The G-File

Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and the Return of Right-wing Statism

(Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and all citizens who prefer their “news”letters just slightly underdone),

I’m sitting in the lovely, albeit rain-soaked, courtyard at the Royal Palms hotel in Phoenix, three hours behind the East Coast and at least five hours behind on this “news”letter. And I have no idea what I should or can write about today.

Bubba Bites Back

I guess we can start with Bill Clinton’s outburst against the Black Lives Matter crowd yesterday. Again, since the caffeine hasn’t even sunk in yet, let’s kick this bullet-point style. (I find transitions between paragraphs to be something of a burden these days. For instance, I wrote this piece on contested conventions for the Corner the other day in about 25 minutes. I let my research assistant Jack out of his kennel and told him, “Sniff for typos, boy. That’s a good boy.” He caught a bunch, but also said, “You don’t need to number your points. It reads fine without them.” He was right, of course. But that didn’t spare him a savage beating. I told him, “It puts the numbers back in, or it gets the hose again.”)

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So where was I? Oh right Phoenix, Clinton, Black Lives Matter. I found the whole episode interesting for three however many reasons I come up with below.

1. Bill is doing something Hillary won’t: defend the Clinton record of the 1990s. Hillary’s happy to campaign on the gauzy nostalgia for the 1990s, when the gauzy nostalgia helps her. But the moment the politics change from taking credit to taking responsibility, she quietly slinks away like Joe Biden after farting at an arms-control summit. (“Look at Putin’s face! He thinks it was his translator! He’s gonna have that guy killed!”)

2. Unlike Hillary, who thinks her place in the history books is in front of her, Bill knows that 95 percent of his obituary has already been written. So he has a much more vested interest in defending his record. By moving to the left of her husband (where she was in the 1990s!) on economics, criminal justice, foreign policy, etc., Hillary slowly strips away the substance of Bill’s presidency. Take away the Balkan war, banking reform, etc., and what’s left of the Clinton legacy? Pretty much the fact that he singlehandedly turned the West Wing into a penile colony.

RELATED: Hillary’s Still Weak

3. Oh, at this point, I should also say Bill Clinton is right! The Black Lives Matter movement is not without its legitimate complaints and arguments — I’m in favor of some criminal-justice reforms. But they want to work from the assumption that there are no black bad actors in this story. It’s white supremacy all the way down. The problem with this is that even if white supremacy — whatever people mean by that — is the massive problem some lefties imagine, it still doesn’t excuse bad individual moral choices. Excuses don’t become explanations simply because you shout them. It’s a very weird corollary to social-justice logic. If you see everyone simply as representatives of groups — white oppressors and black victims — you withdraw the moral agency from individual actors on both sides of the equation (which, technically speaking, is racist). White people become agents of oppression and morally culpable even if they’ve done nothing wrong. Black criminals who prey on innocent black people become victims, about whom no one can say an unkind word.

4. One fun consequence of all this is that Bill very well could turn out to be a liability for Hillary, which would be kind of hilarious given that Hillary would be just another left-wing activist lawyer were it not for her husband. She rode her Arkansas mule all of the way to the White House gates only to see the sign reading, “No Mules Allowed.”

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5. There’s an old cliché that we become more conservative as we get older. The social science on all this is more mixed than you might think, depending on what you mean by “conservative.” There’s definitely a tendency for people to become more curmudgeonly as they age. That’s certainly my experience. I find myself yelling at clouds a lot more than I used to. But that’s not what’s going on here. Bill Clinton is probably a good deal more liberal than he was 20 years ago. The problem is the Democratic party is a lot more liberal than it was 20 years ago. Bill’s locked-in to his positions (See item No. 2) and that means he’s sliding rightward on the ideological spectrum.

Times Change

This is hardly all that extraordinary. Indeed, it’s normal. Again, I’m too tired to make with the fancy paragraph transitions so I’m going to throw a few more quarters in the bullet-point generator:

1. Herbert Hoover is still remembered as a very conservative small-government guy, despite the fact that he was a progressive who laid much of the ground work for the New Deal. He ran for president, much like Donald Trump, as a self-made millionaire and great manager. He was “the Great Engineer” who could bring the best practices of business to government.

2. FDR was certainly a liberal statist, but his positions on welfare and public-sector unions alone put him to the right of today’s Democratic party.

3. Richard Nixon was, simply, a liberal by today’s standards:

a. He was a statist. You could say he was for Obamacare before Obama and he pushed wage and price controls.

b. While he exploited racial issues to get elected, he was programmatically a racial liberal. He launched the first significant affirmative-action programs and pushed the first big school-integration efforts in the South. He created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.

c. He loved the regulatory state. He created OSHA, NOAA, and of course the EPA.

d. Seventy-five percent of his Supreme Court appointees voted for Roe v. Wade.

e. He hated the “Buckleyites.”

