by Julien Fernandez
Much has been made of the idea that the GOP and the American conservative movement in general are currently in the midst of an ideological “civil war” which began the moment Donald Trump left office. Supposedly, the Paul Ryan fusionist ideology of the GOP establishment is battling a new Trumpian populism, both intellectually and electorally. If such a civil war was ever really under way, it was over by 2016. Trump is overwhelmingly popular with the GOP base, and would capture the 2024 nomination effortlessly. Outside of National Review columns and CNN panels, NeverTrumpers are basically nonexistent, and even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) now feels the need to adopt the Trump brand to stay politically relevant. The civil war is over. The “populists” won.
What is more contentious, however, is the question of what exactly is this new conservative populism. For some, it seems that “MAGA populism” is just an aesthetic, with little substance behind the veil. There also exists, however, a class of conservative pundits and intellectuals who appear to be dedicated to a new “populist” conservative consensus, but one that is quite different from what Trump’s 2015 supporters might have imagined.
This post-Trump Right—and, for lack of a better term I will call them the “post-liberals”—is defined by an intellectual opposition to liberalism, from its 17th century inception to its current iteration as “neoliberalism,” as well as by an advocacy of multicultural “conservative working-class politics.” As I will argue, post-liberals misunderstand both the current Western political establishment as well as the Trump movement, and adopting such a definition of populism would be a political dead-end.
Neoliberalism is an almost universally reviled concept that has been increasingly popularized among post-liberals (and political science departments in general it seems) over the past few years. Politics are necessarily descriptive before they can ever be normative, and “neoliberalism” is without question one of the top contenders for the very key task of defining the current “system,” competing with others such as “the Cathedral,” “The American Regime” or “The Globalist American Empire.” Each of these terms have strong connotations that greatly influence how dissidents view the establishment. If one can accurately categorize an enemy, one can more effectively understand and combat it. Unfortunately, the term “neoliberalism” is one that obscures more than it illuminates, and, as previously stated, those who use it fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Western economic and political consensus of the past few decades.
If one reads enough about “neoliberalism,” one will quickly pick up on two things. Firstly, unlike beauty, neoliberalism actually exists in the eye of the beholder. Depending on who you ask, neoliberalism can mean woke Clinton centrism, evil CIA-backed South American dictatorships, or a sort of radical hyper-capitalism. Secondly, neoliberalism seems to always be defined negatively. This is not a new phenomenon, as the modern usage of the term emanates from 1980s and 1990s leftist sociologists and economists who used it almost exclusively as a slur against any negative externality of economic globalization (a term that surprisingly has lost all of its previous negative connotations in left-wing circles), free-market reforms, authoritarian capitalism, and American imperialism. At worst, neoliberalism is therefore a played-out, vague leftist term of abuse.
Neoliberalism did once have an actual definition, though it bears little resemblance to the ones post-liberals give it. Far from being a return to the laissez faire of the 19th century, neoliberalism, as coined by Alexander Rüstow at the 1938 Walter Lippmann Colloquium, was actually a strong rejection of the 19th-century order. Rather than argue for a minimal state, it now emphasized the necessity of a strong state and a social market economy that valued higher things than pure economic performance (a common good capitalist of sorts). This school of economics had very little influence outside of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, where they are now commonly known as “ordoliberals.” In any case, nothing very relevant to 21st-century America.
What neoliberalism’s right-wing detractors actually imagine it to be is a sort of hawkish liberal-tarianism. A system that is hyper-individualistic, pro-free trade and pro-immigration, ruled by Friedmanites who want to spread the gospel of American capitalism with tanks and bombs, that hates both the welfare state and social conservatism, and that at its heart seeks to atomize societies out of economic interest and greed. It is, according to post-liberals, the logical conclusion of the 17th century liberalism of many of the founding fathers.
