political history


Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

he title of the book—Conserving America?—tells us much of what we need to know about Deneen’s thesis. For much of conservative intellectual history in the United States the question of whether or not America should or could be conserved was beyond dispute, and, for the most part, it remains so. This conservation typically takes the form of conservative intellectuals fighting for the preservation of the principles of the Declaration and Constitution against those who seek, to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI, to read those documents through a hermeneutic of rupture. Interestingly, Deneen argues in the book that if America is to be conserved it will not be through the promotion of conservative principles but in a rejection of those principles. Deneen believes that the philosophy, a Hobbesian and Lockean form of liberalism, upon which the United States was founded, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Deneen has become, over the course of his long career, one of the nation’s sharpest critics, arguing that America’s founding principles are at their root progressive and at odds with the national self-image preferred by conservatives. Conserving America? is composed of twelve chapters taken mainly from speeches and lectures on subjects ranging from whether in fact America has a conservative tradition (according to Deneen, no) to what will happen when American liberalism possibly falls apart.

Deneen argues that the “Enlightenment and liberal philosophies that informed the American founding posited the existence of radically autonomous human beings in the state of nature, rights bearing creatures who consent to the creation of a government which exists to secure those rights.” But the truth, according to Deneen, is just the opposite. This radical autonomy and the state of nature exist only in theory and it is government that is put to the task of making that theory come into existence.

Deneen further argues that our electoral choices are in fact false choices and that there is a “consistent and ongoing continuity in the basic trajectory of modern liberal democracy both at home and abroad” regardless of whether the political left or the political right is in power. This trajectory results in the concentration of power in the hands of a global aristocracy that controls more and more wealth—an aristocracy that moves “continuously back and forth between public and private positions, controlling the major institutions of modern society.”

Deneen argues that the political left is the greatest beneficiary of this arrangement though they remain silent, or even at times, blissfully unaware of liberalism’s beneficence and focus their attention on identity and sexual politics. The political right, on the other hand, “promises to shore up traditional family values while supporting a borderless and dislocating economic system that destabilizes family life especially among those who do not ascend to the global elite, those outside the elite circles who exhibit devastating levels of familial and community disintegration.” For Deneen, conservatism cannot do both and indeed, its support of a limitless globalism destroys any real basis for a conservative polity.

While Deneen discusses the problems and shortcomings of the political left in the book, it is his critique of the political right that is most interesting. American conservatives would do well to take Deneen’s critique seriously even if they find they cannot fully embrace it. His critique of the destabilizing nature of capitalism is important and that critique should find ears after an election cycle that in many ways hinged on the “forgotten man,” an election cycle during which a major conservative magazine published an article arguing that communities that have been ravaged by capitalist creative destruction in some sense deserve to die, and that the poor people living in them need, more than anything, a U-Haul.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further in that he recognizes that capitalism makes it difficult to have a common good toward which a society can work. Because capitalism is based on the idea that each person working toward his or her own self-interest will benefit society as a whole, it results only in something that resembles cooperation rather than actual cooperation, much less working toward a common good that benefits the whole. This might be okay, argues Deneen following Tocqueville, if not for the fact that the “language of self-interest would [over time] exert a formative influence upon democratic man’s self-understanding” causing him to lose sight of communal responsibility and the common good. The language of self-interest is also deceptive in that “in thinking solely of our own advancement and accumulation, we deceive ourselves in thinking we are wholly self-sufficient and that our success has come solely through our own efforts.” Both of these effects of the reliance on self-interest to direct society result in the breakdown of conscious cooperation and therefore become corrosive to society.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism is instructive but at times it falls prey to what might be called a boutique mentality. For Deneen the ideal community looks something like Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In one of his more well-known essays, Deneen sees George Bailey as almost as much a villain as Mr. Potter, for it is Bailey who brings urban sprawl to Bedford Falls, in the form of affordable housing. Deneen sees in Bailey not a hero but an agent of destruction: “George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment. To re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.”

Deneen argues that a community like Bailey Park cannot sustain trust and community in the same way as Bedford Falls. Deneen sees Bailey Park as the gateway to an America “wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs.” It’s a long list of wrongs to load on the back of George Bailey. Where should the people who moved to Bailey Park live? They can’t afford to live in Bedford Falls unless Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further than it seems. Deneen is not altogether wrong about suburban life or urban sprawl, but it’s not clear what a realistic alternative would be without a massive re-appropriation of wealth. Moreover, conservatives have long admired this movie for its opposition, in the form of George Bailey, to a rapacious capitalism: the movie’s alternative view of Bedford Falls had the rapacious banker Potter prevailed is even less attractive. The challenge to Deneen is to demonstrate that there is some path that avoids both forms of consumerism and community-erasing that the movie presents.

Another theme worth grappling with is Deneen’s argument that American conservatism is not at all conservative. Deneen argues that the two main commitments of mainstream American conservatism have been the “strenuous defense of a relatively unregulated market and the insistence upon a strong military posture that extended American power into every corner of the world, often explicitly in defense of promoting universalized liberal democracy …” Neither, he says, supports the local and humane scale of community necessary for the common good and political liberty.

This effectively argues that conservatism’s main goals have been to promote liberalism. In appropriating the tools of liberalism, Deneen argues, conservatism was wildly successful, but its success did away with conservative ways of life like family farming and family-owned businesses. Deneen further argues that conservative promotion of economic and cultural globalization and conservative commitments to the “abstractions of the markets and the abstractions of national allegiance” destroyed the local forms of American life that had sustained distinctive communities across America.

So what is the way forward? Deneen sees the collapse of liberalism as possible even though in his estimation nearly every human institution has been formed to enact and perpetuate liberalism. What reason is there for hope in the face of these odds? Deneen believes that as liberalism becomes more itself, it will become harder to explain its “endemic failures [massive income inequality, the breakdown of community, etc.] as merely accidental or unintended.” Deneen is not overly optimistic on this score. He explains that as the failures of liberalism come out, many proposed alternatives will be even worse and so it is our responsibility to defeat these alternatives and propose in their place something better.