There’s a natural human tendency to think that because you can’t stand the other guy — or gal — he or she must therefore be your ideological opposite. The Brown Shirts and Red Shirts weren’t philosophical antipodes, they were Coke and Pepsi fighting for the same slice of the radical market by changing their recipes ever so slightly. Bill Clinton, as president, wasn’t that left-wing and Richard Nixon wasn’t that right-wing. But their enemies started from the assumption that any political opponent we hate this much must have a wholly different ideology from us. And when your enemies hate someone on your “side,” that causes you to embrace your guy even more.

Consider George W. Bush. Because I am pressed for time, I’ll refer you to a speech I gave to the Conservative party of New York in 2004 (if you read the whole thing, please note that weird opening was a Howard Dean joke, which was pretty timely back then):

So, this guy’s in the hospital and the nurse gives him a hot-tea enema. The patient screams, “Yeeaahhhh!”

“What!?” exclaimed the nurse. “Is it too hot?”

“No!” replied the patient, “It’s too sweet!”

I bring this up because it captures a certain dynamic to the discussions of the Bush presidency. For more than a year, we’ve heard one leftist after another complain that President Bush is the most radical president in modern history. I don’t just mean in foreign policy — where more than a little radicalism has been long overdue — but here at home as well. Harold Meyerson actually compares George W. Bush to Jefferson Davis, because they both share such a fundamental opposition to progressive government. We’re told that Bush has gutted education, health care, and protections for the elderly. He’s declared that puppies with thorns in their paws will just have to suffer, and that John Ashcroft plans on confiscating balls of yarn from kittens across America.

. . . It’s as if they showed up for algebra class and started reading from their French textbooks. Not only do I have no idea what page they’re on, I really have no idea what they’re talking about.

A few quick facts. George W. Bush has:

– increased federal spending on education by 60.8 percent;

– increased federal spending on labor by 56 percent;

– increased federal spending on the interior by 23.4 percent;

– increased federal spending on defense by 27.6 percent.

And of course he has:

– created a massive department of homeland security;

– signed a campaign-finance bill he pretty much said he thought was unconstitutional (thereby violating his oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution);

– signed the farm bill, which was a non-kosher piñata filled with enough pork to bend space and time;

– pushed through a Medicare plan which starts with a price tag of $400 billion but will — according to every expert who studies the issue — go up a gazillion-bajillion dollars over the next decade;

– torched Republican — and American — credibility on trade, in both agriculture and steel;

– got more people working for the federal government since the end of the Cold War;

– not vetoed a single spending or any other bill, and he has no intention of eliminating a single department;

– sold out like a fire sale at Filene’s on Title IX, a subject I know a little about because my wife is the foremost expert in the universe on it;

– pushed to send more Americans to Mars while inviting a lot more illegal immigrants to hang out here in America.

Such criticisms of President Bush were rare during his presidency for a lot of reasons. Liberals didn’t want to point out such things because they had bought into a theory that Bush was Barry Goldwater. Too few Republicans made this case because the elected ones and their lobbyists took advantage of the Bush gravy train. More important: There was a war on. Bush’s critics on the left were so staggeringly shabby, hypocritical, and ad hominem towards a wartime president, it was psychologically uncomfortable to open a second front against him. Moreover, for a certain swath of conservatives Bush benefitted from a kind of white identity politics. He was a born-again Christian from Texas who spoke ’Merican. Presidents have become the foremost totems in the culture war, a battle that is often fought at a great emotional distance from mere public-policy disagreements. Hating Bush was simply required of right-thinking progressives who laughed at anything Jon Stewart said. (They didn’t think it was “funny because it’s true.” They thought it was true because Jon Stewart was funny.)

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Trump Stakes

It’s this last point that worries me most about Donald Trump. I’ve already written a lot about how Donald Trump’s cult of personality is corrupting conservatism. (See, for example, “Trump’s Cult of Personality Is Corrupting Conservatism.”) If Trump is for something — single payer, eminent-domain abuse, cozying up to Putin, whatever — suddenly millions of self-described conservatives (and many of their self-anointed spokesmen) abandon their ideological commitments.

Lots has been said about how Trump represents the intrusion of reality-show culture and the celebrification of politics. That’s all true. But he also represents the return of Nixonian “conservatism.” His policy positions — such as they are — are fundamentally statist (and authoritarian). They are perceived as right-wing because Trump, like Nixon, has a gift for exploiting grievance politics, not just in racial terms but in class terms as well.

RELATED: After Wisconsin, Is Donald Trump Unraveling?

