During the Republican presidential primary, the conservative columnist and talk-show host Ross Kaminsky, like many members of the right-wing intelligentsia, looked at Donald Trump with horror and dismay. Not only was the front-runner a near-certain loser with dubious loyalty to the party agenda, but he was something far more disturbing, an authoritarian bully, even arguably a fascist. “One need not violate Godwin’s Law to recognize that there’s something deeply troubling about a leading presidential candidate having no objection to his supporters ‘roughing up’ a vocal dissenter,” he wrote, bemoaning “the noxious blend of bile and tripe that emerges, as so much political vomitus, from his big and always-moving mouth.” Kaminsky identified Trump’s campaign as being “about bullying and xenophobia,” and the man himself as “not quite ready to be president of Delta Tau Chi,” and warned Republicans thinking of voting for him anyway that they could never explain such a choice to their children.
As the authoritarian bully prepares to assume control of the powers of the presidency, Kamnisky has not exactly disavowed these previous sentiments as he has moved on to an even more serious threat to the health of the Republic: namely, the tax and regulatory policies of the Obama administration. Kaminsky’s latest column carries the headline, “Trump Election Saves Us From the Evil Party.” “Evil” — a word that appears 13 more times in his column — applies to such policies as Dodd-Frank, environmental regulations, and the partial expiration of the Bush tax cuts. This, not Trump’s pee-wee strongman act, represented the more serious threat to liberty, justifying an alliance with a figure as noxious as Trump.
An honorable handful of conservative opponents of Trump have maintained their opposition since his election. The vast majority have returned to the party fold. The path taken by many of them has focused on the alleged hypocrisy or excess of Trump’s liberal critics. Now that the man considered by many conservative intellectuals as a peril to democracy itself has assumed the most powerful position on the planet, once staunchly anti-Trump conservatives like Charles C.W. Cooke, Oren Cass, or David French (who so fervently opposed Trump that he considered running against him for president) find themselves preoccupied with what they see as liberal hysteria against him. As Trump himself gleefully noted, “Never Trump” conservatives are “on a respirator now. They’re almost gone.”
The Never Trump movement, like the vast majority of the political elite, yours truly included, pegged Trump from the outset as a surefire loser. When they refused to support his candidacy after he locked up the nomination in the spring, they anticipated a period of exile from mainstream Republican politics lasting most of the year, followed by a return to the fold, where they would wage a contest for the soul of the party, bolstered by the I-told-you-so evidence of Trump’s crushing defeat. Few of them bargained for a period of exile that would last four years, or eight, or perhaps even longer. Professional and personal incentives dictate a retreat back to the safety of the herd via mockery of the pro- and anti-Trump right’s shared enemy.
But to dismiss the Never Trumpers’ mass surrender as nothing but mere cowardice or expediency is to miss the dead-serious ideas undergirding their behavior. To liberals, it may sound baffling and incomprehensible that ordinary political arguments about taxes and regulation could outweigh his authoritarianism. Liberals generally see economic policy as a normal disagreement, apart from and subordinate to larger questions about democracy and structure of government.
Most conservatives, however, do not see these issues this way. The conservative movement treats small government as a first-order question of liberty, alongside or even above political liberty. Liberals treat economic policy on pragmatic grounds — the point of Medicaid is to help poor people get health care, and the point of the Clean Air Act is to create more breathable air. Expanding government is the means toward those discrete ends. Conservatives have discrete goals, like economic growth, but also larger ideological ones. As Milton Friedman once put it, “‘freedom’ in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so ‘economic freedom’ is an end in itself to a believer in freedom.” While it may seem strange to liberals, for economic conservatives, the fight to slash down the size of government is itself tantamount to a fight against authoritarianism.
Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist William McGurn sneers at liberals who have raised alarms over Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. “What’s striking here is that the same folks who see in Mr. Trump a Mussolini in waiting are blind to the soft despotism that has already taken root in our government,” he writes. “This is the unelected and increasingly assertive class that populates our federal bureaucracies and substitutes rule by regulation for the rule of law.” McGurn goes on to cite such injustices as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “wetlands laws or the department’s deliberate attempt to destroy the market for coal” and the Labor Department’s overtime rule.
A liberal would consider McGurn’s suggestion, that they’re hypocritical to support wetlands preservation while opposing a strongman-president, insane. From McGurn’s standpoint, it makes perfect sense. McGurn isn’t coming out and defending Trump’s habitual praise for dictators who crush their opposition, or his calls to imprison his political opponents. He simply sees the struggle for liberty as being of a piece, and the government’s eagerness to eliminate business regulations and taxes on the rich suggests to him that freedom on the whole is moving forward.
The most uncompromising theorist of this philosophy is, of course, Ayn Rand. And while Rand had many beliefs, the core of her vision is that politics consists of a class struggle between makers and takers. This is inverted Marxism — politics pitting a virtuous class of producers against a parasite class that exploits the wealth they create, the difference being that Rand saw the makers as the capitalists and the takers as the workers. (“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time,” explained her character, John Galt. “The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”) Also like the Marxists’, her vision of a free society depended not on the strength of liberal institutions like fair elections and a free press but the triumph of the hero class.
Marxists have no important role in politics at the national level, but Randians do. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, has listed her tome Atlas Shrugged as his favorite book. Andy Puzder, Trump’s secretary of Labor nominee, has said the same. Trump has called himself a fan of Rand’s work, though it is fair to question whether he has actually made it through books of such length. Of course, Paul Ryan is a longtime devotee who once called Rand the reason he got into public service.
None of these figures is an “Objectivist” (the name for followers of Rand’s cultlike philosophy). They have, however, absorbed its central message of politics as a class war to liberate the makers from the takers. Shortly after the election, the president of the Atlas Society, a pro-Rand group, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed making the case for Randians like Paul Ryan to embrace her vision even if they didn’t share all its idiosyncratic details, ending with this rousing conclusion: “As John Galt says in the closing lines of ‘Atlas Shrugged’: ‘The road is cleared.’ It is up to us, believers and nonbelievers, to take up her message and spread the news.”