All Commentary
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Surprising Modern Origins of Trump’s Ideology

Twenty years ago, David Brooks longed for "confidence and vigor" in a president

Donald Trump says government should make the nation great. Where did he get this language? He didn’t make it up on the spot. There is a deeper modern history here.

“National Greatness Conservatism” was first advanced by the Weekly Standard in 1997. At the time, this revision of traditional conservative thinking set off a huge controversy on the right side of the political spectrum.

Here is what David Brooks wrote, as the voice of the neoconservatives who are now screaming that Trump is not what they had in mind:

“It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation. Stagnant government drains national morale. A government that fails to offer any vision merely feeds public cynicism and disenchantment.

“But energetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project. It allows each generation to join the work of their parents. The quest for national greatness defines the word ‘American’ and makes it new for every generation.”

Why They Wanted Greatness

Consider the context of these paragraphs. A few years earlier, the US-Soviet Cold War had come to an end. The political center of the previous forty years was no more. There was a great deal of public pressure to end the imperial adventures, to reallocate the federal budget away from endless foreign adventures, to normalize and even depoliticize the country. The “war on terror” existed but at nowhere near the level it became after 9/11.

The political milieu was not that different from what followed both world wars. Public opinion was turning against politicians of all sorts. Wartime expenditures and controls lacked justification. Big government was in search of purpose.

Bill Clinton was president at the time, and his political agenda amounted to not much at all. His health-care plans went bust, so he turned to welfare reform, enacting a policy that actually curbed national commitments to a grand social vision. The liberals of his party seemed out of ideas, while the conservatives were increasingly focussed on cutting or even gutting government as their central rhetorical principle.

The Weekly Standard was founded to be the official organ of neoconservative opinion. It distinguished itself by its less-hostile attitude toward the state than one might find in mainstream conservative publications. The neoconservatives needed a vision to impart as a way of bolstering centralized control. Brooks put himself forward as their house philosopher. His manifesto was advanced as a rhetorical template for a new national mission: to make America great again.

The bulk of Brooks’s essay consisted of throwing around ideas for what government could do. It could make more Mount Rushmores. It could dig more canals. It could make more highways. It could democratize more countries. The specifics didn’t matter that much, said Brooks, so much as the ethos. Government is the thing that unites us, so we dare not risk dismantling it for fear of a loss of meaning in our lives.

To be sure, Brooks’s “greatness” had different priorities than Trump’s current version. Brooks emphasized democracy and nation building through an imperial foreign policy. Today Trump pushes nativism, national identity, and protectionism. But they fundamentally agree about what makes up a “nation” and what makes it “great.”

The Liberal Alternative to Greatness

Both views are hostile to the old liberal view of what society is and should be. Neither conceive of the nation as a network of harmonious, voluntary associations. In this way of thinking, plain-old freedom — characterized by disparate millions working out their lives in creative peace and cooperation with each other — is boring, directionless, and uninspiring. They see society, not as an interplay of individual wills, but as a collective project guided by a central mission carried out by powerful, charismatic leaders.

In other words, both conceive of the American nation, not as a civilization, but as a herd, shepherded by the government. Both the neoconservatives and the Trumpists long to make America the herd great again. And by “great,” they mean big, imposing, fearsome, and awe-inspiring. In F.A. Hayek’s terminology (drawn from Michael Oakeshott) the nation must be a telos not merely a nomos.

One side stresses the teleocratic offense, the other the teleocratic defense. The neoconservatives believe that the public can find meaning in grand government initiatives such as military stampedes around the world: something awe-inspiring enough to drive people to back a fully-funded and sufficiently powerful leviathan.

The Trumpists have a different view: national meaning is imparted through trade barriers, immigration controls, and top-down, business-like management. A collective identity rooted in blood and soil, not a country on global mission, is the thing that will make us great.

Neither understand that real prosperity and true security are achieved, not by the brute might of human herds, but by the dynamic power of voluntary cooperation among free people. To be free is the only mission. What people do with that freedom is up to them, not a national leadership. It is not greatness but simple goodness that defines the free society.

What’s more, government doesn’t raise our sights, strengthen our bonds, or boost our pride. It limits, divides, and diminishes us. Government is bureaucrats and politicians. They take our stuff, tell us what to do, and make us less free.

Brooks once longed for “a spirit of confidence and vigor” in the executive. Trump is all that and more. So what does Brooks say today? He finds Trump to be “epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn… Trump is perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes.”

Here’s the thing. You build power and power takes its own course. You long for national greatness and you have to live with the results.