And that’s fair insofar as “right-wing” and “conservative” operate on separate tracks. In America, to be a classical liberal puts you on the right end of the political spectrum. But as a historical matter, it doesn’t have to work that way. In Europe classical liberalism was properly seen as a phenomenon of the Left, because it was opposed to the statism of Church and Throne. In America, classical liberalism became conservative because American conservatism aims to conserve the radical principles enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution. (It’s telling that many of these “alt right” types deride constitutionalists as “paper worshippers,” “vellum supremacists,” and “parchment fetishists” while extolling royalist conservative opponents of the Enlightenment.)

I don’t think Trump will ever be president, but he represents a return of a ‘right-wing statism’ that is repugnant to me.

Progressives brought statism to American soil. They largely succeeded by replacing the aristocracy of noble blood with the aristocracy of “expertise.” As a result, classical liberals migrated to the right side of the political spectrum. I don’t think Trump will ever be president, but he represents a return of a “right-wing statism” that is repugnant to me. As Yuval Levin put it, Trump “poses a direct challenge to conservatism, because he embodies the empty promise of managerial leadership outside of politics.”

I often read the Twitter profiles of the Trump supporters who pester me. Sometimes I discover they’re phony “TrumpBots” created by some marketing firm. Sometimes I see that they’re members of the coprophagic phylum of white supremacists using Trump as a blocking tackle for their repugnant cause. But just as often, I see these people describing themselves as “classical liberals” or “constitutionalists” or “Goldwater Republicans,” and my heart weeps. There’s nothing classically liberal about Donald Trump. To the extent he’s a conservative at all, he’s a throwback to a time when a Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were “conservatives.” Nixon’s politics of resentment led to his impeachment. Hoover’s “best practices” gave us the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt (whose policies made the Depression Great).

Both Hoover and Nixon were better, smarter, and more competent men than Donald Trump, but measured against their failures, I have no doubt that Trump would outshine them both.

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Various & Sundry

This was a very busy week. Normally my LA Times column, due Mondays, becomes my first syndicated column of the week (though I often tweak it for one reason or another before resubmitting it). But the LA Times wanted me to do a special piece on the response from readers on how to Stop Trump. (You can find it here.) The problem was that it meant I had to write a new column for the syndicate, hence this column on John Kasich as The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Moreover, the first Tuesday of every month I write a column for USA Today, also due Monday. I wrote that on Trump’s idea of “winning” as the only thing that matters. But, I was also up for a Happy Warrior column for the magazine, which I wrote on the The Walking Dead through the eyes of Mancur Olson. Today’s column is on Bernie Sanders’s essentially racist views on trade.

It has begun! The Spring NRO webathon is back. I will probably have a more forthright appeal next week. But for now, if you think NRO is doing it right, please help out. It matters a lot.

Canine Update: Unfortunately, I don’t have too much to report. My wife, The Fair Jessica, is on solo dog duty while I’m out here in Phoenix for a few days. I have this ISI thing, but I’m also going to hunker down working on my book. One thing I haven’t told you about is Zoë’s strange relationship with a fox. We have a dog walker who takes a couple of afternoon walks with Zoë and Pippa so Jessica can get some work done. She has a whole pack that Zoë loves dearly. But even when Jessica has the beasts, she tries to meet up with the pack because it guarantees Zoë will empty her mischief batteries for at least a little while. Anyway, on the Cabin John trail — a fairly wild area near where we live that’s pretty much empty on workdays — Zoë routinely leaves the pack and takes off on her own to chase a fox. It happens pretty much every time. The weird thing is that the fox seems to wait for Zoë at the top of hill. It will stay there until Zoë sees her and then she essentially sticks her tongue out and yells in the canid common tongue “Nyah, nyah! You can’t catch me!” Obviously, I think it would be bad for all concerned if Zoë ever caught the fox. But I doubt that will ever happen.

Here’s some other stuff, in descending order of word count.

Why did the seal cross the road? To get to the sea food restaurant on the other side

Penguin swims 5,000 miles every year for reunion with the man who saved his life

A theater in the middle of the Egyptian desert has been destroyed

New Jersey mall Easter Bunny involved in brawl with customers

News you can use: How to jump from a building into a dumpster

How far back in time could you go and still understand English?

Are careless people skewing the results of scientific studies?

Take a tour of New York City’s secret trash museum

Mapping the sounds of Greek Byzantine churches

The opening lines of Beowulf in Old English

Why pinball was once banned in New York

How Alfred Hitchcock staged his scenes

The slave who stole a Confederate ship

The Thing from The Thing’s perspective

Why some people have “rainbow vision”

The forgotten history of fat men’s clubs

Waffle House has its own music label

Wielding a lightsaber in virtual reality

The fanciest Taco Bells in existence

Is our universe a giant hologram?

A history of English in five words

The tricky ethics of living longer

The origin of the word “pundit”

The trouble with transporters

Is the next Picasso a robot?

Life, uh, finds a way?

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