The Republican Workers Party:
How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed
by F. H. Buckley
Encounter Books, 2018, 208 pages
The Nationalist Revival:
Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization
by John B. Judis
Columbia Global Reports, 2018, 157 pages
On the shelf of academics’ memoir-manifestos, there will never be more than one Allan Bloom. Someone forgot to tell F. H. Buckley. Which is a shame because Buckley (unrelated to that Buckley) can be interesting. But the contours of his navel are not. The Republican Workers Party, summarized on its cover as “How the Trump victory drove everyone crazy, and why it was just what we needed” is probably better outlined as “How the whole Trump moment has given me an opportunity I’m capitalizing on and also here’s what I think the country needs.” Here’s what I think the country needs is a time-honored bar monologue topic that requires quite enough “I”s for any book sorted under political science. John B. Judis’s The Nationalist Revival, by contrast, addresses some similar themes from a mostly third-person point of view.
Buckley appears to think that readers can’t understand what he is saying until they understand who he is, and his book has more “I”s than the angels in the vision of Ezekiel. But perhaps he has a point: “I arrived in America in 1989, an immigrant from Canada. My America was the country of John Ford’s westerns.”1 Here on the very first page is a better summary of the book’s essence than what the publishing team at Encounter Books went with. Buckley came to America along with the collapse of Soviet Communism and the triumph of liberal American hegemony. He is Canadian. He is a nostalgist. Or, as he explains in other parts of the book, he considers himself a kind of anti-Soviet Marxist and likes nafta, though he thinks 1962 is about the last time America was great. The important thing, according to the book’s early pages, is to know that F. H. Buckley not only bought his MAGA train ticket long before most, he got in the train’s engine cab and chucked coal to keep things boiling.
If Buckley’s name doesn’t mean much to you—that is to say, if you have not been reading the American Conservative, American Spectator, or his books—you might have heard it because he wrote speeches for the Trump family, most notoriously for Donald Junior at the Republican National Convention, who was the second Trump family member accused of plagiarism, after Melania. Fear not, Buckley said—revealing himself as the writer of Junior’s speech—you cannot plagiarize yourself.
Or, it doesn’t count as plagiarism, because if it did Buckley would surely be in writer jail. When he says in the acknowledgements that “Portions of this book were taken from my writings” at more than a half-dozen outlets, it is the honest acknowledgment of—if you’ve read any of his work before—an obvious fact. In addition to his own person, Buckley has a particular set of things he wants to talk about and no qualms about repeating himself. Just be assured that long before you ever thought the president had a chance, “Trump and I had both arrived at the same conclusion, that the fundamental political issue was the betrayal of the American Dream in a newly immobile country.”2
Buckley is proud of what he calls his “Right-Wing Marxism” and frames it mostly in terms of class warfare: “I see America divided into different classes. . . . An aristocratic counter-revolutionary class is arrayed against a set of voters with a revolutionary consciousness who believe in the possibility of transformative change.”3 What’s disappointing, after all that big revolutionary talk, is where it is supposed to take everyone—Canada, apparently.
Buckley’s main prescriptions for a Republican Workers Party—the policies supposed to really stick it to the nefarious class interests turning the United States into a stratified society—mostly turn out to mean importing the parts of Canada he has come to miss since he left. The “if Trump wins I’m moving to Canada” whine from a certain kind of progressive in 2016—a boring repetition of the mostly-fabled Bush refugees—is reversed here. Canada, by the measures Buckley cites, succeeds in preserving social mobility, the essence of his American dream:
It isn’t hard to find the differences in political and economic policies that explain why Canada is so mobile. Canada offers more choice for parents in K-12 education, and its high school students are much better educated than ours. Second, it’s got a vastly superior immigration system, and Canadian immigrants are much less of a drag on mobility levels than are immigrants to America. Third, Canada is less heavily regulated than the United States. These are the policies that have made the difference, and in each case Trump proposes to mimic Canada.4
The fixation on Canada, along with being Canadian, leads Buckley to part ways with Trump on nafta and reserve judgment on trade deals in general. Which means that, his “Marxist” flourishes notwithstanding, much of the core of Buckley’s program exists elsewhere in the political discourse, and well within the mainstream.
School vouchers have been vouched for forever. Everyone thinks our public education system could be improved. National Review’s Reihan Salam has been trying to articulate sophisticated immigration reforms for the same social-mobility reasons as Buckley. Indeed, Salam has a whole book on the subject (and keeps the autobiography in it to his relevant experience as the son of Bengali immigrants). Deregulation for small businesses and the little guy, while often tied by the likes of Paul Ryan to deregulation for big businesses and the biggest guys, is conservative white bread. Meanwhile, Oren Cass has been leading the charge to build what could be described as a conservative labor movement, most notably in his book The Once and Future Worker (2018).
Buckley’s slightly more unusual suggestions, such as aggressively taxing elite colleges, changing student debt structures, moving federal agencies to other parts of the country, or readopting the spoils system, are hardly astounding. Matthew Yglesias can come up with as much. Where’s the radicalism? Where is the national service for citizenship requirement, or bringing the full weight of the federal apparatus to bear on Google, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, Monsanto? Where’s nation building in Mexico? Or even reconfiguring incentives on Wall Street?
