|Trump as Critic: The Need for a Greatness Agenda|
A case can be made that the United States has followed a fairly coherent set of economic, foreign, and domestic social policies since the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Those policies are the reduction of government involvement in the private sector economy both domestically and internationally, the rallying of an armed coalition of democracies to maintain a world that is ‘safe for democracy,’ and a rolling-back of failed Great Society-era anti-poverty measures and anti-anti-crime legal decisions. These policies and organizing ideas, which won the Cold War in the 1980s when they were employed by Reagan, defeated inflation and revived the economy when they were employed by Fed Chairman Volcker and Reagan (also in the 1980s), and cleaned up the streets of America in the 1990s when they were to some extent adopted by the administration of President Bill Clinton (and by mayors, governors, and judges around the country), were extremely successful. They addressed important challenges that the United States faced and pushed back against harmful but prevalent tendencies in all late modern and postmodern democracies. They were important in their time. But we now need something new.
This policy agenda became a victim of its own success in the 2000s, a decade during which it seemed (we now know mistakenly) that all of the important questions could be addressed by what by then had devolved into policy catechisms based on the Reagan agenda. In the 2000s, it seemed that foreign policy was as easy as ‘fighting tyrannies and promoting democracy’, that economic policy was as easy as pursuing ‘private sector solutions’ (the "ownership society"), and that all that was left to do (or that could be accomplished) in the field of social policy was the nomination of sound judges. How wrong that turned out to be. The 2000s culminated in an economic depression in 2008; the Arab Spring in 2011 proved to be the beginning of a brutal sectarian upheaval across the Middle East; and even urban crime and drug addiction appears to be on the uptick in recent years
The events of the past decade, particularly the Arab Spring (or, more accurately, Arab Thirty Years War) and the financial crisis and its aftermath, should have caused conservatives, who are the originators of and torch bearers for this set of policies, to reexamine their ideas. However, their failure to do so has led directly to their present political confusion and could very well destroy conservatism as a political force for the foreseeable future.
After all, the George W. Bush administration’s ‘democracy agenda’ in Iraq combined with the Barack Obama administration’s pursuit of its version of that agenda in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, resulted in the degeneration of the region it was supposed to reform into a barbarous civil war (identified as comparable to the Thirty Years War first by David Goldman, then Walter Russell Mead, and finally adopted as conventional wisdom by Richard Haas). No doubt the Max Boot crowd would complain that Obama has not continued the Bush policies with sufficient vigor, and that the region might be stable with more U.S. boots on the ground. While impossible to completely disprove such a hypothetical, its (thoroughly unqualified and discredited) proponents continually ignore the most important weaknesses of their argument: Namely, anyone with actual experience in Iraq and Afghanistan knows that robust U.S. involvement has accomplished very little in the way of stabilization or good governance, and that many of the U.S. policies hailed as the 'Surge' contributed (at least indirectly) to the rise of ISIS (significant portions of ISIS equipment is captured US materiel, among other things).
Moreover, our latter-day Wilsonians have never confronted or even grasped the Westphalian difficulties and contradictions at the heart of their position--that they are attempting to build 'democracy' in states that are not--and never will be--nations and among peoples that hate each other for reasons having nothing to do with parliamentary procedure. The logical extension of the 'Max Boots on the ground' position would have the U.S. fully occupying not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but Syria, Libya, Yemen, and probably Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and eventually everywhere else, futilely 'building capacity' among populations who hate us all the more for it, while doubtless suppressing the only group welcoming US involvement (the Kurds). Yet after all its failures, conservatives have offered no other policy goal than the democracy agenda, hoping only to disguise the bankruptcy of its purposes by muddying actual policy prescriptions in vague, incoherent proposals (boots on the ground but only 'training missions' while carpet bombing but not really, etc.).
Meanwhile, the economic policies of the George W. Bush administration were at a minimum blind to the decay and stagnation of the U.S. economy during the 2000s, culminating in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. (No, of course the financial crisis cannot be blamed solely on Bush, but his credulous cheerleading of the " Ownership Society" indicates that his administration had no clue of what was actually going on in the economy.) The continuation by Obama of the policy response to the Great Recession initiated during the Bush administration – at first fiscal ‘stimulus spending’ combined with an interest rate of zero – may have provided a palliative form of treatment to the economy but has not revived it. In many respects, the country has experienced not just a lost decade but two of them.
