A recent Claremont Review of Books article by the obviously pseudonymous Publius Decius Mus, “The Flight 93 Election,” has created quite a stir in the conservative universe. The article is a vigorous defense of Trump and Trumpism, and has been touted widely by Trump supporters. Rush Limbaugh read it aloud on his radio program. It has even inspired its own hashtag, #IAmDecius, but it has also generated a very vociferous reaction from anti-Trumpers. This National Review article by Jonah Goldberg contains links to several of the critical responses.
Decius is one of the minds behind the now defunct Journal of American Greatness, which is significant because it was a vehicle for self-identified Straussians of the West Coast variety. This distinction may only be meaningful to pointy-headed conservatives who are familiar with the intricacies of the intra-conservative battles of recent decades and to do justice to its significance at the philosophical level would require more elaboration than a short op-ed allows. Suffice it to say for now that West Coast Straussians have historically been on the side of the anti-Trump critics of the article. What follows is a brief reaction to the political significance of what is going on here. I’ll leave the philosophical nitty-gritty for later.
The whole “Flight 93” article is full of “hot takes,” so to speak, that lend themselves to excerpting and cutting and pasting. Decius has quite a way with words. But this passage below struck me as the most significant and deserving of comment:
Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them. Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.
Wow! Since Pat Buchanan? Gephardt on trade? Ron Paul on war? Tom Tancredo on immigration? It is difficult to overstate the significance of this. Someone from the intellectual tradition that has historically made common cause with, and really to a significant degree served as thought leaders for, the forces that opposed Gephardt on trade, Paul on war, Tancredo on immigration and Buchanan on all three is now essentially stating that Buchanan was right all along. As a former Buchanan supporter and someone who still self-identifies as a paleoconservative, since the 90s I have enjoyed intellectually jousting with folks oriented similarly to Decius. Despite the title, which I chose for its provocative effect, I hope friend and foe alike will believe me when I say that I really do not intend this article as an excuse to gloat. I intend it to elucidate.
Paleocons have always been primarily distinguished from “regular” conservatives on the trio of issues mentioned above. We are restrictionist on immigration, opposed to free-trade ideology and noninterventionist on foreign policy. There’s more underlying the distinction than this suite of issues, but this is primarily how it manifests itself politically. For paleocons the “essential connectivity” of these three issues has always seemed rather apparent. This is one reason why it has been so frustrating swimming against the Conservative Inc. tide all these years.
Polling reveals that the actual base of the Republican Party has long been with us in their skepticism toward so-call free trade deals, but this has not been reflected by the voting behavior of elected Republicans or in the ideological cover given free traders by official Conservadom. Sen. Ted Cruz, who was forced to flip-flop on fast track and TPP mid-campaign, experienced the reality of this dynamic when his free trade friendly stance started to hurt his credibility as a crusading outsider.
Immigration has been more of a mixed bag. The base has long been with us in opposition to amnesty and concerns about illegal immigration, but has failed to understand, at least in their public professions, that immigration isn’t just a rule of law and/or economic burden issue. If you are an ostensible conservative, then perhaps rapidly and radically transforming the demographic make-up of your country is something that you should oppose in its own right. You know, that whole actually conserving something thingy. One suspects that the base gets this more than they are willing to publicly acknowledge, lest they be accused of wrongthink, but the leadership of the GOP has been completely in the pocket of the cheap labor lobby despite the fact that current policies will, in just a few more cycles, demographically doom the Red Team and its agenda forever if it’s not already too late. Amnesty and “comprehensive immigration reform” have only been prevented by the mass rebellion of the base.
On foreign policy, however, the base has not been with us. While the modal Flyover Country conservative is likely not as Wilsonian on foreign policy as the public proponents of interventionism, blatant threat exaggeration and making every far off foreign conflict a U.S. concern has generally played well with the base. It has likely hurt the GOP and official conservatism with independents and moderates, but the party and conservative leadership and the base have been more in sync on this issue.
Here is where the “essential connectivity” of these issues comes in. As I have repeatedly attempted to explain to NeverTrump die-hards, Trump has transformed this election from the typical contest between center-left globalist neoliberal vs. center-right globalist neoliberal into globalist vs. nationalist. Foreign policy interventionism is inherently underpinned by a globalist mindset as well as an assumption that the U.S. must necessarily play a grossly outsized role on the world stage. What else explains hand-wringing among supposed conservatives about what the U.S. should “do” about Ukraine or Syria which are both half a globe away? Neither of these assumptions is conservative in the proper understanding of the term.
Trump is not a Ron Paul style noninterventionist, but his willingness to make the case that we should put America’s interests first and implication that our allies are freeloading off our good graces likely allowed him to challenge the interventionist consensus without jarring the sensibilities of average conservatives in the way dogmatic noninterventionism does. Some noninterventionists have questioned Trump’s sincerity on the issue, but he has a long history of being critical of the US disproportionately bearing the load for the defense of our allies. Plus, it meshes with his consistent theme on trade deals. In both cases Trump argues that the U.S. is getting played for fools by other countries who are looking out for their own interests. Trump’s history on foreign policy was one reason some paleos saw potential in Trump’s campaign before it became the phenomenon that it has. In fact, based on his history and thought pattern, it is my hunch that Trump’s tough talk on ISIS and Iran is more likely him playing to the Republican base, and the America first rhetoric is the more genuine.
Trump is not an ideologue, and while he has long primarily identified as a Republican, contrary to the protests of NeverTrumpers that he is a “lifelong” Democrat, he did not develop his political sensibilities in a movement conservative milieu. His politics are gut level and instinctual. His unfamiliarity with the conservative milieu has caused him to make some unfortunate missteps, but also insulated him from the stale orthodoxies of modern American conservatism. This is why he can make the intuitive connection on immigration, trade and foreign policy that those catechized in conservative movement ideology cannot.
In my frequent engagements with “regular” conservatives, I often make the point that it makes no sense to be a nationalist on immigration, a nationalist on trade and a globalist or internationalist on foreign policy. The paleo triad flows logically together. Just as open borders, free trade and interventionism flow naturally together. For too long most regular grassroots conservatives have been with paleos on two out of three of these issues, but have identified with a movement that gives ideological cover to the globalist triad. Trump has squared this circle in a way no one before him has been able to, precisely because he is not a policy wonk with a head full of ideology. Rather, he is a patriot who instinctively loves his country and wants what is best for it. Trump supporters want to save their country. Movement conservative NeverTrumpers want to save their Conservative Inc. fiefdom. Which side are you on?