Once upon a time the left and the right were political opposites. The left condemned capitalism and sought to expand government’s role in our lives; the right defended capitalism and endorsed limited government. Over the years, although the right became less and less committed to individual freedom and capitalism, it nonetheless presented a discernible alternative to the collectivism of the left.
That differentiation, with the strong help of Donald Trump, is now becoming undetectable.
While the left has been fairly consistent ideologically, the right hasn’t. One major shift occurred in the 1970s with the emergence of the “religious right,” which pushed for legal strictures in such areas as abortion, homosexual activity, embryonic stem-cell research and assisted suicide. Still, amid its many inconsistencies, the right included loud voices demanding constraints on government’s power over the economy. The Republicans’ “Contract with America” and the rise of the Tea Party were prominent examples of such demands.
Nothing equivalent exists today. Now, in place of even a semi-free-market ideology, the right has embraced the creed of populism, the creed of playing to people’s mindless prejudices by blaming the country’s ills on foreigners, on “globalists,” on big business—on capitalism.
At Fox News, the nominal flagship of the right and a fawning Trump promoter, Tucker Carlson declares: “For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking. . . . Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? . . . If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.”
In a N.Y. Times op-ed, Christopher Buskirk, an ardent Trump backer, argues for stronger border control by asserting that mass immigration “should be understood as one of the most effective means by which big business interests maintain power over the middle and working class.”
When some pharmaceutical companies increased prices, Trump tweeted that they “should be ashamed that they have raised drug prices for no reason. They are merely taking advantage of the poor & others unable to defend themselves. . . . We will respond!”
And of course the hallmark of our economic policy—a policy facing no meaningful resistance from the right—is government intervention into international trade. We need barriers against foreign competition, Trump insists. We have to shield American workers and American factories. The freedom of foreigners to enter the country and the freedom of Americans to hire them have to be restricted. Tariffs must be imposed on goods American want to buy, and domestic companies must be stopped from building plants abroad.
The right now accommodates Trump’s wishes—the wishes of an authoritarian, eager to use government force to implement his will. When General Motors, for example, announced the closing of a plant in Ohio, Trump told its CEO that the company “better damn well open a new plant there very quickly” and that “you’re playing around with the wrong person.”
When Trump was dissatisfied with Google’s search results on news about him, he tweeted that “they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. . . . This is a very serious situation—will be addressed!”
When he was irked by CNN’s news coverage of him, he called for the firing of its president. When he disliked the Washington Post’s criticism, he threatened Amazon (headed by Post owner Jeff Bezos) with higher postal rates and with antitrust prosecution. When Harley-Davidson announced its intent to move manufacturing facilities abroad, Trump tweeted: “Harley-Davidson should stay 100% in America, with the people that got you your success. I’ve done so much for you, and then this. . . . If they move . . . they will be taxed like never before!”
Trump revels in the opportunity, not just to exercise power, but to exercise it at whim. He is in his element as a manipulating wheeler-dealer—controlling international trade, tweeting policy changes, impulsively levying tariffs and granting exemptions, arbitrarily designating Canadian steel as a threat to national security.
Like any authoritarian, Trump motivates his adherents through demagogic emotionalism, not rational persuasion. In uttering his mantra to “make America great again,” he is oblivious to the philosophic source and nature of America’s original greatness. He has no inkling of the principle of individualism and of individual rights. Instead, adopting a variant of the collectivist “identity politics,” his message is that our greatness rests on keeping “outsiders” out. (See also “Trump and the Meaning of Egoism.”)
Yes, Trump has lowered taxes and eliminated some regulations. But that is not what energizes his supporters. That is not what represents to them their animating mission. Rather, their crusade is defined by Trump’s crude nativism. They want the government to curtail our dealings with the “outsiders.” The moral inspiration for the Trump enthusiasts is provided not by the ideal of freedom, but by the tenets of economic nationalism and by their leader’s command to “build the wall.”
His core constituency supports him unquestioningly. He calls them “my followers,” and they attend his rallies, vote for the candidates he endorses and give him the adulation he desperately seeks. They have helped him co-opt the right. The better Republicans have been driven out and the worst ones entrenched. The few, isolated defenders of a free market have nowhere to turn for political support. There is no significant faction fighting against Trump’s war on trade. Today, the right—the intellectual leaders and the mass followers—consists predominantly of nativists, who want to “make America great” by expanding the power of the state and regressing to the tribalism of centuries past.
If that is now the nature of the opposition, a successful battle against the collectivism of the left will have to await the appearance of a new, pro-capitalist right.