Instead of asking themselves ‘what went wrong?’, however, conservative political leaders, intellectuals, think tanks, academic programs, political magazines, newspaper writers, and talk radio hosts have barreled ahead unimpeded (with a few exceptions) as though the 2000s hadn’t happened – or had been a success.
Liberals have been even worse, either believing that a return to the failed policies of the 1970s would right the country’s course (this is the Obama/Krugman/Kerry/Warren/Yellen/Coates/Moveon.org/Sotomayor/Misha Brezsinksi approach, to say nothing of Bernie Sanders) or that the managerial competence of a team composed of Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, and the ghost of Richard Holbrooke channeled by Richard Haas would do a better job of implementing Reagan’s policies than George W. Bush or Barack Obama did, with the luck of Bill Clinton, inheritor of the post-Cold War dividend of the 1990s, standing as their credential.
The leaders of both the Democrat and Republican parties are in effect promoting the things that had worked for them in the past – but which stopped working by the start of the new millennium. This is true beyond their respective interests in nominating a Clinton or a Bush to run for president. Economic growth through tax reforms, infrastructure spending, a more rational and fair corporate tax code, regulatory changes that reduce healthcare costs incrementally, a more coherent Middle East policy that rebuilds fraying alliances and undoes the Obama administration’s damage there, etc.; though some of these policies might be wise or even needed, their implementation wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. The country’s economy would still be growing at its slowest rate ever. Its foreign relations would still be conducted using the paradigms that led the United States to be the only ‘unipolar’ superpower ever to exist since late Rome that couldn’t win wars. China would still be arming itself against the United States while the United States contracts out the assembly of its highest technology products to China. And, inevitably, to use a phrase that Donald Trump might favor, these economic and foreign policies would in all likelihood be conceived of in their details and implemented in practice by the same set of losers who spent the last two decades eroding America’s stature.
While we are much more circumspect about the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump than some (though not all) of the contributors, editors, contributing editors, and board members of the Journal of American Greatness, we applaud the fact that Trump’s candidacy has shown the bankruptcy of the Clinton/Bush policies and has opened up political space to perhaps set the country on a new course. Even David Brooks has figured out that the American ‘idea guys’ will need new ideas following 2016, and this will be true if Trump is denied the Republican candidacy at the Republican convention or if Trump loses a national election. (Perhaps it will be even more true under those circumstances.) For one might question Trump’s style, Trump’s motives, Trump’s record, Trump’s temperament and character, and Trump’s ‘proposals’ (to which we give quotation marks as they seem to be either off-the-cuff suggestions more than proposals or bombastically stated proposals of conventional wisdom such as the need for investment in border security or rehashings of health policy talking points generated at the AEI and Heritage Foundation). But it is much harder to criticize Trump the critic.
Trump the critic is the first presidential candidate from either party to find him or herself in a front-runner position as a result of criticizing both the foreign policy and economic policy of the post-Cold War United States. Trump’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy is probably his boldest and most original political gambit. In particular, Trump has claimed that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake and that the war was lost. It was a mistake in his telling because, to quote Trump, Saddam Hussein “was a 10 at catching terrorists.” It was lost, in Trump’s telling, because America “didn’t take the oil”. This might be an inaccurate assessment of Saddam Hussein, who didn’t himself shy away from funding terrorists and using them as tools of state and who was clearly an opportunistic enemy of America and its allies. However it speaks to a more general critique that most Americans have come to intuitively understand but which no one has dared articulate: America’s Middle East wars have not even attempted to pursue a coherent national interest, and have tended to put abstract goals which border on the fantastical, such as ‘democratizing the Middle East’, ahead of concrete goals, either economic or security-related. Trump, in claiming that America imprudently attacked the enemy of its enemy and got nothing in return, is conducting the discourse surrounding American foreign policy on an altogether different, and more solid, basis than it has been conducted at least by the last three U.S. administrations – even if he is doing so using facts and logical leaps that are sometimes suspect or wrong.
