Jacob T. Levy says that the collapse of trust in institutional norms is what’s responsible for a new era of Trump‐style authoritarian, “closed‐society” populist politics here in America and around the globe.
What explains the Trump phenomenon? How did we get President Trump? Just an electoral appetite for “shaking things up,” or is it something deeper? How does Trump think? How does he make decisions?
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And joining us today is Jacob Levy. He’s the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University. Welcome back to Free Thoughts.
Jacob Levy: Thank you. Thank you for having me back.
Aaron Powell: It’s the big question that’s on everyone’s mind as we’re 100 days or so into the new regime. How did we get Trump? How did this thing happen?
Jacob Levy: There’s a lot [00:00:30] that’s very idiosyncratic. I want to start by talking at some of the things that maybe aren’t so idiosyncratic. In the long recovery from the financial crisis, there was a real deinstitutionalization of politics in the US and across the liberal constitutional democracies. One of the things that really stands out to me in retrospect about the Obama administration was the rise of Occupy and the Tea Party [00:01:00] simultaneously and the way in which there was real activist energy that was taking place almost entirely outside the traditional institutions of party of life, and there are real costs and disadvantages to that. Parties do important work of mitigating and moderating and channeling a lot of kinds of activist energy and of putting the energy into conversation with institutional traditions.
[00:01:30] What was happening in both Occupy and in the Tea Party, and then in important ways in the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign even though neither of them is a direct lineal descendant of those two movements, was that the party structures were really breaking down and voters got access to messages and had access to what they took to be avenues of change that were so far outside [00:02:00] of the traditional institutional norms that the generic election season appetite for Change with a capital C spun out of control in a very different way.
I think that we have seen that and are continuing to see that across a lot of the liberal constitutional democracies in the post financial crisis era. I think that we’ve seen that now with Brexit. There’s some chance as we are talking now that it will [00:02:30] swallow French politics with the election of Le Pen, though that’s not especially likely, and it’s happening in countries that are less consolidated constitutional democracies like Hungary, like Turkey, like the Philippines, where just the sheer desire to have things be different is creating openings for very aggressively authoritarian kinds of politics that seem to show people [00:03:00] I’m doing things, and there’s an appetite for great powerful leaders who look like they’re doing things.
Some of it, some of how we got Trump is because the United States isn’t immune to and in some ways because the financial crisis started here was ground zero for that radical deinstitutionalization of [inaudible 00:03:19] creates a real opening for aggressive, populist authoritarianism.
Trevor Burrus: Well it seems, it’s interesting that these things happened simultaneously in many different countries. [00:03:30] You’d have to come up with an explanation that deals with how citizens in many different countries … I mean, maybe they feed off each other. Maybe it begins with Brexit and then Trump voters are like, wow, it could happen, they’re mobilized by that. Now you move over to Le Pen and you have France, but insofar as it is a worldwide movement, could be a sign, a causal chain that’s even deeper than deinstitutionalization of the financial crisis such as just [00:04:00] the schismatic information gathering that people are now experiencing on the internet, like the death of centralized media authorities and the ability to kind of learn about conspiracies like pizzagate and all the crazy things that your uncle used to send you in emails that seem to be believed wider than they were before.
Jacob Levy: I’m going to go with the financial crisis as a more major determinant there. It’s [00:04:30] certainly the case that the internet has made possible certain kinds of extra‐institutional political organization that for Occupy and the Tea Party in particular did make a big difference, but the shared appetite for extra‐institutional and anti‐institutional just sheer shaking things up, that’s not I think something that’s very specific to the circumstance of political organization in the United States. If [00:05:00] there’s commonality as I think there is between Trump and Orbán in Hungary and Erdoğan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines, that’s not because the Philippines and Turkey are equally well‐wired or equally well‐prone to online organizations and conspiracy theorizing. There’s a tradition of conspiracy theorizing in Turkish politics in particular that long predates the internet.
