In 1947, Friedrich Hayek convened a group of classical liberal intellectuals at the Swiss resort of Mont Pèlerin to discuss the future of Western civilization. Also there were two other future Nobel laureates, George Stigler and Milton Friedman, Lionel Robbins, chairman of the economics department at the London School of Economics, and the philosopher Karl Popper.
The Mont Pèlerin Society’s statement of aims, written at the meeting, was stark: “The central values of civilization are in danger,” states the opening sentence. “Over large stretches of the Earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared. In others they are under constant menace from the development of current tendencies of policy.”
Over time, many have expressed disagreements with the ideological outlook of the group. Some of Hayek’s predictions haven’t aged well. Yet most should be able to relate to the sense of alarm and urgency felt by the Society’s founders. In the late 1940s, Europe was emerging from the most destructive conflict in human history. Its eastern half was being brutalised by Soviet totalitarianism, and communist ideas enjoyed fervent support in the West.
In response to those developments, Hayek and his colleagues called for a reassertion of the rule of law and of limits placed on government power, so as to “distinguish more clearly between the totalitarian and the liberal order”. They also stressed the importance of “an international order conducive to the safeguarding of peace and liberty and permitting the establishment of harmonious international economic relations”.
Today, the world is facing different dangers. Instead of Soviet communism and the Cold War, the West is grappling with Jihadism, Vladimir Putin’s revisionism, and the rise of far-right political movements. But the essence of the problem is the same. America and Europe are plagued by a rise of ideologies inimical to individual freedom, government accountability, and economic openness. The response should be similar to that of the founders of the Mont Pèlerin Society, who wrote that “what is essentially an ideological movement must be met by intellectual argument and the reassertion of valid ideals”.
Yet it’s not happening, at least not on the scale required. Discussions about President Trump’s administration, for example, focus as much on his tweets, scandals, and possible Kremlin connections as they do on the content of his policies. Europeans are stumbling from one crisis to the next in the weakening hope that things will go back to normal one day – if the Turkey refugee deal stays in place, if Vladimir Putin stops flexing his muscles, and if Marine Le Pen can be kept away from the French presidency.
Adopting a reactive, short-term perspective is paralysing and dangerous. The challenge to civilization does not lie in Trump’s tantrums or in the failings of day-to-day politics of the EU. It lies in the ideas peddled by the authoritarians and populists – and in the popular demand for such ideas. That is where the defenders of free society should focus their efforts.
If the Trump presidency were to end tomorrow, would the “America First” view of world affairs disappear with it? Would Republicans return to a platform that is friendly to trade and small government, emphasising America’s engagement with the world’s liberal democracies and looking with suspicion at autocratic regimes such as Russia? Unlikely. Mr. Trump’s campaign was not a hiccup, but an example of the ideological transformation happening across the West.
Like them or not, Trumpian nationalism and its intellectual cousins in Europe offer a new way of thinking about politics and public policy, which resonates among some of the electorate. To be sure, there is nothing genuinely novel about them. Nativist, protectionist, and authoritarian ideas have been around for much of modern history. When not kept in check, they have periodically brought out the worst in humankind. It is tempting to view such ideas as discredited, but it is a mistake to take that for granted.
More likely than not, a sustained political coalition will be built in the United States around those ideas, irrespective of Trump’s political fate. Committed non-interventionists of both the conservative and libertarian variety surely find the “America First” view of foreign policy appealing. On the far Left, Bernie Sanders applauded the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Many of his followers would welcome a return of protectionist trade policies and an increase in federal infrastructure spending, even if it happens under Trump’s banner. Many traditional conservatives might make peace with the Trumpian ideological bundle, as long as it stresses the importance of national sovereignty over international forms of governance (sometimes called globalism) or bows to socially conservative views.
The strength of Trumpian nationalism and of its European cousins is twofold. First, it is a coherent worldview. It posits that ordinary people in the United States – or indeed in any given western democracy – have been betrayed by self-serving cosmopolitan elites who take a greater interest in abstract global problems than in fixing pressing problems at home. It dreads the unravelling of the social fabric that supposedly results from mass immigration.