The book’s concluding chapter is titled “After Liberalism,” a deliberate homage to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Deneen acknowledges that many of the alternatives to liberalism on the world stage are not comforting, but he urges us to actively hope for the end of liberalism and that it might be a “fourth sailing—after antiquity, after Christianity, after liberalism into a post liberal and hopeful future.”

If we are to have any hope for this future after liberalism, conservatives will need to take seriously the challenges thinkers like Deneen put forth. The effects of liberalism and the free market on community must not be dismissed as intractable or their possible alternatives as unrealistic. Conservatives would also be remiss if Deneen’s critique of the deleterious effects of, especially the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, as applied through constitutionalism, are not adequately addressed. If conservatives fail to address these problems seriously it will be due to a failure of imagination. In fact it can be said, based on Deneen’s argument, that the only way to achieve the stated goals of conservatism, is to stop being “conservative.”  

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

I’m a big fan of Murray Rothbard and have read pretty much everything that he wrote, which was a lot as he was a prodigious author. I came across this article which for the most part was very flattering, but contained these two criticisms.

Unfortunately, Rothbard also sidesteps some difficult problems. The primary argument for having a state at all is that the state can overcome the public goods/free rider problem, while private entrepreneurs cannot. Rather than addressing this argument, Rothbard effectively denies the problem exists, which is no answer at all and certainly does nothing to assuage the doubts of critics. Similarly, in response to the challenge that his proposed private protective agencies would fight among themselves and oppress people, he simply asserts this would be too costly for them and they’d realize peaceful cooperation and trade are more profitable.

Well, no. One could use this logic to “prove” that Al Capone would never order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of the North Side gang, or that Hitler would never invade Poland. There’s nothing special about whether we call an organization a “state” or not that changes the benefit-cost analyses of the leaders in these matters. Perhaps it’s possible that under certain circumstances an anarchic society could be peaceful and stable, but Rothbard simply ignored the most difficult problems for his theory.

That, to me, illustrates Rothbard’s primary flaw. It seems to me that for him, no argument is too shallow so long as it leads him to a libertarian conclusion. His dedication to liberty is admirable, but as the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat warned, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” In my view, by not taking arguments for a minimal state sufficiently seriously, Rothbard ends up deceiving himself and supposing that the case for his anarcho-capitalism is airtight. I think it is not, and there are other examples of this sort of error in Rothbard’s economic, political, and historical writing.[3]

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

For the American left, 2016 proved to be a year with a cruel twist ending. In the first few months, a self-
described democratic socialist by the name of Bernie Sanders mounted a surprisingly successful primary challenge to the Democratic Party’s presumed and eventual presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. By the end of 2016, however, not only had Sanders lost the primary race, but Clinton had been defeated in the general election by a billionaire who dressed his xenophobic and plutocratic ambitions in the garb of class resentment.

But the apparent strength of the left wasn’t entirely an illusion. Even as late as November, the Sanders campaign had racked up a set of important victories. The Cold War had helped to entrench the idea of socialism as antithetical to the American political tradition, and Sanders had gone a long way toward smashing that ideological consensus. By identifying himself explicitly as a democratic socialist from the outset of his campaign, he helped give renewed meaning and salience to it as a political identity firmly rooted in the American tradition.

In addition to helping end the stigma around socialism, the Sanders campaign provided a blueprint for a new generation of leftists and progressives. By running in the Democratic primary and showing that he could draw large crowds, Sanders revealed an emerging left-leaning constituency. It seemed in those early autumn months that even in defeat, Sanders had opened up the path for a more progressive Democratic Party: “Sanders Democrats” could continue to work within the party and not only protest outside it. The way forward seemed clear: After Clinton won the general election, a strengthened social-democratic left could work toward the universal provision of various social services and push for criminal-justice reforms and other key priorities.

But now, instead of holding a strengthened position within a troubled but relatively secure Democratic Party, the left appears to be simultaneously invigorated and institutionally irrelevant. The ambitious ideas and goals that have blossomed in recent years—single-payer health care, debt-free higher education, a $15-dollar-an-hour national minimum wage, paid leave, criminal-justice reform—seem to belong to a political world that no longer exists. The left is now primarily on the defensive: Rather than seeking to push the welfare state toward completion, it must defend against its dissolution. Rather than ensuring fair access to public goods like health care, education, and housing, the task of the left is now to prevent the wholesale pillage of the commons. And rather than merely restraining the hawks in the Democratic Party, the left must worry about global devastation, whether through nuclear action or climate inaction.

So what remains of 2016’s hoped-for “political revolution”? Two books by Sanders, Outsider in the White House and Our Revolution, and two volumes of essays by some of this new left’s leading voices, The ABCs of Socialism and The Future We Want, offer us some clues. While written with different conditions in mind, these books still serve as important references for thinking through how to move forward.

Sanders’s emergence as the de facto spokesman and moral conscience of the American left was nearly impossible to anticipate. In spite of having risen to the highest elected position of any socialist in US history, Sanders wasn’t viewed by many leftists as central to their projects and organizing efforts, most of which, in the early 2000s, were directed toward non-electoral goals and communities in urban areas. But the themes that Sanders struck—reducing economic inequality, fighting climate change and the corrosive influence of money in our politics—­were well-chosen for our moment of economic upheaval and drew progressively larger crowds.

A careful account of Sanders’s story, and why he emerged so suddenly, will be the work of future historians. But he has written two campaign autobiographies that provide a reasonable first draft. Outsider in the White House was produced relatively quickly and published in 2015. Other than a new preface by Sanders and an afterword by The Nation’s John Nichols, it is essentially a retitled version of Outsider in the House, his 1997 book. Our Revolution, published in the days after Trump’s election, recapitulates the candidate’s biography but also gives us an account of his primary campaign against Clinton and concludes with a detailed policy agenda.

Both books provide similar accounts of Sanders’s life, but the earlier book offers a more complete portrait of his youth and political formation. Sanders was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish household in Brooklyn. The son of a paint salesman, 
he didn’t grow up in poverty but was conscious throughout childhood of the family’s lack of money. He attended Brooklyn College for his freshman year and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he felt isolated among the children of businesspeople and professionals. By his own admission, Sanders wasn’t an especially good student, instead dedicating much of his time to activism with the university’s chapters of the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress of Racial Equality.

