Donald Trump’s Economic Nationalism is Just Another Form of Socialism
It was one year ago when I first heard Donald Trump speak with presidential aspirations. I had no preconceptions of his political orientation before hearing this speech. This was the speech in which he demonized Mexican immigrants and shouted down one Hispanic questioner, demanding to know if he was sent by the Mexican government. He made immigration the center point of his campaign, concisely summed up in his call for a wall on the Southern border.
At this point, immigration wasn’t even much of a public issue. Polls showed that very few cared about it at all. The crowd that Trump was addressing (at “FreedomFest 2015”) was mainly concerned about the size of government and the shabbiness of Federal Reserve policy. He was trying to turn people’s attention to a different matter entirely: demographics and the meaning of nationhood.
Twenty minutes into the speech Trump’s talking points changed slightly, this time toward the issue of trade. Foreigners were robbing us. We were being victimized by rapacious nations all over the world: Mexico, China, India, and the European Union. This has been allowed to happen because we make bad deals with them. We need to import less and export more. Mostly he sought national self sufficiency, without dependence or reliance on anyone outside our borders. Only in this way can we become a truly great people, producers of our own fate.
So we were back again to nationhood as the relevant unit and political aspiration. There was not one word in this speech about the size of government. Nothing about individual rights. Nothing about civil liberties, regulation, or even taxes. Denunciations of big government have been standard fare with such right-leaning speeches for decades. They evaporated in Trump’s. Clearly he was selling a body of ideas very different from what Republicans in my lifetime had pushed.
Then we came to the third part of the speech, the part in which Trump sold himself as the solution. He is a brilliant businessman who makes magic happen when he is involved. He beautifies things. He makes profits. He makes things great. It’s not the constitution, the rule of law, the American way, much less freedom, free enterprise, or private property. It’s all about the leader.
I sat there in my hard chair, and tried to discern the sense of the room. At the beginning of his speech, I would say probably most people in attendance thought that Trump was a celebrity but otherwise were not disposed to like him. The look, feel, and substance of everything he said was so different. And yet, he tapped into something that many people in the room were feeling but had not been unearthed by any other candidate. It was a right-wing version of the identity politics that these very same people loathed when it came from the left. And it was the same managerial centralism these people had decried when it came from the Democrats. But recast with a rightist and conservative flavor, many people in the room found it irresistible.
All Within the State, Nothing Outside the State, Nothing Against the State
My mind was thrown back to a book written by Ludwig von Mises at the close of World War II. The book is Omnipotent Government. What distinguishes this book from any previous book by Mises was its single-minded focus on fascism and National Socialism as ideologies, with their own socialist theories. Mises begins his book with a discussion of the rise of Hitler. But instead of focusing on Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Mises looks at something too often ignored: the trade policies of National Socialism, which were actually the party’s first and most salient point of public appeal. The party sought to create “breathing room” for the nation of Germany by the expansion of its borders. It sought trade “independence” from foreign nations so that it would never again be subjected to oppressive policies but rather could manage itself toward greatness.
The next step in this process, as Mises described it, was the rallying of a people as defined by race into a unified whole, under the leadership of a great man. Though the party was aggressively opposed to the Communists, National Socialism was rightly named: it was another name for much the same thing. Fascism took on its most extreme form in Germany but it had already been unleashed in large parts of Europe as a response to the Communist threat. Nevertheless, fascism’s ideology was still solidly socialist, repackaged with a greater chance for electoral appeal and shorn of its least popular elements. It would no longer call for the end of private property in the means of production but rather endorsed a “regulated” private ownership. It dispensed with the attacks on family and faith but insisted that both be understood as servile to the most important unit of life, which is the nation itself.
The same year, 1944, F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a book dedicated to “the socialists of all parties.” What he meant by this phrase was that socialism comes in many flavors.
The rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period,” wrote Hayek, “but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” In Hayek’s reading, the dynamic works like this. The socialists build the state machinery, but their plans fail. A crisis arrives. The population seeks answers. Politicians claiming to be anti-socialist step up with new authoritarian plans that purport to reverse the problem. Their populist appeal taps into the lowest political instincts (nativism, racism, religious bigotry, and so on) and promises a new order of things under better, more efficient rule.
Hayek’s thesis is very similar to Mises’: that the greatest threat in the world today comes from a version of socialism — a rightist socialism — cobbled together in the name of fighting authoritarianism abroad and countering leftism at home. The road to serfdom, in Hayek’s view, is paved by a blind pursuit of unified nationhood and central planning in the name of national greatness. Or, to use today’s language, “making America great again.”
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton agree on a lot, especially on the need to protect and enlarge state power. None of them accepts any principled limits on what the state may rightfully do to the individual. Even on big issues where one might think they disagree — healthcare, immigration, and control of lands by the federal government — their positions are more alike than different. And yet they and their supporters loathe each other. Each considers the other an enemy to be destroyed. This is not a fight about power as such but about in whose service it will be used.
Most of these candidates’ supporters don’t see it that way, of course. They imagine themselves to be rebels fighting power itself, however they want to define it: Wall Street, the party establishment, the paid-off politicians, the bureaucracy, the billionaires, the foreigners, the special interests, and so on.
But notice that neither Trump, Sanders, nor Clinton attacks government authority as such. Instead they aspire to use it and grow it for their purposes. “The conflict between the Fascist or National-Socialist and the older socialist parties must indeed very largely be regarded as the kind of conflict which is bound to arise between rival socialist factions,” Hayek wrote. “There was no difference between them about the question of it being the will of the state which should assign to each person his proper place in society.”
As the campaign progress over 2015, the close relationship between right and left socialisms became more obvious. On the surface, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent opposite extremes. But in their celebration of the nation state as the people’s salvation — their burning calls to overthrow the existing elites and replace them with a more intense form of top-down rule — they are morally indistinguishable, and equally un-American.