the national interest

Conservatives to White Working Class: Drop Dead

Donald Trump in Georgia.
Donald Trump and the Trumpenproletariot. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The modern Republican Party is an awkward contraption that harnesses a politics of white ethno-nationalism to a policy agenda dominated by Ayn Rand–inflected anti-statism. Donald Trump has exploited the wedge between the party’s voters and the ideologists of its master class, placing the latter in an awkward spot. In the face of this threat, there are many possible responses for an advocate of traditional Goldwater-Reagan conservatism to make. The most bracingly honest may come from National Review’s Kevin Williamson, whose antipathy for Trump has expanded to include Trump’s white working-class supporters.

Williamson’s latest column, which his NR colleague David French enthusiastically endorses, has attracted some notoriety for its display of contempt (rendered in Williamson’s florid, trademark-infringing imitation Buckley prose) for low-income white voters who make up a major share of Trump’s base. They are losers, druggies, layabouts, and so on. The solution Williamson offers them is to move out of their pathetic dying towns. (“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.” Etc.)

What’s most interesting about this argument is not the specificity with which Williamson details his conclusion, but his willingness to follow his premises all the way. To the libertarian true believer, capitalism is a value system rather than merely a tool. Capitalism means economic freedom. People are entitled to their economic rights (meaning their market income) in exactly the same way as they are entitled to their political rights. “Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself,” as Milton Friedman famously put it.

Republican doctrine reflects the conviction that the main evil of modern government is to excessively punish the rich and reward their inferiors. All of the Republican presidential candidates, Trump included, propose massive tax cuts that would confer about 40 percent of their benefit on the highest-earning one percent (who earn about a fifth of the income). Williamson briefly considers, and immediately dismisses, any reconsideration of a domestic agenda out of regressive tax cuts. “It is really quite difficult to design federal tax cuts that benefit people who do not pay much in the way of federal taxes,” he writes. Oh, the working class doesn’t benefit from an abolition of the estate and capital-gains tax? Well, then, we’re out of ideas.

This is absurd if you think of economic policy in pragmatic terms. But it is perfectly sensible if you think of economic policy as a moral framework built around the protection of natural economic rights. “They failed themselves,” Williamson sneers about poor whites. The marketplace hasn’t failed the white working class; the white working class has failed capitalism.

Measured in political terms, this is a suicidal mentality for the Republican Party. But who says ideas must be measured in political terms?