The civil-rights movement was an important factor in Sanders’s politicization in the early 1960s. He participated in protests against the segregated housing owned by the University of Chicago, for which he was arrested, and in 1963 he made the long bus trip to Washington, DC, to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Sanders also joined the Student Peace Union and became involved in the antiwar movement. After college, he moved to Vermont and lived in rustic conditions. After joining the antiwar Liberty Union Party, a statewide socialist party founded in 1970, Sanders ran for the US Senate in 1972, winning just 2 percent of the vote. Four years later, he ran for governor, winning all of 6 percent.

Perhaps it was Vermont’s isolation from the civil-rights movement and other struggles of the era that made Sanders incline toward electoral politics rather than other forms of activism. Or perhaps it was simply that the Liberty Union Party’s leadership could fit into a living room, and he happened to be the one who volunteered for a Senate run. But at a time when New York–based socialists like Michael Harrington were forming the predecessors of today’s Democratic Socialists of America to push the Democratic Party to the “left wing of the possible,” Sanders was instead gaining experience in presenting socialist ideas as part of electoral campaigns. If many on the left had reconciled themselves to the task of trying to reform the Democratic Party from within in the 1970s, Sanders had decided to carry on the tradition of electoral socialism inherited from his idol, Eugene Debs.

Sanders’s first political success came in 1981, when—to nearly everyone’s surprise—­he was elected as mayor of Bur­lington by a margin of 14 votes. But it wasn’t his own election that prompted him to first use his signature phrase “political revolution.” Elected on a platform that included protecting the environment and halting property-tax increases, Sanders soon found that Burlington’s board of aldermen was unwilling to work with him. So he decided that he needed to lead a “political revolution” in order to win more elections: this time to take aldermanic seats as well as the mayor’s office. In the following election, his Progressive Coalition ran candidates in every ward, an effort that found them knocking on nearly every door in the city. The Sanders forces won several of these races, and while they didn’t have a majority, they had enough seats to veto any Democratic or Republican initiative, forcing the traditional parties to work with them. “If the mayoral victory one year before had been regarded by some as a fluke,” Sanders writes, “there could be no mistaking what was happening now. A political revolution had occurred in Burlington.”

In Sanders’s time as mayor, Burlington became a small-town echo of the municipal socialism of the 1920s. He halted the property-tax increases, as promised, and raised revenue through a room-and-meal tax. A community land trust was set up to create affordable housing for low-income residents. There was also lakefront beautification and cultural renewal, with free blues, jazz, reggae, and country-music festivals, and events featuring left-wing luminaries like Studs Terkel and Noam Chomsky. Sanders also gave the city something of a foreign policy, traveling to Managua for the anniversary of the Nicaraguan Revolution, to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon in 1988, and to Cuba in 1989.

The question remained whether San­ders’s form of “political revolution”—the idea that mass organizing and local electoral victories could help push American politics to the left—could work on a scale larger than the municipal one. In 1990, Sanders ran successfully for the House of Representatives, where he served eight terms; in 2007, he was elected to the Senate, where he caucused, sometimes uneasily, with Democrats. He became the highest-ranking American politician to describe himself as a socialist.

Sanders remained out of step with the centrist politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, which dominated the party in those years. He was willing to endorse Bill Clinton for president in 1996 as preferable to Republican rule, but he did so without enthusiasm. He thought mainstream Democrats had abandoned the language of class, and he opposed DLC-championed trade deals like NAFTA, which served to place American workers in direct competition with the lower wages and regulatory standards outside the United States.

Once he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1991, Sanders helped set up the Progressive Caucus with Democratic allies like Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Lane Evans of Illinois, and Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums of California. He worked on adding progressive components to existing bills, and he wondered, as he watched the 1996 Republican National Convention produce a huge bounce in the polls, “What could happen, what would happen, in this country if progressives were allowed to have four or five nights of prime-time television and front-page newspaper coverage? What would happen if we could present a point of view that most Americans are unfamiliar with? Would we suddenly become the dominant political force in America? No. Would millions of Americans develop a much more sympathetic attitude toward democratic socialism? Yes.”

But it would be impossible to test his theory of political revolution from the confines of Congress. It required far more public attention, and a galvanizing campaign that would raise money and consciousness and inspire volunteers to put in work across the country. That could happen with a presidential campaign, the only realistic way to test his theory on a much larger scale. In 2015 and 2016, Sanders discovered—one suspects much to his own surprise—just how far he might be able to take this tactic.

If Sanders had won the presidency, he would have encountered, just as he had in Burlington in the early 1980s, a legislature consisting of Republicans and many Democrats who would have been unwilling to work with him or accept his victory as more than a fluke. The real test would have come in the 2018 midterms—­analogous to those aldermanic elections—with pro-Sanders candidates running across the country, competing for every House seat and the contested Senate ones. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sanders’s run in the Democratic primary was cultural rather than electoral: He gave renewed vigor to the egalitarian ideals of socialism and, along the way, revealed a growing base of young voters who shared his enthusiasm for them.

Sanders defines democratic socialism in an idiosyncratic way: It is, above all else, fundamentally Rooseveltian—especially the Roosevelt of the never-implemented Second Bill of Rights in 1944. For Sanders, certain social goods—housing, education, and health care—deserve to be understood as rights rather than as commodities sold for profit. To achieve these ends, he sees the need to fight the power of concentrated wealth, which distorts both markets and politics in favor of the wealthy. But Sanders has another critique that is equally powerful and just as salient to our moment. His frequent invocation of the 1 percent and its undeserved share of the national wealth is not only an argument about economic inequality; it is also an argument about political inequality. One cannot be an equal member of a polity if those with wealth have far more say and far more power in the political system. A political democracy requires an economic democracy—or, as Sanders writes in Our Revolution, “today’s tyrannical aristocracy is no longer a foreign power. It’s an American billionaire class that has unprecedented economic and political influence over all of our lives.”