The question is why do those [00:05:30] undercurrents in political life take the form that they take across these countries now, and there I think that constitutional democracies rest for a lot of their popular legitimation on the ability to deliver relatively steady economic growth and the long sputtering recovery from the financial crisis combined in Europe with the Euro crisis in particular did [00:06:00] real damage to popular willingness to accept traditional institutional practices and to trust traditional elites to be able to keep things managed well.
Aaron Powell: Sanders is pretty clearly a direct outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He speaks the same language as the Occupy kids, but Trump doesn’t look very Tea Party. In fact, the most Tea Party candidates [00:06:30] tended to lose in the primary, so I guess I wonder how much of Trump’s success was him riding that wave versus how much of it was simply the fact you’ve always had disaffected people. We’ve had cultural shifts in this country. They don’t have anything to do with the financial crisis but just changing demographics, changing complexion of the country [00:07:00] away from white and towards more minorities, and so you have a disaffected white voter base that’s upset about the cultural shifts.
Then you have a guy who has a 30‐year established brand. His voters have seen him on television. They know him on television. He’s got a personality that, I’m guess I’m saying, matches [00:07:30] their own in the way that he talks, the way that he seems to upset the coastal elite types. Then you have a primary process that was, say, not run well from the party’s standpoint. Like people did not drop out when they should have, so that you couldn’t organize opposition around him, but Trump was never terribly popular even among Republicans. He continues to not be terribly popular even among Republicans. He [00:08:00] lost the popular vote by 2 1/2 million. I think he got fewer votes than Romney did, so he just happened to luck into running against one of the worst candidates in modern history. How much of it is like that it’s just that these kind of like almost black swan events happening around this guy and aren’t really this line from the financial crisis to the Tea Party?
Jacob Levy: [00:08:30] Some of the details of that I would quarrel with. The characterization of the Clinton candidacy in particular I know that that’s solidifying into a kind of conventional wisdom and I think it’s genuinely mistaken about the character of the Clinton campaign, but we can trace a line of descent from the Tea Party that doesn’t require Trump to have been the Tea Party candidate. There was a catastrophic failure of Republican party institutional and structural [00:09:00] leadership during the primary campaign. That catastrophic failure had to do with the real structural weakness of the party, and I think the Tea Party had contributed to that.
The fact that the last candidate standing in opposition to Trump was Ted Cruz, who couldn’t buy endorsements from his Senate colleagues to save his life because he had made such a profession out of being an anti‐institutional contrarian, not understanding [00:09:30] how the rules worked, just self‐promoting bomb thrower. That itself was a sign of how badly damaged the traditional Republican norms of succession to the presidential nomination had been damaged and of course Cruz was squabbling with other people for the title of Tea Party leadership.
Cruz was engaged in this really very, very dangerous dance with Trump that badly blew up on him, spending the first part of the primary [00:10:00] hugging Trump as closely as he could so that when as he thought was inevitable Trump dropped out, he would inherit all of Trump’s voters. Cruz and some of the other candidates too were willing to dance very close to the edge of institutional legitimacy and their attempt to channel Tea Party anger was part of what I think so badly impaired the Republican party, that elites couldn’t do what party elites normally do, which is [00:10:30] to prevent the party from being hijacked and taken over from the outside.
It’s certainly the case that Trump appealed to some things in American political life that are always there, the toxic white nationalism in particular is always there, and there’s been genuine increase in anti‐immigration sentiment among some parts of the white population over the course of the last 10 years or so in ways that are at significant odds with the facts [00:11:00] since actual net immigration has been steadily falling. But in the wake of the financial crisis, economically disadvantaged white populations look for scapegoats and immigrants and ethnic minorities are routinely chosen as the scapegoats under circumstances like that.