At bottom, there is not much of a system to Buckley’s manifesto for a Republican Workers Party. It is, taken all together, mostly an attitude. How else does one reconcile a desire to build a new Canada, or the provocative, Caesar-sympathizing line “As far as bad ideas go, the separation of powers is up there with New Coke and Germany,”5 with a conservative greatest hit like “If America is great, it’s because of our Founders. If we once were great, and want to make America great again, it’s their dream we need to recapture, a dream of equality and freedom memorably restated in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln”?6 Or how does revolutionary politics and Marxism, albeit supposedly of a right-wing variety, get along with the stated goal of recapturing the coat of liberalism worn by the old Democratic Party, the one “of John F. Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Lionel Trilling”?7 Or the claim that “In the end the best inducement to moral living is a good job,”8 or that personal holiness is the final measure of a human life?
Buckley, who hardly wears his learning lightly, displays a propensity for the untranslated foreign bon mot and literary quotation throughout. But he seems as motivated by ressentiment as any of the high school dropouts pulled out of rustbelt bars by journalists trying to help grieving coast-dwellers move on from bargaining to depression.
I Told You So
Like Buckley in northern Virginia, the Silver Spring, Maryland–based John B. Judis also takes his opportunity to tell the rest of the Beltway intelligentsia I told you so: “In 1995, Michael Lind and I wrote a manifesto for the New Republic entitled ‘For a New Nationalism,’ where we warned against a politics increasingly shaped by private interests.”9 You all didn’t listen, Judis is too polite to say baldly, so here we are with President Donald Trump. And here am I, he seems to sigh, trekking across the country and the world to help you understand this. Part of Columbia University’s “Global Reports” series, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization looks like something you might pull out of a peacoat pocket, your collar popped against the wind, on the hazy—and getting hazier—borders of the liberal world order. Judis’s prose is unpretentious, crisp, and clean, 150 pages of journalism on the most repeated question of the political moment: What the hell is going on? Nationalism is on the rise, and the issue is not if this trend will continue but what kind should be ascendant.
If this book has an underlying political agenda, it is to identify and reclaim what is valid in nationalism—and of the liberal internationalism of the post–World War II generation—from both the cosmopolitan liberals who believe in a borderless world and from the right wing populists who have coupled a concern for their nation’s workers with nativist screeds against outgroups and immigrants.10
In the column of things that are good, there are borders, nations, cooperation, workers, and inclusivity—the postwar consensus of the late ’50s and early ’60s, but with racism and other bigotries somehow solved. On the other side there are cosmopolitans, globalism, the Right, and nativism. Populism sits awkwardly in the middle, often tied to the bad, but possibly necessary for the good. The book is mainly intended to be a work of descriptive reporting—with a perspective, sure, but also with the humility to see the gap between answers and execution. That still leaves a desire for a Newer Deal, a new American nationalism that sees itself for what it is according to Judis: a kind of “social psychology” that allows otherwise different people to all be part of an Us, an e pluribus unum that can support a feeling of reciprocity that takes the form of a national welfare state in America. The book talks about the world, too, as the title suggests, and Judis gives insightful summaries of what other nations of the earth have been up to since 1989, their various middle fingers given to history’s end.
Judis, more than Buckley, is trying to tell a story, to explain mass human action and not the unfathomable depths of himself. In his telling, everything that seems strange or dramatic or radical about this moment has been coming for some time. This story is most easily and commonly told in economic terms: in terms of trade deals and immigration policies, regulation and spending bills, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the World Trade Center, and in the Great Recession, each of those upheavals leaving people behind and disaffected to various degrees. But Judis sees culture at the heart of it. The rise of nationalism is not necessarily the rise of illiberalism, though illiberalism is on the rise, too. “The relevant polarity is not really between nationalists and liberals, but between nationalists and cosmopolitans. When Trump supporters blame America’s ills on liberals, they are generally talking about cosmopolitans.”11
These cosmopolitans are indeed citizens of the world, the professional elite who make their home in increasingly interchangeable international cities and work as managerial functionaries of the global economy. The fact that ascendant nationalism in this country and others has taken vulgarity and nativism as totems is, to Judis, psychologically understandable: “symptomatic of what Freud called the return of the repressed. This occurs when instinctual impulses—or in this case very ordinary nationalist sentiments—are completely blocked from expression because of their association with aberrant, ugly desires, only to return in their most primitive, brutal form.”12
In March of 1995, Judis and Michael Lind declared that “in both parties, nationalism and populism are embraced by the rank and file and rejected by the elites.” Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign prevailed, they said, because Clinton promised
a host of populist and nationalist reforms—putting able-bodied welfare recipients to work, curbing excessive salaries for CEOs, closing tax loopholes on foreign companies in the United States, ending tax incentives that reward U.S. companies for moving abroad, discouraging former U.S. officials from lobbying for foreign firms, attaching strong labor and environmental standards to nafta and getting tough on trade talks with Japan.13
Clinton, they wrote, “seemed to stand for an egalitarian nationalism rather than a sectarian multiculturalism.”