Sanders’s success with young voters reveals a bimodal distribution of socialist enthusiasm. The old guard that came of age in the 1960s, like San­ders, has now been met by a growing influx of organizers from the ranks of those born after 1980, people who have entered the workforce during years marked by varying degrees of capitalist crisis. The ABCs of Socialism, edited by Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara, and The Future We Want, edited by Sunkara and The Nation’s Sarah Leonard, offer us some insights into the ways in which this new generation is attempting to redefine the socialist tradition for the 21st century.

The two books have much in common, sharing an editor and several authors. The ABCs of Socialism is a direct response to the surge of interest in socialism generated by the Sanders campaign. During his candidacy, subscriptions to Jacobin increased by the hundreds each week, and basic definitional and historical questions poured in. The ABCs of Socialism offers selections from the magazine, in the form of questions and relatively brief answers, to provide a useful history of the socialist ideal.

Enthusiastic though they were about the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s writers are explicitly rooted in Marxism in a way that Sanders is not. For the authors in The ABCs, socialism means something more than his vision of a Rooseveltian social democ­racy. In their analysis, socialism cannot be achieved through progressive taxation and a more robust system of rights that decommodifies certain social goods; this would bend, but not break, the power of capital. And capital will always fight back, just as it has for the last 40-plus years, starting with the crises of the early 1970s, which created opportunities for businesspeople and their political allies (like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) to fight the power of unions and the welfare state.

For Sanders, the problem is Wall Street and the billionaire class, which have captured the government and shaped the market to their advantage at the expense of ordinary workers. For Jacobin’s socialists, the problem is more acute: It is capitalism itself. In Our Revolution, Sanders defends the idea of capping the size of major banks and briefly discusses having the government support worker-owned businesses. But as Sunkara, going far beyond Sanders, puts it in his essay for The ABCs, the socialist vision remains “abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use—factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure—and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power.” That doesn’t mean the state will seize your “Kenny Loggins records,” Sunkara puckishly adds: Socialism requires the abolition of private property, not personal property.

One of socialism’s problems in the 20th century was that its existing examples—at least the ones claiming to have gone beyond social democracy—were always politically repressive single-party states. The new socialists neither deny this fact nor dwell on it. Instead, they focus on the ethical appeal of socialism. For Jacobin’s writers, so long as capitalism remains—even in the modified form of social democracy—
injuries to human flourishing can be stanched, but not cured. It isn’t enough simply to expand the purview of the state if it leaves private property intact. But although the essays in TheABCs occasionally offer a Marxist critique of Sanders, they mostly articulate a view of socialism’s purpose that is similar to his own. As Sunkara puts it, the desired goal is “a world where people don’t try to control others for personal gain, but instead cooperate so that everyone can flourish.” Jacobin, which sometimes seems to take pride in being part of an unreconstructed left, more closely resembles the tradition of Marxist humanism that cropped up in the mid- to late 20th century, when actually existing socialism in the Soviet bloc too often proved to work against human flourishing. The point, after all, is to improve things.

If The ABCs seeks to establish a socialist ideal upon which to ground the left, The Future We Want is less theoretical and more focused on outlining the kinds of policies that might help to realize this ideal in our present moment. Collectively, the essays of The Future We Want think through how high-quality universal services, in an egalitarian context, would change human life.

Megan Erickson, in her essay “Imagining Socialist Education,” looks at our school system and argues that socialists must fight for universal access to the kind of liberating, decommodified education that members of the elite receive. In “Sex Class,” Sarah Leonard describes the importance of universal child care for socialist feminism—because otherwise the best that liberal feminism can offer will only be available to those who can pay. In “How to Make Black Lives Really, Truly Matter,” Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith argue that overcoming the legacy of racism can only happen by closing the wealth gap between black and white Americans. To this end, they propose job guarantees and baby bonds that mature at 18 for all those born to families below the median net wealth.

Several of the book’s contributors mention the prospect of a universal basic income to cope with technological and social changes here and on the horizon, and to help manage the transition toward less work—the decommodification of life itself, and thus the weakening of the power of capital. But overall, the imagined interlocutor of these essays is neither on the left nor the right; it’s the sort of liberal who also seeks to reduce inequality, but would do so by increasing opportunity rather than reducing economic disparities. By highlighting the inequalities born out of liberal policies, the writers and editors of The Future We Want assert that the kind of goals that liberals and socialists share—greater formal equality, more egalitarian representation, a political system that doesn’t solely benefit elites—can only be realized through socialist means.

As we are no longer in a moment in which well-intentioned liberals are in power, these arguments will have to be repurposed. Donald Trump’s election has been a radicalizing experience for many: Subscriptions to the left’s magazines and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America increased throughout the Sanders campaign and jumped again after Election Day. But in 
spite of its energy and vigor, the left now needs to rethink some of its strategies and ideas. Total control of the government by the Republican Party, joined with Trump’s executive power, means that even massive mobilizations will produce defensive victories at best. Those victories are real and clearly worth the fight—not least because they produce solidarity—but the losses will still pile up. We are no longer debating a slower or longer path to social democracy; we are defending against the racist, misogynistic, and kleptocratic practices of a man committed to dismantling the New Deal.

But the left cannot sustain itself on defense alone. Other than doing what it can to stop Trump’s worst abuses, the left must develop a theory of change for a moment when the Democratic Party doesn’t control any branch of government. For a time, Sanders seemed to have shown us how to pull the Democratic Party to the left. Yet the vulnerability of his strategy was that it required the party’s more centrist wing to win the presidential election—which, as events have proved, isn’t something we can take for granted. Despite this defeat, the energy to resist—and to build—is there. If the Democrats are still afraid to speak of class, they will have to be taught. Those who cannot or will not stand up to Trump need to face primary challenges from the left. And even if the party’s next presidential candidate isn’t a progressive, the left needs to make clear in the intervening years that he or she will have to win over a sizable number of young voters who are.