So I do think that Trump’s ability to get as far as he did, to get within the flutter of a couple of butterfly wings of the presidency and [00:11:30] those arise out of causes that we can meaningfully trace to what had happened over the preceding eight, nine, ten years. The butterfly wings, they then do matter and the Comey letter coming when it does and things like that. You can’t shake the dependence of events on other events, on details or in circumstances, but Trump’s ability to get that close, that was a sign of real structural damage to the normal [00:12:00] institutional structural functioning of American political life.
Trevor Burrus: Insofar as there’s a distrust of institutions the way you described it the post financial crisis, but I think that for a while we’ve seen Americans having less and less trust in the federal government. You see that in some polling. I think Congress was below the Mendoza Line I think of like seven, 12% or something. I think it was [inaudible 00:12:26] who said that in the ‘50s, that they were as high as 80% approval rate [00:12:30] for Congress, which is like mind‐blowing. For my entire life, it’s been a well‐known fact the kind of thing that Jay Leno or late night comedians just we all know they’re crooks, we all know they’re not really working for us. You have shows like House of Cards that people think is a documentary or actually Veep, which is a documentary. We do live in a Veep world of being a seven‐year resident of D.C., and no one really thinks that these things are making a stretch in terms of how this town works.
In the face of that building [00:13:00] up distrust of Congress and libertarians, I mean, I’ve thought this for a very long time. Like these people are not working for you. They’re working for them, and you should understand this and maybe we can change something. Then you get outsiders. You get people like Trump, and there’s often outsider candidates who come in and say, I’m not one of them. I’m coming from a different thing. This is not new. I mean, we elected someone who has never held elected office, but I’m not sure that there was any reason that would never happen, especially given [00:13:30] what Aaron said about the popularity of Trump. Don’t forget that just knowing his name was a huge boon for him. Can we just sort of say this is sort of the culmination of a lot of anti‐government sentiment, and maybe libertarians would be like a little bit, maybe not in the form of Trump but could do something with this anti‐government sentiment if we align ourselves correctly?
Jacob Levy: I think that the collapse of institutional trust and institutional norms is very [00:14:00] different from healthy distrust of governmental overreach and what we’re seeing in the rise of populist, nationalist authoritarianism in the various countries that I’ve named is a desire to see power quickly and ruthlessly exercised. What is it people distrusted about Congress? It’s not that Congress passed too many laws. Gridlock, after all, was one of the traditional names for what people hated about Congress. [00:14:30] People in Congress spend all their time talking and they spend all their time not doing their jobs and they take too many vacations. The things that libertarians complain about with respect to over‐powerful national legislatures, these are not the things that are associated with the low levels of public trust and the late night comedian jokes about what life is in Congress is like.
Open market societies, a free and open civil society, the liberal order, [00:15:00] they depend on a certain level of institutional functioning. The state is one of those institutions. The state should be a very restrained one of those institutions and I do think that there would be the possibility for greater institutional trust that went along with a retrenchment in state activity and state purposes, but the instrument of let’s just get people to hate the organization [00:15:30] and to think that there is widespread corruption or ineptitude or disfunction, that instrument’s too blunt, and what it gives rise to at a popular level is not a healthy liberal desire for more trustworthy institutions. It is instead something that gives rise to a very illiberal desire to see great leadership.
Trevor Burrus: So you’re genuinely concerned.
Jacob Levy: I’m genuinely concerned.
Trevor Burrus: On a broad level. This is something new, it’s [00:16:00] not politics as usual, and it’s worldwide.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. You’re right that there are precedents. As we came out of the ’90, 1991 recession, there was both the Pat Buchanan candidacy for the Republican party and the Ross Perot candidacy for the general election, and they appealed to similar constituencies as one another and they appealed to similar constituencies as Trump’s base, but of course the Republican party leadership in 1992 was powerful enough to protect its [00:16:30] even pretty unpopular incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, against the fiery, populist, racist upsurge revolt of Pat Buchanan. Well, events just turned out wrong for Perot. Perot turned out to be too erratic at the wrong time of the season to still be posing a credible threat in the fall.
