Ross Douthat on Trumpism

I wish I could write sentences like this:

For the center, the revelations of 2016 were about policy failures that had been mostly invisible until Trump came along — above all, the way that center-left and center-right visions of post-Cold War “openness,” to free trade or low-skilled immigration or ever-greater-integration with the People’s Republic of China, simultaneously failed to achieve their geopolitical goals and hollowed out communities across the American heartland, creating a deadly, demagogy-ready vacuum where work and church and family used to be.

While I tip my hat to Douthat’s skill as a writer, I have nagging doubts about the content of his message. Let’s start from the rhetorical flourish that ends the sentence:

creating a deadly, demagogy-ready vacuum where work and church and family used to be

Yes, you could argue that there’s been a sort of decline in these three areas. But is this actually what fueled the recent demagoguery? Consider:

1. In the US, evangelical Christians are generally regarded as the most fervently religious of 21st century Protestants, and yet they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Trump. So where’s the evidence that a decline in “church” is fueling demagoguery?

2. I suspect that people with jobs are more likely to vote for Trump than those without jobs, but I can’t prove that. Nonetheless, I’ll call the “work” claim half correct, as those who lost industrial jobs and had to take lower paying jobs were probably sympathetic to Trump.

3. Polls suggest that married people (i.e. “families”) are much more likely to vote for Trump than are single people.

So while Douthat writes in a very persuasive style, I’d say he’s mostly wrong in his diagnosis of the roots of demagoguery.

What about his claim that “free trade” was an important factor? I use scare quotes as Trump was lying when he said America adopted free trade and our trading partners did not. Our trade policies featured many barriers, pretty typical for a developed country (and China’s barriers were not unusual for a middle income country.) It’s also not clear why other high wage countries with equally free trade, such as Germany, were not hurt by globalization. Might the problem lie elsewhere?

But let’s say Douthat is right and free trade is a major problem. What’s his solution? I continued reading, looking for suggestions as to what we should be doing differently. Presumably if free trade is the problem, then less free trade is the solution. But Douthat doesn’t go there, and I think the reasons are pretty obvious. Trump tried an alternative to globalization and failed miserably. Just as free trade economists predicted, Trump’s economic policies made the trade deficit even bigger. Good intentions are not enough—you need to understand economics. Peter Navarro does not.

I suspect that Douthat understood this point, which is why when he gets to his policy recommendations he looks elsewhere:

Of course, all the lost opportunities I’m describing owe a great deal to Trump’s own presidential conduct. Had he governed as he campaigned, had he dropped into Washington trying to cut infrastructure deals with purple-state senators instead of letting Paul Ryan run domestic policy for the first two years, it might have forced real policy adaptation on both parties. 

In American politics, talking about building infrastructure is about as meaningful as talking about “ending waste, fraud and abuse in government”—it’s an empty cliche that I’ve been hearing for almost my entire adult life. We need to “rebuild” our “crumbling” infrastructure. Wake me up when that happens.

Talking about infrastructure is a way for a politician to sound serious, non-ideological and centrist, in contrast to the ideologues at either extreme, of which Douthat is pretty dismissive:

After so much failure and derangement, there are worse things than a reset. But it’s still the case that too many of the figures, Republican and Democrat, who are poised to be restored to their prior positions on the chessboard resemble the restored Bourbons after Napoleon, having “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” across the last four years. Which suggests that what we’ve lost above all in the Trump years is the chance not to repeat the experience soon enough.

Actually, there is no “third way” in economic policy. Douthat dreams of a non-left wing economic policy that is pro-worker and rejects free market ideology. But where is this model? Sure, you can boost the child tax credit and build a few bridges and airport terminals, but neither Democrats nor Republicans are strongly opposed to those initiatives. That’s not a meaningful third way. Neither side of the spectrum will abandon globalization, nor should they.

(You may argue that the GOP is opposed to spending money on infrastructure, but my impression is that places like Texas build more infrastructure than California.)

Ross Douthat really is one of our finest pundits, but his strength is not in proposing new economic policy regimes, rather his forte lies in describing the zeitgeist of our society. Douthat writes as beautifully as Mencken, but with a sensibility that is 180 degrees removed from the cynical infidel that wrote for the Smart Set.

I’m with Mencken.