Trump’s enormous unpopularity means that, assuming the continued existence of small-D democracy, the Democratic Party will win major elections in the future. The left’s job is to make sure that when it does, it will be a more egalitarian and progressive force. Until then, the broad left should focus on the common ground: civil rights, economic equality, universal services, and real democracy for all. Whatever Trump succeeds in dismantling, we must have the ideas at hand to rebuild it stronger and better once he’s gone. In short: What do we need to do next? Everything.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

THE TRUMP-HITLER COMPARISON. Is there any comparison? Between the way the campaigns of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler should have been treated by the media and the culture? The way the media should act now? The problem of normalization?

Because I’d written a book called Explaining Hitler several editors had asked me, during the campaign, to see what could be said on the subject.

Until the morning after the election I had declined them. While Trump’s crusade had at times been malign, as had his vociferous supporters, he and they did not seem bent on genocide. He did not seem bent on anything but hideous, hurtful simplemindedness — a childishly vindictive buffoon trailing racist followers whose existence he had mainstreamed. When I say followers I’m thinking about the perpetrators of violence against women outlined by New York Magazine who punched women in the face and shouted racist slurs at them. Those supporters. These are the people Trump has dragged into the mainstream, and as my friend Michael Hirschorn pointed out, their hatefulness will no longer find the Obama Justice Department standing in their way.

Bad enough, but genocide is almost by definition beyond comparison with “normal” politics and everyday thuggish behavior, and to compare Trump’s feckless racism and compulsive lying was inevitably to trivialize Hitler’s crime and the victims of genocide.

¤

But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values.

What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf.

I came to this conclusion in a roundabout way. The story of Hitler’s relation to the media begins with a strange episode in Hitler’s rise to power, a clash between him and the press that looked like it might contribute to the end of his political career. But alas, it did not. In fact, it set him up for the struggle that would later bring him to power.

It was one of the crucial, almost forgotten incidents in the dark decades before World War II — the November 1923 Munich “Beer Hall Putsch,” Hitler’s violent attempt to take over all of south Germany in preparation for a strike against Berlin.

Hitler and his swelling Nazi party had been threatening a power move for months. Threatening first violence, then alliance with one of the other factions. Hitler was keeping them off balance, promising he’d not use force with one, scheming to use it with another, finally betraying his word to all.

At the very apex of the Beer Hall Putsch, a clash between his militia and Munich’s chief opposition newspaper, the Munich Post, may have changed the course of history, giving evidence that Hitler had the potential for a far more ambitious course of evil than anyone in Germany believed. Only the reporters who had been following Hitler seemed able to imagine it.

On the night of November 8, 1923, amid a clamorous political meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller, a huge echoey beer hall where political meetings were often held, Hitler stood up, fired a pistol into the air, and announced his militia had captured the three top leaders of southern Germany’s Bavarian province and handcuffed them in a back room in the beer hall. The next morning, he declared, his Stormtrooper militia would capture the capitol buildings and then head north to Berlin.

It didn’t happen. That morning there was a firefight on the bridge to the city center that ended with Hitler’s forces having failed to cross that bridge, Hitler flinging himself — or being flung — on the ground amid gunfire in ignominious defeat.

What caused his defeat? Some have suggested (myself among them) it was Hitler’s fateful decision to detach his elite private militia, the forerunner of the SS — the Stosstrupp Hitler — and send them on a mission to trash and pillage the offices of the Munich Post, the newspaper he called “the poison kitchen” (for the slanders about him they were allegedly cooking up).

Trash and pillage they did. I saw a faded newsprint photograph of the after-action damage to the Munich Post — desks and chairs smashed, papers strewn into a chaos of rubble, as if an explosion had gone off inside the building.

By the mid-’90s, when I first saw that picture, the memory of this chief anti-Hitler newspaper during his rise to power from Munich to Berlin had virtually disappeared from history. But while researching my book, I’d found a cache of back issues crumbling away in the basement archive of a Munich library, seemingly untouched for years.

Cumulatively, the stacks of issues told the story of a dozen-year-long struggle between Hitler and the paper, which began soon after the mysterious Austrian-born outsider appeared as a fiery orator and canny organizer on the Munich streets in 1921.

The Munich Post never stopped investigating who Hitler was and what he wanted, and Hitler never stopped hating them for it.

As Hitler sought to ingratiate himself with the city’s rulers (though never giving up the threat of violence), the Post reporters dug into his shadowy background, mocking him mercilessly, exposing internal party splits, revealing the existence of a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents and was at least as responsible for Hitler’s success as his vaunted oratory.

And in their biggest, most shamefully ignored scoop, on December 9, 1931, the paper found and published a Nazi party document planning a “final solution” for Munich’s Jews — the first Hitlerite use of the word “endlösung” in such a context. Was it a euphemism for extermination? Hitler dissembled, so many could ignore the grim possibility.

The Munich Post lost and Germany came under Nazi rule — but, in a sense, the paper had also won; they were the only ones who had figured out just how sinister Hitler and the Nazis were. I believe Hitler knew this. And so, back in 1923, when Hitler had thrown the opposition into disarray and division, he saw the chance to eliminate the Munich Post. And he took it and tried, though he failed at that, too.

After the 1923 fiasco, Hitler served nine months of a five-year sentence for rebellion and pledged to stay out of politics. But his parliamentary party didn’t quit, and eventually Hitler had demonstrated enough neutral behavior (discounting the murders committed by the Nazi death squads not directly connected to him) that he was allowed to campaign again. Was it a mistake? Had he learned a lesson? As it turned out, Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They “normalized” him.

And so they allowed him and his party back onto the electoral lists, the beginning of the end. Democracy destroying itself democratically. By November 1932, his party had become the largest faction in the Reichstag, though not a majority. After that election though, it looked as if he’d passed his peak: his total vote had gone down. It looked like the right-wing parties had been savvy in bringing him in and “normalizing” him, making him a figurehead for their own advancement.