Whereas the, by capturing the Republican party, Trump put himself in a position to always [00:17:00] be within arm’s reach of the presidency. Once he had the nomination, there was always the chance that things would go this way because voters tend to consolidate around partisan identity, which is different from trusting parties [inaudible 00:17:16], but they did. They tend to vote their team, and elites have a certain tendency to line up behind their team. So Trump had a robustness to his candidacy that Perot didn’t. When Perot went [00:17:30] off the deep end, he self destructed. He exited the race for six weeks, and once he came back into the race, no one was going to give him as serious a hearing because he had shown himself to be erratic and unreliable. Trump showed himself to be erratic and unreliable and would suffer a two or three day dip in the polls and then stabilize again.
Trevor Burrus: But a lot of these things, yes, he is erratic, and I really am profoundly not a fan of Donald Trump, so I find it weird that I’m [00:18:00] defending him. I’m not. I’m putting that in stair quotes, but I do think he’s more normal than a lot of people are concerned, and I think probably you, in the sense that a lot of his policies have been tried before. It’s not, he didn’t pull these things out of thin air. Aside from his kind of muddled communication style and his ability to say whatever pops into his head, and if you listen to the Nixon tapes for example. If you let the recordings of him, what he discussed in his office, [00:18:30] it’s absolutely shocking and it sounds quite Trumpish. He just had the ability with the lifelong in politics to just turn that off and put on a different persona and Trump doesn’t, so that’s the only big difference.
Maybe it’s not that concerning, and on top of that, we also don’t know the level of underlying support for Trump supporters in the issue that voting is a coarse instrument. It could be that 70% of Trump voters were saying, [00:19:00] okay, negative 1,000 to Trump, but negative 1100 to Hillary, so I guess I’ll vote for Trump. As opposed to I really wish Trump was wearing a military uniform and creating a coup and maybe some Trump supporters thought that, but we don’t know that underlying support.
Jacob Levy: I wonder what you mean when you talk about Trump’s policies as having been tried before.
Trevor Burrus: Or at least stated. I mean, anti‐immigration is, comes back perennially often with the number of foreign‐born [00:19:30] people in the United States. There have been wars on the press by FDR, by LBJ. LBJ, FDR, JFK used the IRS against their political enemies. There’s just almost every single thing you can list someone having done. Anti‐trade.
Jacob Levy: My question wasn’t about the precedent. My question was about your sense that there are Trump policies.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, well, good point. Yes. There are two at least I can think. I mean, he is. He’s thin skinned, so we’re afraid of him using the government [00:20:00] against his enemies. That’s been done a lot. I mean, FDR was horrendous on that level, and people who are paragons of liberalism behind the scenes were totalitarians I would say and very, very unsavory people. That’s been done, so he wants to attack the press, he wants to attack immigrants. That’s been done. Immigration, trade, those seem the things that are two beliefs that he has.
Jacob Levy: Those are core beliefs of his. That’s right.
Trevor Burrus: Being thin skinned about the press. No, that’s not new.
Jacob Levy: But you said something important, which [00:20:30] was behind the scenes. Politics is partly created by public speech. Politics is partly how we live out in the world where we set norms by what we say out loud, and Trump’s willingness, his eagerness to say the most toxic and poisonous things out loud even when he doesn’t then as it were cash the policy check. That’s something that in my lifetime [00:21:00] is pretty new and dangerous.
Trevor Burrus: I invite you to go read FDR’s economic royalist speech, which is a shocking, it’s almost the murderer’s rapist, but two rich people in the United States and not forget that FDR banned gold, the private ownership of gold via an executive order. He tried to influence the Supreme Court through a court packing plan.
Jacob Levy: I said in my lifetime, but‐
Trevor Burrus: Not in your lifetime.
Jacob Levy: The 1930s are a moment of global crisis in liberal constitutional democracy.
Trevor Burrus: Good point. [00:21:30] Good point. Touche.