Perhaps such “neoliberals” exist, and there would be much to criticize in such a system. But whatever its flaws, it is ultimately very different from what has been the actual political consensus in America and Western Europe for much of the 20th and 21st century. In what “neoliberal” country would government spending reach 44 percent of its GDP (about half of which being social spending)? The reality is that America is not a neoliberal country. In fact, it hasn’t even really been a liberal country in quite a while.
After Liberalism: The Politics of Resentment
The supposed continuity between 19th-century “classical” liberalism and modern 20th and 21st-century “social” liberalism is often assumed uncritically by post-liberals. As Paul E. Gottfried notes in After Liberalism, this is little more than a voluntary semantic confusion. Gottfried outlines that Anglo-American democratic reformers of the early 20th century, more concerned with equality, socially planned progress, and social justice than freedom and bourgeois morality, adopted the “liberal” moniker in order to gain legitimacy. Their real goal was, in the words of social democratic activist Alfred Bingham, a “New Society based on planning.”
Thus began the slow killing of the old bourgeois liberal order by the ever-growing managerial state throughout the West, with its planners selectively wielding mass democracy in order to limit previously absolute rights and freedoms, in the name of progress and social justice. Whereas the bourgeois liberal order combined economic freedom with Victorian morality and high bourgeois elitism, administered mass democracy—brought to power thanks to the growing working and underclasses—openly embraced material equality and individual self-expressiveness as goals. In opposition to bourgeois self-restraint, administered mass democracy is founded on self-actualization through hedonism, now made possible thanks to growing mass production and consumption. As Gottfried succinctly summarizes, the ethos of mass democracy is “a ceaseless desire for consumption combined with resentment against those who have more access to pleasure.”
If nominal artifacts of old bourgeois liberalism remain, such as free trade and mechanisms of a market economy, they are no longer the logical consequences of absolute principles of freedom and property, they are utilitarian means towards the end of increased consumption promised by the social planners. Despite supposed “conservative revolutions” in western countries throughout the 80s, this new consensus has never really challenged. Even under the supposed return to laissez faire liberalism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, we saw only very small cuts to welfare spending and even an increase in public administration overall.
It is this mass democratic ethos, and not bourgeois liberalism, that defines our present politics, and it is this egalitarian resentment that has been skillfully employed by the rising managerial class to increase its power and control over society. Every new aggrieved population is yet another justification for more intervention, more planning, more programs, more “education,” more control in the name of progress.
Unlike what some “anti-woke” leftists like to claim, the Left hasn’t changed much throughout the 20th century. It simply went from exploiting the material resentment of the working class, to exploiting the resentment of underperforming racial and sexual “others” starting in the 60s (blacks, women, sexual minorities etc.). As Christopher Caldwell notes in The Age of Entitlement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act became the justification for ever-increasing efforts in social engineering and a massive expansion in public administration.
Those who now decry the evils of “woke capital” should understand that this phenomenon was not endogenous. “Wokeness” was not created by a class of rootless capitalists seeking to atomize populations in order to increase profits. It is instead the result of an exponentially growing managerial class dedicated to ending any “inequities” and “discriminations” that eventually spilled out from state into the private sphere, where it now festers in HR departments, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consulting services, or Chief Diversity Offices. All throughout this period, the enemy of the new managerial class has not changed. It is and has always been the historical middle class, the old guardians of the liberal order and bourgeois morality. It is the Middle American parents currently fighting back against the education bureaucrats teaching their children to hate them.
“Post-Liberalism”: An Inadequate Response
A common narrative among post-liberals is that Trump’s 2016 election was the result of a working-class movement and revolt against the establishment. While this analysis isn’t entirely wrong, it still remains that Trumpism was a fundamentally middle-class movement. Rather than learn the right lessons from Trump, “post-liberals” have decided to adopt a mix of class reductionism (the famous “multiracial working-class populism”) mixed with anti-liberal class warfare rhetoric (support for unions, opposition to “right-liberalism” and “neoliberalism”) and Catholic communitarianism (the very ahistorical “integralism”). This strange combination of beliefs is sure to fail, because it fundamentally misunderstands the Republican base and their needs. The post-liberals like to see themselves as the champions of some 1930s working class. The reality, however, is that the working class they imagine is just that: imaginary. As Scott Greer notes in Revolver News, unions are far from friendly to populist conservatives. Outside of police and firemen unions, one is hard-pressed to find any real example of conservatism within organized labor. One is also hard-pressed to find many “integralists” in historically protestant America, including among current American Catholics, half of whom voted for Biden, a plurality of which supports abortion (even more so among the “naturally conservative” Hispanics), and over 90 percent of whom support birth control.