Instead, it was truly the stupidest move made in world politics within the memory of mankind. It took only a few months for the hopes of normalization to be crushed. As Sir Richard Evans, the leading British historian of the period has proven at painstaking length, the Reichstag Fire was not a Hitler plan to excuse a takeover through martial law. It had indeed been the work of a Dutch man, Marinus van der Lubbe. But Hitler, ruthlessly and savagely, took advantage of it, instituting martial law and crushing electoral democracy. There would have been another excuse. Once in power Hitler was going to go on maximizing it until the “final solution.”

And the Munich Post never stopped reporting on this ultimate aim and on Hitler’s use of murder, decrying any attempts to “normalize” the tyrant. They kept fighting until two months after his January takeover. In March 1933, when the Nazis ruled the media and the Post was “legally” shut down. There had been a few other brave journalistic souls — Konrad Heiden, Fritz Gerlich. But swiftly, oh so swiftly, the order of the day became “gleichschaltung” — “realignment,” or forced conformity, savage normalization. Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists made it their crusade to get the German body politic “adjusted” to the new reign of terror. “Gleichschaltung” meant normalize or else.

Hitler’s method was to lie until he got what he wanted, by which point it was too late. At first, he pledged no territorial demands. Then he quietly rolled his tanks into the Rhineland. He had no designs on Czechoslovakia — just the Sudetenland, because so many of its German-born citizens were begging him to help shelter them from persecution. But soon came the absorption of the rest of Czechoslovakia. After Czechoslovakia, he’d be satisfied. Europe could return to normal. Lie!

There is, of course, no comparison with Trump in terms of scale. His biggest policy decisions so far have been to name reprehensible figures to various cabinet posts and to enact dreadful executive orders. But this, too, is a form of destruction. While marchers and the courts have put up a fight after the Muslim ban, each new act, each new lie, accepted by default, seems less outrageous. Let’s call it what it is: defining mendacity down.

And look where it got us. Perhaps we should have seen it — the way Trump’s outrageous conduct and shamelessly lying mouth seemed so ridiculous we wouldn’t have to take him seriously. Until we did.

Give him the harmless attention he seems to crave and he’ll no longer be a nuisance. The whole thing would be childish if it didn’t seem sinister in retrospect. It recalled to me a conversation I had with Alan Bullock (1914-2004), Oxford University historian and author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952), the first substantive biography of the dictator.

Bullock, then nearing 80, told me how students of Hitler were often misled to focus on his vicious anti-Semitism. In fact, Bullock had initially argued, it was likely he had believed in nothing and just used the Jew-hatred to advance his cause with the nitwit thug segment of the German people. Just as Trump appealed to his nitwit thug racist, anti-Semite followers. Hitler was a “mountebank,” Bullock exclaimed, a con man who played the Jewish card, using it to whip up rowdy enthusiasm and give the impression of a movement. This is the comparison I’d been seeking.

Bullock, as I’ve written, would later change his mind to incorporate the vision of Hitler offered by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who found the anti-Semitic ideology to be primus inter pares in Hitler’s fevered brain. Be that as it may, he saw that this tactic of playing the fool, the Chaplinesque clown, had worked over and over again, worked like a charm. It kept the West off balance. They consistently underestimated him and were divided over his plans (“what does Hitler really want?”). The tactic became irresistible, as repeated always success does.

Few took Hitler seriously, and before anyone knew it, he had gathered up the nations of Europe like playing cards.

Cut to the current election. We had heard allegations that Trump kept Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, but somehow we normalized that. We didn’t take him seriously because of all the outrageous, clownish acts and gaffes we thought would cause him to drop out of the race. Except these gaffes were designed to distract. This was his secret strategy, the essence of his success — you can’t take a stand against Trump because you don’t know where Trump is standing. You can’t find him guilty of evil, you can’t find him at all. And the tactics worked. Trump was not taken seriously, which allowed him to slip by the normal standards for an American candidate. The mountebank won. Again.

Suddenly, after the inconceivable (and, we are now beginning to realize, suspicious) Trump victory, the nation was forced to contend with what it would mean, whether the “alt-right” was a true threat or a joke to be tolerated. Did it matter that Trump had opened up a sewer pipe of racial hatred? Once again, normalization was the buzzword.

And I remembered the Munich Post, defending Weimar Germany. I reflected on how fragile democratic institutions could be in the face of organized hatred. Hitler had been tricky about his plans until he got the position and the power to enact them. Trump had been tricky, neither accepting nor rejecting the endorsement of KKK leader David Duke. David Duke! The KKK! In this century! He claimed he didn’t know who he was. He couldn’t be disqualified because of someone he didn’t know. That’s where we all went wrong, thinking he was stupid and outrageous, not canny and savvy and able to play the media like Paganini. The election demonstrated the weakness of a weak democracy, where basic liberties could be abolished by demagoguery and voter suppression.

And after Trump’s victory I began to follow the debate over how much deference Trump was owed, how much responsibility he had for the hate speech the alt-right morons cheered. Some found solace in the hashtag #notmypresident. David Remnick seemed to have woken the next morning with an especially felicitous gift of disgust, writing: “The fantasy of the normalization of Donald Trump — the idea that a demagogic candidate would somehow be transformed into a statesman of poise and deliberation after his Election Day victory — should now be a distant memory, an illusion shattered.”

He was joined in that spirit of defiance by Teju Cole in The New Times Magazine, Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books, Charles M. Blow in The New York Times, and, most recently, Charles P. Pierce in Esquire.

It looked like a movement was building. What form it would take was unclear.

But now, a couple months later, the momentum is dissolving. The default position is normalization. Should we be content with that? Or should we resist, be it by taking to the streets or simply by “preferring not to,” Bartleby-style?

While sifting through possible courses of action, I remembered something sad — possibly the saddest thing I had ever read: the last few issues of the Munich Post. They had put up a brave front. Somehow, most touchingly, they had continued the serialization of a novel begun before Götterdämmerung, the way a normal newspaper might in normal times. It was a novel by the elusive, pseudonymous B. Traven, called The White Rose. It’s a novel about corporate greed and land-grabbing in Mexico’s oil fields — a text of protest perhaps more relevant to our current struggle than to the struggles of Germany in the 1930s.