Trump has similarly said the unsayable with respect to the U.S. economy. Though much maligned for referring to the U.S. economy as “a bubble economy,” there is truth in Trump’s assessment. The past three U.S. economic expansions have featured extraordinary financial bubbles: the tech bubble of the 1990s, the housing bubble of the 2000s, the commodities bubble of more recent years, and in all likelihood, a corporate debt (or at least "buyback") bubble at present. While financial bubbles may be a perpetual aspect of financial markets and capitalist life, the absence of much in the way of non-bubble economic activity in the U.S. over the past two decades has been alarming. The 1990s bubble at least brought with it a tremendous investment in information technology that boosted American productivity as well as introducing new and at least modestly impressive technologies into daily life. However the housing bubble of the 2000s literally bequeathed nothing to the United States (save perhaps the McMansion as an architectural style), and the commodities bubble has had little impact on the broader economy beyond cyclical natural resources investment, other than perhaps impetus to motivate the adoption of battery-powered cars.
More recently, corporate investment in machinery and equipment as well as software or other intellectual property is at all time low rates. Stock market valuations have to a surprisingly large extent been driven by corporations taking advantage of low interest rates not to invest but to engage in stock buybacks and other "shareholder friendly" measures. If not as dramatic as subprime lending in 2006, there remains an unmistakeably bubbly quality to the economy of 2016. The corporate debt bubble which America is likely now experiencing will have had few lasting results other than a change in the capital structures of large U.S. companies and perhaps lingering effects of underinvestment in new technology and productive assets. The net has been that the economy of the U.S. will likely soon finish its weakest expansion dating back to the Great Depression. It seems highly unlikely that this feature of the U.S. economy will be changed by way of a policy which, for instance, reduces tax rates on capital gains.
Trump suggests that the solution is trade policy, and points to the greatest blindside of both liberals and conservatives: China. China played a very significant role in fomenting the recent financial crisis. Yes, the center of the financial crisis was the American housing sector, but the Americana housing sector was inflated because global interest rates were suppressed, and global interest rates were suppressed because, among other causes, the People’s Bank of China was pegging its exchange rate to the U.S. dollar, accruing literally trillions of United States Dollars to maintain that peg, and investing those dollars in U.S. Treasury securities, thus ‘artificially’ reducing the cost of borrowing – including mortgage costs. The Republicans have simply never raised this issue – and may not be aware of it. In terms of more conventional trade policy, the Chinese government restricts access to its markets while availing itself of American and to a lesser extent European adherence to free trade principles in order to access developed markets. In its international commercial affairs, China pursues a mercantilist policy with much of the developing world, paying for its exports of finished products often with the help of aggressive government subsidized export financing or debt financing for large mergers. The American response has been to essentially ignore these developments, guided by an ideological view that the invisible hand always acts for the best, and thus, in trying to distort prevailing trade and financial patterns through the use of devices such as export financing and currency pegging, China must be costing itself something. In this way, the Republican policy regarding China amounts to rearming America against China while allowing the current one-way trade flow, whereby American technology transfers to China along with American capital, to continue unabated. The Democrats, with their ‘pivot to Asia’, want the same policy only with a cheaper investment in the military. While Trump’s remarks do not lend confidence that he has an adequate or even basic grasp of the issues surrounding the means that China has employed to achieve its economic rise, he has nonetheless (shockingly) sounded more credible than politicians of either Democrat or Republican stripe simply by raising the fact that China is “winning” in its dealings with the world and that America is thus “losing” to China.
We personally make less of Trump’s discussion of the U.S. border than do some others at the Journal of American Greatness. Yes, Trump has done well by promising to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border and by discussing South American illegal immigrants in terms that could, at their most charitable to Trump, be described as prejudicial (though we suspect much of the popularity of this prejudice is motivated less by 'racism' and more by the sense that people and communities are not merely undifferentiated economic units and have the right to determine whom their fellow citizens will be and how many to admit). But the fact of the matter is that aside from the bombastic way in which Trump discusses border security, most of his proposals regarding border security are similar to practices discussed and even initiated as recently as the first Obama administration. For example, there already is a wall between the U.S. and Mexico along some small length of the border. Similarly, the deportation of illegal immigrants is law – and was acted on by the relevant authorities up to the limit of the means at their disposal until the second Obama administration. Even taxing remittances is not a new or exclusively Republican plank.
