Saagar Enjeti is on the rise. Once at The Daily Caller, he now fronts a news show for The Hill, Rising with Krystal and Saagar, co-hosted by the former MSNBC anchor Krystal Ball, with whom he also co-authored The Populist’s Guide to 2020. He maintains a popular podcast, The Realignment, and has appeared on Joe Rogan’s much-more-popular podcast and Tucker Carlson’s highly rated Fox News show. He’s “become kind of powerful,” according to a recent profile in The American Conservative. The New York Times’s David Brooks has lumped him in with Oren Cass, Henry Olsen, and others as prominent exponents of “Working-Class Republicanism.”
That’s quite a CV for someone so young, and Enjeti’s professional success should by rights invite further scrutiny of his ideas. Enjeti believes that Donald Trump’s election was proof of the intellectual desiccation of conservative orthodoxy, which, as he and others see it, was a kind of “zombie Reaganism,” a libertarianism whose leeriness toward federal power was responsible for most of our national ills. He is welcome to make this case. But a recent post he authored for Cass’s organization American Compass illustrates several problems with it, or at least the version of it that he presents.
The first problem is factual. Enjeti targets Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, whom he deems insufficiently understanding of the problems of offshoring, manufacturing decline, and job loss — “even though [Johnson] represents a state that voted Republican for the first time since Ronald Reagan when it went for Trump in 2016; explicitly because of Trump’s pro-worker, anti-China message.” There is a serious discussion to be had about Johnson’s views, and the problems presented by China’s rise. But serious people ought to do it honestly, considering the relevant facts. To hear Enjeti tell it, you’d think that Johnson was dragged across the finish line on Trump’s coattails in 2016; in truth, Johnson won 50.2 percent of the state’s vote (1.479 million votes) to Trump’s 47.2 percent (1.405 million). It seems that, in Wisconsin, at least, Johnson is more popular than Trump, if some voters were willing to support the former but not the latter.
This leads us to the second problem with Enjeti’s analysis, which is historical. It is worth remembering that 2016 was not Ron Johnson’s first election. Johnson won his Senate seat in 2010, one of the wave years (2014 was the other) for Republicans during the heyday of the Tea Party, when Barack Obama’s presidency served as a useful foil for conservatives. Enjeti has contempt for this period. In his American Compass piece, he belittles Tea Partiers for “mounting pointless filibusters and obstructing the business of the government.” In The American Conservative, he is similarly dismissive. “Domestic politics was just boring,” he writes. “Second term Obama, there was just nothing happening.” There were certainly things to be frustrated about as a conservative during the Obama years. But by their end, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, a vast majority of state governorships, and almost enough state legislatures to pass constitutional amendments on their own. Whatever the flaws of conservatism and the Republican Party during that time, there might be something worth learning from such success.
At this point, Enjeti would say I probably only think that because it’s what the billionaires want me to think, which brings us to the third main problem with his public posture. There is a legitimate argument to be had about the future of conservatism. I am fine with admitting some of my own priors in this debate; for instance, I find Enjeti’s notion that the Republican Party was totally in the pocket of monied libertarian interests before Trump somewhat misguided, to say the least. Others will dispute this contention, which is their right. But if they are serious, then they will find a way to do it without arguing that, for example, Trump’s election was “a final nail in the coffin of zombie Reagan-era public policy pushed by the billionaire and think tank class in Washington.” Or that Johnson’s views “can be explained by an ideological commitment to the market fundamentalism that billionaires want congressional legislators committed too [sic].”
Enjeti’s political program, as far as I can discern it, is not Marxist. But his style of argument, which denies that people can have views not entirely determined by material circumstances, bears a strong whiff of the Marxist notion of false consciousness. For Marxists, false consciousness was a condition of material blindness to reality that purported to explain why the proletariat was unable to perceive its immiserated state and revolt. For Enjeti, the influence of a nefarious billionaire class is the only way to explain why everyone doesn’t see the world as he does, or why his views have failed to revolutionize American politics. He casts disagreement with him as inherently illegitimate, thus reducing his need to make serious counterarguments based in reason and fact. It’s a superficial approach, and, ultimately, a futile one: It accomplishes nothing, and makes actual argument impossible.
Of course, maybe actual argument is not what Saagar Enjeti is interested in. That would be disappointing, but it would also raise a question: What, then, is he interested in? At the beginning of his American Conservative profile, Enjeti is quoted as saying that “It’s about power, man.” His arguments may be factually, historically, and philosophically flawed. But about this, at least, one gets the sense that he is honest.