I had to search another Munich archive to find the very final issues of the Munich Post, but they were even more dispiriting than I could imagine. The paper went down fighting a lie, fighting Nazi murderers, refusing to normalize the Hitler regime.

A week after Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, the Munich Postpublished their regular murder survey under the headline “Nazi Party Hands Dripping with Blood,” enumerating the bloody casualties: 18 dead, 34 wounded in street battles with the SA Stormtroopers.

These are the headlines that followed in daily succession:

“Germany Under the Hitler Regime: Political Murder and Terror”

“Blood Guilt of the Nazi Party”

“Germany Today: No Day Without Death”

“Brutal Terror in the Streets of Munich”

“Outlaws and Murderers in Power”

“People Allow Themselves to Be Intimidated”

The era of normalization had begun everywhere else, but the Munich Postresisted.

The Munich Post lost, yes. Soon their office was closed. Some of the journalists ended up in Dachau, some “disappeared.” But they’d won a victory for truth. A victory over normalization. They never stopped fighting the lies, big and small, and left a record of defiance that was heroic and inspirational. They discovered the truth about “endlösung” before most could have even imagined it. The truth is always worth knowing. Support your local journalist.

¤

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Watching the news last night and I see that Le Pen won through the French primaries. The major parties finished nowhere and another outsider, a liberal, is the current front leader.

Here’s the thing: political parties have come and gone, but ‘nationalism’ has endured. It may have waxed and waned somewhat throughout the years, decades and centuries, but it is still with us and always will be.

Le Pen is a real possibility for France in May. If she is elected, Europe, is pretty much over and will become an interesting experiment in the annals of history.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Well before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I sent a holiday greeting to my friends that read: “These times are not business as usual. Wishing you the best in a troubled world.” Now I feel the need to share this message with the rest of the world. But before I do, I must tell you who I am and what I stand for.

I am an 86-year-old Hungarian Jew who became a US citizen after the end of World War II. I learned at an early age how important it is what kind of political regime prevails. The formative experience of my life was the occupation of Hungary by Hitler’s Germany in 1944. I probably would have perished had my father not understood the gravity of the situation. He arranged false identities for his family and for many other Jews; with his help, most survived.

In 1947, I escaped from Hungary, by then under Communist rule, to England. As a student at the London School of Economics, I came under the influence of the philosopher Karl Popper, and I developed my own philosophy, built on the twin pillars of fallibility and reflexivity. I distinguished between two kinds of political regimes: those in which people elected their leaders, who were then supposed to look after the interests of the electorate, and others where the rulers sought to manipulate their subjects to serve the rulers’ interests. Under Popper’s influence, I called the first kind of society open, the second, closed.

The classification is too simplistic. There are many degrees and variations throughout history, from well-functioning models to failed states, and many different levels of government in any particular situation. Even so, I find the distinction between the two regime types useful. I became an active promoter of the former and opponent of the latter.

I find the current moment in history very painful. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of closed societies — from fascist dictatorships to mafia states — are on the rise. How could this happen? The only explanation I can find is that elected leaders failed to meet voters’ legitimate expectations and aspirations and that this failure led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism. Quite simply, many people felt that the elites had stolen their democracy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the sole remaining superpower, equally committed to the principles of democracy and free markets. The major development since then has been the globalization of financial markets, spearheaded by advocates who argued that globalization increases total wealth. After all, if the winners compensated the losers, they would still have something left over.

The argument was misleading, because it ignored the fact that the winners seldom, if ever, compensate the losers. But the potential winners spent enough money promoting the argument that it prevailed. It was a victory for believers in untrammeled free enterprise, or “market fundamentalists,” as I call them. Because financial capital is an indispensable ingredient of economic development, and few countries in the developing world could generate enough capital on their own, globalization spread like wildfire. Financial capital could move around freely and avoid taxation and regulation.

Globalization has had far-reaching economic and political consequences. It has brought about some economic convergence between poor and rich countries; but it increased inequality within both poor and rich countries. In the developed world, the benefits accrued mainly to large owners of financial capital, who constitute less than 1% of the population. The lack of redistributive policies is the main source of the dissatisfaction that democracy’s opponents have exploited. But there were other contributing factors as well, particularly in Europe.

I was an avid supporter of the European Union from its inception. I regarded it as the embodiment of the idea of an open society: an association of democratic states willing to sacrifice part of their sovereignty for the common good. It started out at as a bold experiment in what Popper called “piecemeal social engineering.” The leaders set an attainable objective and a fixed timeline and mobilized the political will needed to meet it, knowing full well that each step would necessitate a further step forward. That is how the European Coal and Steel Community developed into the EU.

But then something went woefully wrong. After the Crash of 2008, a voluntary association of equals was transformed into a relationship between creditors and debtors, where the debtors had difficulties in meeting their obligations and the creditors set the conditions the debtors had to obey. That relationship has been neither voluntary nor equal.

Germany emerged as the hegemonic power in Europe, but it failed to live up to the obligations that successful hegemons must fulfil, namely looking beyond their narrow self-interest to the interests of the people who depend on them. Compare the behaviour of the US after WWII with Germany’s behaviour after the Crash of 2008: the US launched the Marshall Plan, which led to the development of the EU; Germany imposed an austerity program that served its narrow self-interest.

Before its reunification, Germany was the main force driving European integration: it was always willing to contribute a little bit extra to accommodate those putting up resistance. Remember Germany’s contribution to meeting Margaret Thatcher’s demands regarding the EU budget?

But reuniting Germany on a 1:1 basis turned out to be very expensive. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, Germany did not feel rich enough to take on any additional obligations. When European finance ministers declared that no other systemically important financial institution would be allowed to fail, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, correctly reading the wishes of her electorate, declared that each member state should look after its own institutions. That was the start of a process of disintegration.

After the Crash of 2008, the EU and the eurozone became increasingly dysfunctional. Prevailing conditions became far removed from those prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty, but treaty change became progressively more difficult, and eventually impossible, because it couldn’t be ratified. The eurozone became the victim of antiquated laws; much-needed reforms could be enacted only by finding loopholes in them. That is how institutions became increasingly complicated, and electorates became alienated.