In the form articulated by Trump himself – and echoing authoritarian ideologies of the past – this worldview suggests that a direct relationship between the political leader and the voiceless masses exists, without the need for the intermediating institutions provided by political process, civil society, or journalism. It also argues that through economic nationalism – including the protection of domestic industries by trade barriers and other forms of government support – it is possible to turn back the clock on the structural transformation that has destroyed manufacturing jobs in advanced economies.
Second, for all the crudeness of President Trump and the faux-intellectualism of his chief strategist Steve Bannon, they draw on a real intellectual tradition – not just on anger and bigotry. That tradition has many sources. Some can be traced to the French Nouvelle Droite of the late 1960s, organised around the work of Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye, vocal opponents of ethnic heterogeneity and globalised market economy. Their work served as inspiration to the white supremacist Richard Spencer, with personal and intellectual connections to Alexander Dugin, the central figure of Russian neo-fascist theory of Eurasianism, which posits the existence of an irreconcilable conflict between commercially minded maritime civilizations and those ethno-linguistic ones based on hierarchy and tradition.
Trumpian nationalism has also provided a boost to those who have been trying to revive the ideas of America’s Old Right, or “paleoconservatism”. The more cerebral formulations of the Trumpian doctrine include the “The Flight 93 Election” essay by Publius Decius Mus, also known as Michael Anton (now a White House staffer). In the Netherlands, you will find the young and articulate Thierry Baudet, the author of The Significance of Borders, a tract making the case for the nation state and controlled immigration policy. Over the coming years, there will be many others.
Trumpians now have even a policy journal, American Affairs, modeled after Yuval Levin’s high-brow quarterly, National Affairs, founded in 2009 to provide an intellectual platform for reform conservatism. Its launch at the Harvard Club in New York featured Peter Thiel and Anne-Marie Slaughter as keynote speakers. Its editor Julius Krein believes that “the conventional ideological categories and policy prescriptions of recent decades are no longer relevant to the most pressing problems and debates facing our country”.
Victory of Trumpian nationalism is not inevitable. Its appeal is directly proportional to the weakness of its opponents. Whereas many are appalled by the idiosyncrasies of the current administration, its day-to-day politics, and lies, few have mounted an effective intellectual counteroffensive against the core ideas that brought Trump to power.
The same is true of the opponents of Europe’s far-right nationalism. If the leader of the populist Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, performed poorly in the recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, it was partly because elements of his platform had been adopted by the incumbent, Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
And those who are railing the loudest against Trump, Brexit or nationalism are not necessarily the ones who are best positioned to offer an appealing alternative. Trumpian nationalism will not be defeated by an intolerant regressive Left that shuts down discussion on university campuses in the United States and reduces intellectual disagreement to the question of “privilege”. Even if this Left did gain the upper hand, it is not clear that it would advance the cause of an open society, built on individual freedom and responsibility.
Instead, a new coalition of centrists – classical and neoliberals, centre-right conservatives, centre-left liberals – has to build around the core ideas that underpin western liberal democracies. That new coalition has to show why Trumpian nationalism fails on its own terms: why trade is not a zero sum game; why ethnic diversity is an asset, not a liability; why an independent judiciary and a free press are key to a democracy; and why an internationalist foreign policy outlook, alliances, and cooperation among free societies are all essential to the world’s peace and prosperity.
The grievances that helped elect Trump are real. There is no denying the economic, sociological, and cultural crisis afflicting white, particularly rural, America. Likewise, the European continent has seen long-term economic stagnation accompanied by an overreach of European institutions. However, Trumpian policies, or those proposed by his European counterparts, will fail to provide effective remedies. Worse yet, they could bring about economic and geopolitical catastrophes similar to those seen in the first half of the 20th century.
The response to Trumpian nationalism must be positive. It must make a compelling intellectual case for democratic capitalism, openness, and western alliances as solutions to the ills plaguing our societies. As noted by the founders of the Mont Pèlerin Society, the success in that endeavour will not come from propaganda or from trying to “establish [a] meticulous and hampering orthodoxy”. It will come from investing in ideas that are at heart of a free and open society – and from an unwavering commitment to their defence.