The most lasting political victories take place not in the election booth or the law books but in the soul: If you can shift fundamental ideological commitments, you’ll leave an imprint far into the future. In 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked what was her greatest achievement. A dozen years out of power, the Iron Lady slyly remarked, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”
Donald Trump is unlikely to enjoy the world-historical stature of Thatcher, who recalibrated the entire political spectrum. Still, within the ambit of the political right, Trump is turning out to be a major force, destined to leave a far-reaching legacy. In a polarized era, Trump has converted few on the left, but he’s transformed the terms of debate in the GOP. Trump’s peculiar brand of ethnic nationalism, with its mixture of protectionism and xenophobia, is becoming the new Republican orthodoxy.
Even those outside Trump’s fold are now trying to figure out how to make his nationalist agenda work. The inaugural National Conservatism conference, which was hosted last week by the Edmund Burke Foundation in Washington, DC, is perhaps the most impressive of recent attempts to give sinews and bones to Trumpism, a paradoxical effort, since many of the president’s ideas are little more than inchoate blathering he sputtered out during rallies to rile up his crowd.
Not everyone who attended the National Conservatism conference was a full-fledged Trumpist, although administration officials like John Bolton were there along with media cheerleaders like Tucker Carlson. Indeed, as Zack Beauchamp of Vox noted, “very few people at the conference wanted to talk about President Trump.” Instead of the blunt jeers heard at Trump rallies, where the name of Ilhan Omar raised the chant of “send her back,” the attendees of the conference spoke in more genteel terms about the need for national cohesion and an immigration policy that respected the nation’s cultural traditions. Yet these more mellifluous words differed from the hooting of Trump rallies only in terms of tone, not intent.
Perhaps the most notable speech was given by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. At age 39, Hawley is the youngest senator, elected only a year ago but already marked out as presidential prospect. Educated at Stanford and Yale, Hawley has found a niche arguing for ways to rein in tech companies, the focus of increasing hostility among conservatives. The Spectator described him as being potentially “a Liz Warren of the Right: a policy wonk, economic populist.”
In keeping with his growing reputation as a populist, Hawley’s speech was, for a Republican at least, unusually critical of big business, which he accused of sharing an elite preference for a cosmopolitan economic policy that hurts ordinary Americans.
“They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community,” Hawley claimed about a group he called the cosmopolitan elite. “And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.”
Hawley’s critique of what he calls “the cosmopolitan consensus” is a far more focused and thoughtful version of right-wing populism than anything Trump has offered. At times, Hawley sounds like Bernie Sanders railing against the billionaires or Elizabeth Warren excoriating the rigged economy:
Because in this bargain, foreign competitors get to make the goods, and we just buy them. And then they buy up American companies with the profits.
And yes, in this bargain there are lots of jobs—jobs on Wall Street, or in Hollywood, or in Silicon Valley. Because the truth is, the cosmopolitan economy has made the cosmopolitan class an aristocracy.
At the same time, it has encouraged multinational corporations to move jobs and assets overseas to chase the cheapest wages and pay the lowest taxes.
And it has rewarded these same corporations for then turning around and investing their profits not in American workers, not in American development, but in financial instruments that benefit the cosmopolitan elite.
Compared to normal GOP fare, Hawley is refreshingly blunt in laying the blame for economic dislocation at the feet of corporations. Yet his right-wing populism is on a crucial point at odds with the left-wing populism of Sanders and Warren. They stick to the language of class, while he seeks to portray the ultra-wealthy as a cultural foe.
Hawley’s use of the loaded word “cosmopolitan” was combined with a denunciation of four academics, three of whom were Jewish. One of those was the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. When Hawley mentioned her, the crowd hissed. Hawley’s speech has been accused of containing anti-Semitic dog whistles.
That seems like a stretch. The evidence in the speech is suggestive but not definitive. What is fair to say is that by using the word “cosmopolitan,” Hawley is obfuscating crucial differences between an academic worldview (shared by few), the lived experience of polyglot big city life (which is experienced by members of the working class as well as the wealthy), and the business practices of transnational capital. These three things are all cosmopolitan, but in different ways, not necessarily overlapping.
You can be a Martha Nussbaum–style cosmopolitan thinker and also oppose existing free-trade agreements (seeing them as tools of an economic elite and not necessarily conducive to a universal good). You can live in a multiracial working-class neighborhood in Queens, speaking Chinese or Spanish, and also oppose global capitalism. For that matter, you can be a hedge fund manager and oppose the ideas of Nussbaum as well as the cultural life and political interest of urban working-class residents (the members of the Mercer family seem to fit the bill). Hawley’s cosmopolitan-versus-nationalist framework doesn’t neatly map on to actual class or cultural divisions in the real world.
With his evocation of ancient Rome and republican virtues, Hawley was the relatively prissy and high-toned version of populism. But another speaker at the National Conservatism conference, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, was on hand to remind listeners of how ugly Trumpian politics actual are.
In a panel on immigration, Wax complained about “outraged reaction” to Trump’s question, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?” According to Wax, “That needs to be regarded as a serious question and not just a rhetorical one.”
Wax argued for what she called a “cultural-distance nationalism” which would allow immigrants from Europe but discourage them from the rest of the world. “Let us be candid,” Wax admitted. “Europe and the first world, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white for now, and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of nonwhite people. Embracing cultural-distance nationalism means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result, anyway. So, even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, it doesn’t rely on race at all.”
Wax seems to think that as long as the goal of immigration policy is cultural homogeneity rather than explicitly biological purity, then it is not racist. But that’s a clear misunderstanding of the history of racism; belief in cultural superiority was as much a part of racism as ideologies of biological hierarchy. After all, the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted immigration from much of the world outside of Northern Europe, was based on a desire to protect Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony as much as white eugenic purity.
Flawed and repugnant as their ideas might be, Hawley and Wax are important straws in the wind. Their association with Trumpism isn’t opportunistic—as is the case with many Republicans—but rather a heart-felt ideological affinity. Although Trump is an anti-intellectual president who has little use for books and ideas, he’s created an impetus for right-wing ethnic nationalism to start expressing itself intellectually. That’s a legacy that, regrettably, will be with us long after Trump is gone.