Jacob Levy: To say that the United States was not immune to the crisis of the 1930s, that to me sounds like an even more pessimistic version of what I’m saying now, which is the United States is not immune to the crisis of the 2010s.
Trevor Burrus: But we made it through.
Aaron Powell: I have become over these 100 days, less scared than I was. I still, I dislike Trump profoundly. I think he’s not emotionally or cognitively fit [00:22:00] to hold the office. I don’t think that he can change or improve in any meaningful way, but I guess my sense of the amount of damage he can do has been in decline. Tell me if I’m I guess wrong in my optimism here. My sense is Trump, so he’s been by any objective standard wildly ineffective in his 100 days. He’s failed in almost everything and most of that is on [00:22:30] him. He’s not a very good negotiator. He doesn’t understand the policy. He doesn’t have the perseverance to actually do anything, but the thing that I’ve noticed is and we heard about this during the campaign, is that he’s exceedingly impressionable. He’ll parrot whatever the last person who talked to him.
I see that now, so that the one that springs to mind is his we’re going to withdraw from NAFTA. That looked like him, he needed something big for his [00:23:00] 100 days because he hadn’t had anything, and so he, we’re going to pull out of NAFTA, but then within a matter of days, it was no, no, no. NAFTA’s great, and that’s almost certainly because one of his advisors said, no, no, no. NAFTA’s pretty good in all these ways. If that continues, and again I don’t think that Trump is the kind of man who can change, then it feels like what we may end up with is four years, because I don’t think he’s going to run again, but four years of a guy shooting his mouth off [00:23:30] on Twitter and saying lots of things that may spook markets and spook allies, but in the end the adults in the room are going to pat him on the head and say that sounds good, but we should try this other thing.
Trevor Burrus: Sound and fury signify nothing.
Jacob Levy: Insofar as politics is partly constituted by our speech in our shared space and sound and fury is always damaging in its own right, with respect to international diplomacy, spooking allies isn’t an aside [00:24:00] to brush off. It would be hard to overstate how badly those couple of days were received in Canada and Mexico and by America’s other key trading partners and allies in addition.
Aaron Powell: But if the trend continues, then we can ignore what he says and listen to what Tillerson says or other people.
Jacob Levy: But so here’s the question about the impressionability and the willingness to parrot the last person in the room. How much are we willing to bet [00:24:30] that the last person in the room will always turn out to have been the one who is, as you put it, one of the adults in the room? I have some concern about that. I don’t think there are actually a lot of adults in the White House. There are some in the Cabinet who’ve been scattered around, but there are not many in the West Wing who know what they’re talking about. I think that we got lucky with who talked to him in what order with respect to NAFTA.
There are going to be a whole lot of things [00:25:00] over four years, so to say, well, sometimes we’ll get lucky. Sometimes the erratic‐ness will leave the last position standing is a relatively status quo one. Is that more optimistic than saying everything will always go as badly as possible? Yes. Is it grounds for much optimism? I think not. That he’s ineffective was partly a matter [00:25:30] of an orientation towards staffing and legislation, and one thing that presidents learn over time is what are the areas in which they can act in a pretty unconstrained way. They can act in a pretty unconstrained way with respect to foreign peace, and they can act in a pretty unconstrained way with respect to withdrawing from trade treaties. Those are areas in which the willingness to shoot his mouth off does relevant damage to [00:26:00] how our allies, how our trading partners and how our rivals understand what the United States is up to and sheer erratic‐ness is very much not a virtue in any of those domains.
Trevor Burrus: On the shooting‐his‐mouth‐off point, you’ve written about authoritarianism and post‐truth politics. It’s always an interesting point made by people like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell that authoritarians speak in a particularly [00:26:30] bizarre way, make you believe 2 + 2 = 5, or that there isn’t even such thing as truth. I was reading your essay on that, and I was thinking about something that in the beginning of Trump I thought a lot about, but now I think I’ve kind of clarified my thoughts on this, but the question of whether or not he’s a live wire just doing whatever comes into his head or he’s crazy like a fox and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I can’t figure out. He’s saying, well, which one is more concerning, is someone [00:27:00] who has no idea what’s going on and just says everything, or when he called the Taiwanese president, was that ignorance or is that real sly scheming?