The rise of anti-EU movements further impeded the functioning of institutions. And these forces of disintegration received a powerful boost in 2016, first from Brexit, then from the election of Trump in the US, and on December 4 from Italian voters’ rejection, by a wide margin, of constitutional reforms.

Democracy is now in crisis. Even the US, the world’s leading democracy, elected a con artist and would-be dictator as its president. Although Trump has toned down his rhetoric since he was elected, he has changed neither his behaviour nor his advisers. His cabinet comprises incompetent extremists and retired generals.

What lies ahead?

I am confident that democracy will prove resilient in the US. Its Constitution and institutions, including the fourth estate, are strong enough to resist the excesses of the executive branch, thus preventing a would-be dictator from becoming an actual one.

But the US will be preoccupied with internal struggles in the near future, and targeted minorities will suffer. The US will be unable to protect and promote democracy in the rest of the world. On the contrary, Trump will have greater affinity with dictators. That will allow some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference. Trump will prefer making deals to defending principles. Unfortunately, that will be popular with his core constituency.

I am particularly worried about the fate of the EU, which is in danger of coming under the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose concept of government is irreconcilable with that of open society. Putin is not a passive beneficiary of recent developments; he worked hard to bring them about. He recognised his regime’s weakness: it can exploit natural resources but cannot generate economic growth. He felt threatened by “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. At first, he tried to control social media. Then, in a brilliant move, he exploited social media companies’ business model to spread misinformation and fake news, disorienting electorates and destabilizing democracies. That is how he helped Trump get elected.

The same is likely to happen in the European election season in 2017 in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. In France, the two leading contenders are close to Putin and eager to appease him. If either wins, Putin’s dominance of Europe will become a fait accompli.

I hope that Europe’s leaders and citizens alike will realise that this endangers their way of life and the values on which the EU was founded. The trouble is that the method Putin has used to destabilize democracy cannot be used to restore respect for facts and a balanced view of reality.

With economic growth lagging and the refugee crisis out of control, the EU is on the verge of breakdown and is set to undergo an experience similar to that of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Those who believe that the EU needs to be saved in order to be reinvented must do whatever they can to bring about a better outcome.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

If American conservatives have an intellectual hero, it might well be Friedrich Hayek — and rightly so. More clearly than anyone else, Hayek elaborated the case against government planning and collectivism, and mounted a vigorous argument for free markets. As it turns out, Hayek simultaneously identified a serious problem with the political creed of President-elect Donald Trump.

One of Hayek’s most important arguments in his great classic, “The Road to Serfdom,” involves the Rule of Law, which he defined to mean “that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand.” Because of the Rule of Law, “the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action.”

In “The Road to Serfdom” and (at greater length) in “The Constitution of Liberty,” Hayek distinguished between formal rules, which are indispensable, and mere “commands,” which create a world of trouble, because they are a recipe for arbitrariness. When formal rules are in place, “the coercive power of the state can be used only for cases defined in advance by law and in such a way that it can be foreseen how it will be used.”

Like the rules of the road, formal rules do not name names. They are useful to people who are not and cannot be known by the rule-makers — and they apply in situations that public officials cannot foresee.

Commands are altogether different. They target particular people and tell them what to do. (Think Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba.) They require the exercise of discretion on the spot. As examples, Hayek pointed to official decisions about “how many buses are to be run, which coal mines are to operate, or at what prices shoes are to be sold.”

Hayek offered two arguments on behalf of the Rule of Law. The first is economic: If the government’s actions are predictable, then people are able to plan. In his famous formulation, “the more the state ‘plans,’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” If officials are issuing commands, it will become much harder for people to have the kind of security that is a precondition for economic development and growth.

Hayek’s second argument, moral in character, involves a specific value: impartiality. When the Rule of Law is intact, public officials act behind a veil of ignorance. If the government does not know who will be helped or hurt by what it does, it cannot play favorites or take sides. For Hayek, the state should never specify “how well off particular people shall be and what different people are to be allowed to have and to do.”

Many late 20th-century conservatives, including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have been drawn to Hayek’s arguments; the same is true of contemporary figures like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz. In sharp contrast, President-elect Trump prides himself on his skills as a dealmaker, and he wants to use those skills to “make good deals” for the American people. There is a real risk that in practice, presidential deals, deliberately done on an ad-hoc basis, will turn out to be Hayekian commands.

Consider in this regard Trump’s participation in the highly publicized agreement with Carrier Corp., a manufacturer of air-conditioning and heating equipment, to keep operations in the U.S. in return for tax breaks. Or consider Trump’s negotiation with Boeing Co., which brought down the cost of the Air Force One program.

There is a legitimate argument (long pressed by Democrats) that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. But Trump’s endorsement of that argument undoubtedly stems, in part, from his enthusiasm for the role of Dealmaker-in-Chief.

In the abstract, of course, no one should object if the president is able to secure better deals for the American people. A successful negotiation is not a command. But unlike a candidate or a president-elect, a president has coercive power. Any negotiation is inevitably undertaken under the shadow of that awesome power.

A succession of “good deals” by the executive branch might garner impressive headlines, but Hayek’s analysis offers a serious warning. Exactly which companies will end up with favorable or unfavorable deals, and why? A dealmaking executive branch, interacting with those in the private sector along multiple fronts, will be tempted to reward its friends and punish its enemies — and it will have plenty of ways to do exactly that.

In a world of presidential deals, companies are going to have horrible incentives — to curry presidential favor in countless ways, to act strategically, and to make promises and threats of their own, so as to avoid unfavorable treatment from government and to obtain optimal concessions from it. That’s nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, it is a road to serfdom.

One of Hayek’s enduring achievements was to clarify the importance of government neutrality and forbearance, not through anything like laissez-faire, but by avoiding commands in favor of clear, general, stable, predictable rules on which the private sector can rely. A Dealmaker-in-Chief might turn out, in practice, to be a Commander-in-Chief in precisely the sense that Hayek deplored.

Next Page »