If Trump is touching something fundamental in his discussion of immigration policy and border policy, it is with his clearly impossible to enact claim that he will bar Muslims who leave the United States from returning to the United States. Interestingly, this proposal speaks not to concerns about conventional immigration issues (i.e. an influx of cheap labor) but rather to the ineffectual manner in which America’s Middle East policy has been conducted and to broader concerns regarding Islamic terrorism. By naming Islam as the enemy of the United States, Trump takes a much more radical step than did say George W. Bush, for whom Islam was famously a religion of peace. The implicit criticism of current policy embedded in Trump’s proposal is that the Western countries, and at their head the United States, have been unwilling to accept that the Islamic world is at war with them.
These claims, taken together, are an attack against the orthodoxy of the United States political establishment, both Republican and Democrat, for the past 25 years. The criticism is particularly painful for conservatives. After all, what conservative would dispute that America’s policy with respect to China has been weak? What conservative would assert that America’s Middle East policy has shown adequate mettle? And what honest person can assert that the country’s economic and foreign affairs have fared well since 2000? The conservatives blame the Obama administration. They lack the intellectual honesty to also blame themselves.
And yet they should. Why would anyone believe that the Kagan family knows anything about winning wars after the experience of the last fifteen years? Why should anyone trust that Glen Hubbard knows anything about the management and direction of the U.S. economy after the experience of Hubbard’s tenure as the Chairman of the Council of Economic advisors for George W. Bush?
Examine their political ideas: the predominant foreign policy idea that conservatives currently hold remains ‘democracy promotion’ even after discovering the meaninglessness of democracy promotion in Iraq let alone Afghanistan or Libya. Yet the challenges that America faces no longer pertain to rallying democracies against a non-democracy. In the Middle East, the pursuit of an imitation of that policy has resulted in less freedom and less democracy, and the ascendency of the country in the region whose policy is most averse to American interests and safety – Iran. And yet, even now, the likes of Robert Kagan continue to agitate for America to cut off diplomatic ties and military support for Egypt due to undemocratic actions by its military government – as though a more democratic and more Muslim-Brotherhood-influenced Egypt would somehow be in America’s interest.
The best ideas that conservative economic thinkers have, to the extent that any conservatives even bother to learn math and statistics at this point, are to change tax rates modestly despite the fact that changes of that nature during the Bush administration did nothing to increase domestic rates of investment or productivity. (In fact, both are much lower now (and were much lower during the 2000s) then they were before.) In the realm of monetary policy, the few technically able Republican economists who are out there either believe that Janet Yellen is marshaling an inadequately accommodative monetary policy (i.e. they want more QE) or advocate populist anachronisms such as a return to the gold standard in order to attract grants from the less technically adept in the business community. None even bother asking fundamental questions regarding how monetary policy should respond to a global financial system that has been changed by China.
There is one school among conservatives which claims to have identified the devolution of conservative economic and social thinking into sloganeering and tropes – the so-called reform conservatives, or ‘reformicons.’ But a detailed study of their policy journals such as National Affairs yields little to no bounty. They provide a mix of technical suggestions (say a more effective way of administering student loans), back slapping (celebrations of America’s ‘oil abundance’ or critiques of liberal judges), barely-dusted-off decades-old conservative hobby horse policy remedies (for instance, replacing social security with personal investment accounts), and some saccharine liberal coating (a ‘jobs agenda’ that includes subsidies for people who need to move in order to find work). The extent to which this so-called new school of thought hews to conservative orthodoxies – and moreover, predictable orthodoxies – and finds its innovation in compromise with long-ago discredited liberal remedies is proof that there may not be very much reforming that can be done.
The poverty of the ideas that American conservatives now martial is to some extent a function of the earlier success of those same ideas. The American conservative movement’s intellectual and policy agenda was fulfilled by the late 1990s when Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform. The victory of this agenda in American life caused a herding of moneyed people towards its intellectual creators. The American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and sundry other once-sources of conservative policy ideas became too large and too interested in maintaining substantial inflows of donations to be capable of acting with intellectual daring (the curse of the so-called donor class, the members of which are often more intellectually daring then the intellectuals whom they fund).
