically he is Barack Obama rebranded for talk radio.
If we take him at his word, this is shaping up to be a case of talk right, govern left.
Power-worshiping Republicans are going along with this as quickly and as cravenly as they can.
And power-worshiping Republicans are going along with this as quickly and as cravenly as they can. Mike Pence has declared himself a fundamental opponent of free markets. Quondam conservatives such as Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center defend instances of pure crony capitalism such as the Carrier bailout, insisting that free-market advocates must stomach these in the name of doing what is “politically sustainable.” Pro-lifers and immigration hawks spent many years listening to similar demands that they abandon their principles in the name of popularity, but tastes change, politics changes, and the electorate is fickle at best.
There was a time not long ago when Republicans complained that, with Democrats in possession of the White House and the Senate, they controlled “only one half of one third of the government,” as Darrell Issa put it. Republicans now control the entirety of the elected federal government and on a good day can win at the Supreme Court, too. But conservatives — here meaning the people who believe in limited government, laissez-faire, free trade, free enterprise, a shrewd and steady national-security policy — may not control even that one half of one third that Issa found inadequate.And who is in control? A man with Otto von Bismarck’s conception of the state and Ed Anger’s temperament, George Wallace without the experience in office. Him and a great many self-abasing hangers-on hypnotized by the prospect of power like Narcissus in a house of mirrors.
Conservatives said that the great triumph of the Reagan years was a Democratic party so chastened that it nominated Bill Clinton, the reluctant welfare reformer and free-trader who by his own rueful reckoning pursued the policies of an Eisenhower Republican. The great triumph of the Obama years, for progressives, anyway, is a Republican party so debased that it happily embraces Trump and Trump-ism.
I wonder if Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are smart enough to appreciate the scale and significance of their victory.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.