I happened upon a left-leaning website the other day (sure, I read them) and read that “right wing voters love Donald Trump.”
Actually, we don’t.
Last weekend, I spoke at a panel at CPAC, a large national conservative gathering in Washington DC. Oh, I thought I was going to be brave. I resolved to let the chips fall where they may and boldly denounce Trump if given the chance. And I did. The subject was free speech and I said that Trump’s proposal to “open up” the libel laws so powerful politicians like him could sue their critics was antithetical to everything we believe in.
Huge applause. Turns out I wasn’t being so brave after all.
The only thing that really surprised me was the near uniformity and intensity of the anti-Trump sentiment. It is a running joke among movement conservatives and libertarians that, like Pauline Kael who knew no one who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, we don’t know anybody who is supporting this guy. In fact, it seems that everyone we know not only does not support Trump, they can’t stand him.
But it makes perfect sense. In my view, the principle difference between the left and right in the United States has been over the extent to which the state ought to manage the life of its citizens. When should it take money from one group of citizens and give it to another? How closely should it manage economic activity? What steps should it take to control discourse and attitudes? It has been about the relative values we attribute to, on the one hand, freedom and equality before the law and, on the other, more political decision-making and greater equality of result.
Of course, these differences are between points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In general, people like me are more skeptical of the need for state interventions and very pessimistic about the government’s ability to successfully accomplish them. I appreciate that some positions taken by social conservatives complicate the matter, but not as much as it might seem and less so today than in the past. But that’s a topic for another time.
Donald Trump, of course, isn’t skeptical of government interventions or of collective control determined by politics at all– at least not if Trump is in charge. He almost never talks about freedom or limited government. He flirts with single payer health care and loves eminent domain for private purposes. He wants to intervene in global markets with tariffs and trade wars. He wants to regulate speech. He has a capacious view of both executive and federal power. He is the quintessential crony capitalist.
This is why we think he’s closer to the Democrats than he is to us. That’s not surprising either. He’s been one most of his life.
This is not to say that Trump is a man of the left. He transcends the dominant political divide in the United States, although not in a good way. What Trump represents is something that has not been strong in American politics, but has become increasingly present in Europe. He wants to change the Republican Party to something that is more nationalist and nativist; more collectivist and authoritarian. To use a British example, he wants it to be less like the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and more like today’s British National Party.
One might call this “right-wing” – in Europe they do – but it would be a fundamental reorientation of the American political spectrum. A Trump Republican party might be attractive to many Democrats but it would be repulsive to many current Republicans. I thought of this on Friday night while watching the disruption around a Trump rally in Chicago. It seemed like something we haven't seen since the rending of the Democratic Party in 1968. The way in which both sides seemed fully enveloped in politics as salvation seemed foreign. We don't do angry mobs in America - at least not lately.
As much as I dislike him, Trump is not comparable to Hitler. Sanders is not like Lenin, Castro, Mao or any of the other monsters of the left. But the angry and public confrontations between large groups of partisans reminded me of German politics in the run-up to Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship. That was a time in which the center did not hold and politics was fought in the streets as well as with the ballot box.
Of course, we don’t have running battles between the Sturmabteilung and Rote Front – at least not yet. But Friday night seemed like something we haven’t seen for a long time. We’ve got reports that a Trump operative attacked a reporter. We have a candidate who calls on supporters to “beat the crap” out of people who might be “getting ready” to throw a tomato. We have organized efforts to shut down opposing political rallies. We have fights between protesters and Trump supporters.
On Friday night, it seemed to me that both groups – the authoritarian “right” (if that’s the term we want to use for Trump) and the authoritarian left – are equally unattractive. After the Trump rally was cancelled, the collection of BlackLivesMatter and Sandernistas chanted that “this is what democracy looks like.”
No, actually it isn’t. What I saw last night looked like something else altogether. Let’s hope we don’t see much more of it.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.