What’s worse, a generation (or perhaps two generations by now) of strivers have arrived to try to populate these organizations, and in the process of repeating orthodoxies in order to get jobs and assume a place in this small-time money/fame machine (if Washington is Hollywood for the ugly, what are Washington think tanks?), they have eroded whatever intellectual creativity the institutions may have been capable of bringing forth. As a general rule, no think tank should be allowed to operate for more than a decade or two. And yet…
This sad state of affairs has meant that what have passed for new conservative ideas (new conservatism, that self-conscious contradiction again!) have been nothing better than at best naïve recapitulations of the principles and ideas that animated the resuscitation of America’s economic and military power in the 1980s – misapplied to the point of devolving into a parody of the original ideas.
Trump, even in his incoherence, has cast a light onto this failure. When Trump tells the New York Times that Operation Iraqi Freedom “totally destabilized the Middle East,” he is saying something that is both obvious and heresy in the Republican Party. When he tells the Washington Post that the economy is a “bubble” because a decade of low interest rates have not succeeded in motivating businesses to borrow and invest, he is contradicting what passes for mainstream economic thinking by conservative economists. His critique of America’s “strong dollar” in the same breath alienates the know-nothing gold-standard-demanding mainstream among conservatives.
The strangest aspect of Trump’s assault on the conservatives has been the conservatives’ response. Essentially the conservatives’ response to Trump has been to claim that Trump is not conservative. The limitations of this response should be obvious: Trump is gaining popularity due to his critique of what has become the ‘conservative’ policy menu. Conservatives are for free trade and Trump denies that free trade exists. Conservatives are for replacing the regime of Bashar Assad with a more humane one, fighting ISIS, and are against supporting non-democrats in Syria. Trump denies that all of these things can be accomplished at once.
There is much that is demagogic about Trump’s criticism. He seems to have stumbled upon a set of criticisms that are popular more so than having originated a set of coherent ideas with which to, as he likes to say, make America great again. His few positive claims – that he will negotiate well on behalf of America, that he will revive the economy and make America safer through these negotiations, that he will build a wall to prevent illegal immigration – can seem unlikely or uninformed. But if they are unlikely or uninformed, they only point out the even greater weakness of the ideas that they have supplanted at least during this election campaign. The fact that Trump’s candidacy appeals to so many voters despite the tenuous or provisional nature of so many of Trump’s positive claims should only further show conservatives how weak their position is.
In demonstrating the inutility of the contemporary conservative economic and foreign policy playbook, Trump’s candidacy has shown the way forward for a thorough renovation of the conservative movement – or its replacement with something else. Some here at the Journal of American Greatness have referred to this way forward using terms that invoke Trump’s name, but our personal preference is for the phrase “the greatness agenda.”
The animating idea behind the greatness agenda should be as follows: The founding principles of the United States allowed it to conquer the North American continent and become the preeminent country in the world. The United States must hew to those principles in order to retain its preeminence.
The greatness agenda should focus on a few areas:
a) An American-interests based foreign policy
b) An American-interests based international commercial policy
c) A reworking of America’s commercial relations with China
The greatness agenda should also be against a number of things:
a) In foreign policy, it should be critical of Middle East policy over the past 20 years and openly critical of the George W. Bush administration.
b) In economic policy it should deny that ‘free trade’ exists, and instead more honestly describe trade negotiations as a pursuit of national interests.
c) It should generally adopt a ‘telling it like it is’ mode of communication that in and of itself is critical of the categories of political discourse that are currently employed by mainstream politicians.
This should be the new policy mix for the United States, and it should fit into the Republican Party. Advancing this policy agenda may perhaps require a new figurehead for the Republican Party, one who has not been implicated in the foreign policy failures of the 2000s and who has the intellectual flexibility to go beyond the economic policy ideas of the 1980s. But what’s wrong with that? Do not all functioning republics require an ability to change their leaders, to bring in new blood? Was not our republic designed to change its President regularly just for that reason? Is that not why Americans are justifiably suspicious of the political dynasties that attempted to lay preemptive claim to Presidency in 2016?
Policies need to change to fit the times. What was good about what was called ‘conservatism’ in America in the 1980s and 1990s was not its ideological purity, but rather, the fact that it was right. However what were once original and important ideas devolved into an intellectual movement, and then conventional wisdom, and finally, as detailed above and elsewhere in the pages of the Journal of American Greatness, into a series of tropes to be mouthed by sinecure -seeking former mid-level political appointees. Whether Trump is or is not the way forward is irrelevant, as he has shown conservatives a way forward. He has also, in the process, shown them their end.
— Lucullus & Plautus