Beyond the misunderstandings of the Republican base, the solutions offered by post-liberals are far from enthusing. How could they be? To a population that cares primarily about culture and identity, they offer “industrial policy” and class reductionism. To people who overwhelmingly support capitalism, they offer crypto-leftist support for unions and opposition to the principles of economic liberalism. To people who just want others to get off their lawns so they can be free to live in pleasant, crime-free neighborhoods, they offer snide disdain for the “atomization of suburbia.” Most importantly, to people who desire freedom from the encroaching managerial class, they offer an even more administrative state (but Catholic).
This is probably why post-liberal champion Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) currently poll lower than arch-neocon Nikki Haley in the 2024 primary. Why have many on the Right adopted this new class warfare rhetoric? Who knows? Some, like Michael Lind of American Affairs, were really always of the Left, an older Left which has been rendered obsolete by the more relevant narratives of identity politics. For others though, it seems like an attempt to beat the Left at their own game and reclaim the “mass vs. elite” narrative that is increasingly abandoned by American liberals. “Democrats are the real classists” if you will.
When Sohrab Ahmari tweets about “the legitimating structures used by the owners of capital” or how “class analysis is your friend,” he tries to rhetorically out-Left the Left (a republican tradition at this point), maybe because adopting old leftist rhetoric is safer than having to address the culture and identity issues that animate the Trump base.
Middle-Class Populism: the Politics of “Normalcy”
The folk libertarianism of middle America ought not be confused with the ideology of the modal libertarians or market worshippers of D.C. think tanks. Furthermore, my criticisms of post-liberalism should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Paul Ryan conservatism, or as a belief that we can (or should) ever go back to the old liberal order. Simply, rather than an anti-liberal ideological movement, the post-Trump conservative movement should be a clear rejection of ideology, and a full-throated defense of normalcy and normal people. This is in my view the best route for conservatives: embracing the politics of “normalcy.” Rather than sink into anti-liberal intellectualism, conservatives should simply always be supporting policies that benefit their natural constituency: the historical American middle class.
A middle-class populist conservatism, politics by and for normal people, would be incredibly popular. It would also have simple, popular policy prescriptions. First, the GOP should fight for the middle class with no-nonsense economic pragmatism. Trade protectionism, legal and illegal immigration restrictions, and tax cuts (for the right people) don’t have to be in opposition to one another, and all are popular in red states. Secondly, Republicans should offer a full-throated defense of the historic American nation, the American way of life, and our traditions. This should be done not only by promoting the patriotic assimilation of immigrants, but also by effectively combating attacks on Middle America such as “antiracism” or unfair affirmative action policies by reestablishing meritocracy and offering a positive vision of America and its historical heroes in public education. Thirdly, against a Left that seeks to defund the police, the GOP should find allies in local police unions, emphasizing that the only free America is a safe America.
Finally, while the middle class might never embrace traditional Catholicism, they still overwhelmingly reject the cultural excesses of the Left such as “drag queen story hour,” minors irreparably mutilating themselves in “gender transitions,” and late-term abortions. Campaigns seeking to ban all three of these things would be very successful if not inexplicably tied to anti-liberal and anti-protestant rhetoric in D.C. circles.
With a radicalized Left and the political activation of over 70 million Trump supporters, the Right has a unique opportunity to recapture this country. Let us not squander it by embracing outdated leftist rhetoric.
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