Of course, none of that came to pass. The Clintons succeeded in climbing fully into the clubhouse of global elites and didn’t need rank-and-file voters anymore. By contrast, Judis and Lind, at the time—and Judis now, in his book—promote a vision of politics based on the notion that “what government does must be judged by whether it benefits the great productive middle of our society.”
It was a winning campaign theme then and remains so. Their political inspiration is Theodore Roosevelt, for “America today faces a situation roughly analogous” to the one he faced: a country defined by antagonisms, “cities against suburbs, Northeast against Sunbelt, black against white.” Teddy’s answer, and theirs, is to recognize that democratic idealism is insufficient to unite the many, and that this country is part of a flexible and expandable “Western” and English-speaking tradition that creates “a common vernacular culture,” one that can adopt and be adopted. In their telling, a strong sense of nationalism, fostered by economic protection, national-interest foreign policy, and egalitarian social and welfare policies, creates the conditions for that cooperative exploration of the American identity.
That is all 1995, and yet it is all still very familiar. In the Nationalist Revival, narrating Donald Trump’s victory, Judis highlights the same unresolved issues. And the issues remain unresolved as he looks at President Trump’s dysfunction. They are things his fellow liberals cannot afford to ignore:
Trump and the right wing populists are not entirely wrong about the need to assert national sovereignty. Without national control over multinational corporations and banks and without control of borders and immigration, it is very hard to imagine the United States becoming a more egalitarian society with a generous safety net for those unable to work.14
This moment, which has stretched back to at least 1992, is a point of decision for the American people. Judis frames it in terms out of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. “Hegel used the term ‘Aufhenbung’ to refer to a process of historical transcendence by which a new stage of development is reached.”15 The dialectic of preservation and negation, of thesis and antithesis, becomes a new synthesis. Writes Judis, “The question about Trump is this: Will his successors be able to build upon his negation of what is obsolete in our current global arrangements to create a new order that will make depressions and wars unlikely?”16 That is the question, and Judis sets it up with care. The quibbles he invites in his historical interpretation are largely ones of emphasis, and typical for a man of the Left of his generation.
New Dealers Adrift
The matchup of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reminded America that, despite the technology-driven extension, amplification, and/or expansion (we are all still working on how to think of it) of mass media—and the accompanying paradigm shift from simple propaganda into full hyperreality—it is still basically a Boomer world and the rest of us just live in it. Reading F. H. Buckley and John B. Judis together does nothing to shake that resigned acknowledgment. They are remarkably similar, both white men of education and soft-handed occupation, about the same age (both born in the ’40s, Judis the elder), and semi-pro political-economists inclined to a mid-century liberalism that takes certain social-democratic assumptions and prescriptions for granted. Unexpectedly perhaps—though of course Judis’s New Republic and Talking Points Memo could never be described as radical—it is Buckley of team Right who comes across as the more dogmatic materialist, and who dismisses the state’s role in the stuff usually called social conservatism.
Judis would probably enjoy a beer with Buckley, if they ever got one. Perhaps they have had one. They would find they have much in common, thoroughly liberal as they are, two New Deal Democrats adrift. They have a blindspot in common, too. They may be right to have ignored it, as something well-past worth thinking about, but the United States is made up of united states. At least it was, at one point, a federal republic. A peculiarity of the growing pushback against the consuming spread of globalism has been an abandonment among figures in the mainstream of any defense of distributed responsibilities or distinct identities among the states. Nationalism, seen now as the bulwark against the ravages of capital and labor, has boxed federalism out of the conversation. The issue, as seen in pushes for abolishing the Senate and Electoral College, or in the increased use of referenda, is that the vast majority of the laws and structures that make America these United States are still in place, but people are unsure they want them. The swelling power of the presidency, executive bureaucracies, and Supreme Court is the product of accumulated workarounds, negations of what was initially a federal system. Perhaps the synthesis has been reached in an entirely centralized new nationalism and leftovers must be assessed for their utility to that project—the states may be kept as administrative units or for sentimental value. But we cannot know that till “We the People” actually talk about it.
Buckley and Judis’s myopia on this issue illustrates the temporal narrowness that limits our political discourse generally. The rejection of post-1989 decadence in the midst of its failures should send a would-be student of history further back in time than to a mostly mythic mid-century consensus. (At least Judis has seen back to Teddy Roosevelt.) Navigating the future that this country faces, with its challenges both foreign and domestic, known and unknown, will require more than the happy memories of its elders. Begging Santayana’s pardon, those who can only remember one past are condemned to their present. Or maybe to Canada.
This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published February 18, 2019.
2 Buckley, 27.
3 Buckley, 13.
4 Buckley, 75.
5 Buckley, 111.
6 Buckley, 154.
7 Buckley, 155.
8 Buckley, 137.
9 John B. Judis, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization (New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2018), 21.
10 Judis, 22.
11 Judis, 74.
12 Judis, 103.
14 Judis, 146.
15 Judis, 141.
16 Judis, 142.