Some observers ascribe racist and anti-business sentiments to proponents of a new nationalist political order, but such pejoratives distract from alternative and more plausible explanations for populism’s contemporary popularity…
There is much to commend in David Mr. Brooks’ latest op-ed, “The Coming War on Business,” but his assessment goes significantly astray from appraising accurately the current populist trends he designates as “Trumpism.” Mr. Brooks ascribes racist and anti-business sentiments to proponents of a new nationalist political order, but such pejoratives distract from alternative and more plausible explanations for populism’s contemporary popularity.
Mr. Brooks analyzes our contemporary political context through what he now sees as highly prescient writings from the pen of Sam Francis. A quarter-century ago, Francis argued that the defining political polarity of the future will no longer be liberal versus conservative or left versus right, but globalist versus nationalist or ruling class versus Middle America.
Francis saw the first incarnation of this polarity in Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s. In a 1996 article, he wrote that the Buchanan brigades represented “a battle over whether the nation itself can continue to exist under the onslaught of the militant secularism, acquisitive egoism, economic and political globalism, demographic inundation, and unchecked state centralism supported by the ruling class.”
David Brooks considers the Buchanan candidacy as “the first run at what we now know as Trumpian populism.” As such, Mr. Brooks applies Francis’ analysis of Mr. Buchanan to President Trump.
But it is here that Mr. Brooks’ analysis appears overly forced and arbitrary. After detailing economic and political insecurities characteristic of populist movements, Mr. Brooks randomly injects the “cancer” of Francis’ abject racism, citing the “open wound” that the Civil War posed for him and his circle. Mr. Brooks then projects this racism indiscriminately onto Trumpism and the populist tide in toto, even when evidence indicates that these trends largely transcend such racial maladies.
While capriciously pulling the race card, Mr. Brooks overlooks how the collapse of multiculturalism in the West has awakened not one but two forms of nationalism: ethnic and civic nationalism. The former involves loyalties to kin, race, and ethnicity, while the latter involves allegiance to the larger nation-state project, as is the case with Brexit and Vladimir Putin’s multiethnic Russia. The problem here is that critics of President Trump tend to conflate these two nationalisms, but they are quite different. For civic nationalists, the nation is a race; to be American is to belong to a peculiar people comprised of multiple ethnicities united by common traditions, customs, and culture. From this vantage point, race is inseparable from these uniting civic conventions, and President Trump’s speeches, often echoed by Brexit-leader Nigel Farage, consistently exemplify such commitments.
Mr. Brooks then goes on to contrast President Trump’s “pro-business” disposition and what he sees as an inevitable “anti-corporate” populism more akin to Francis’ thinking. After all, “Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple stand for everything Francis hated—economically, culturally, demographically and nationalistically.”
Mr. Brooks is right to ascribe an “anti-corporate” sentiment among populists, but this is not the same as being “anti-business.” In fact, Steve Bannon sees what he calls an “enlightened capitalism” at the heart of his political philosophy. Business, industry, and commerce are of course indispensable to rising material conditions. However, what animates populists is the distinctively detraditionalizing dynamics inherent in transnational corporations, which tend to eclipse localized cultures, traditions, and mores with translocal consumer-based lifestyle values. That political coffers are filled with proceeds from such corporatist arrangements only exacerbates the detraditionalizing process.
In the face of threats to a sense of place, identity, and security, populations tend to reassert historic identity and security markers, such as religion, custom, and tradition as mechanisms of resistance against secular globalization’s anti-cultural anti-traditional dynamics. Hence, the contemporary concerns over globalization are not apprehensions over business per se, but rather over highly detraditionalizing dynamics inherent in transnational corporation-based economies and lifestyles. Economic nationalism promises to promote business interests while protecting a populations’ defining customs and traditions, which in turn provide the very civic conventions that unite the nation into a single coherent race.
David Brooks is correct: Francis’ worldview certainly illuminates many of the dynamics coalescing around contemporary populist currents. But Francis’ worldview has both its flaws and its limitations. Tens of millions of populists never read Francis, but they do feel the adverse effects of a collapsing multiculturalism and detraditionalizing corporatist globalism. Analysts of the nationalist-populist wave ought to avoid ascribing racial and economic pejoratives as operative motives, especially when other civic and re-traditionalist alternatives provide more plausible motivation, indeed the inspiration, for inaugurating a new political order.
See Mr. Brooks’ essay here.
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