It’s somewhere in between. It’s more, I’m more on the, he’s a live wire who just says whatever pops in his head, but on that point, you seem to imply in your essay that the diminishment or almost re‐definition of the truth is intentional or [00:27:30] that that’s what he’s going for.
Jacob Levy: I try to be careful not to say that. I think that what he has is a lifetime of learned habits that he developed over the course of the very unusual kind of local and familial power that his businesses were about.
Trevor Burrus: And he uses his giant brain and his common sense as he always says.
Jacob Levy: Yes. He also built up a certain kind of self‐image [00:28:00] that he does believe to a certain … I do think that he believes that he’s an extremely smart man, which is terrifying, but the willingness to make, he might think of them as, aggressive claims with respect to the underlying facts, and to use them as loyalty tests to see who among his immediate circle is willing to really go out and stand up for what the boss said and who’s not, that’s something that you could acquire in a kind [00:28:30] of instinctive way that doesn’t require careful calculation.
He’s not going to change. He is who he is, is the thought that we keep returning to. The habits that he learned over the course of this strange kind of business where he’s never really answered to stockholders. He’s answered to certain kinds of investors, but in a way that meant he often had them over a barrel as much as they had him. Someone who is constantly aggressively talking down and writing down his debt [00:29:00] and threatening bankruptcy if he didn’t actually declare bankruptcy. All of those character traits are things that he more or less unconsciously cultivated in the kind of brash, kind of bullying world of being a New York City real estate developer turned reality TV character. Those I think are compatible with a willingness to go farther than he thinks the facts [00:29:30] bear him out on.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think he believes it?
Jacob Levy: Let me get this one more thought out before I forget. One of the most really frightening interviews that he’s given since he was elected was the one in which he talked about how often he turned out to have been right. He gave a speech in which he said something about the terrible thing that happened in Sweden last night, and there wasn’t anything that had happened in Sweden last night. Then something kind of vaguely related happened in Sweden a couple days later. [00:30:00] He says, oh, it turned out I was right. What that means is he feels, and he said, that I don’t know how it happens, but this turns out to be the case all the time. He feels confident in saying things for which he doesn’t have any warrant or any support, going far beyond what the facts will allow, and he thinks that the world will see to it that he turns out with his giant brain to have seen the future coming.
Aaron Powell: He’s just been taking the spice melange.
Trevor Burrus: [00:30:30] Yes, but does he believe it? That’s the interesting question. How much of it is knowing lying, do you think? Some of this stuff, you bring up the three million illegal voters. I have crazy uncles who, I mean they’re not uncles, but I have crazy people in my family who believe that, who have thought that was just the way the world works for a very long time. If you were ever part of a conservative email chain, [00:31:00] hopefully you’re not, but you’ll see. They really believe it and they say, well, illegals are voting all the time. It’s the only reason. I think he believes this stuff, Trump.
Jacob Levy: I think that he knows that he’s going beyond what he has any clear evidence for. We saw it replay about the wiretapping of Trump Tower. He has to know that when he’s just retweets [00:31:30] things that he’s hearing out of the corner of his ear watching Fox News every morning, that the details often aren’t going to be right. People who have an orientation toward truth learn from that to say, ah, maybe I ought to check something once before I just repeat the thing that I thought that I heard. He has no reason that he’s acquired over his career to second guess himself that way. Once he’s [00:32:00] said something, he’s willing to double and triple down on it, but how much he believes it when he says it as opposed to finding it a convenient thing to say, a way to score a point against whoever’s annoying him that day, at some level that’s a mystery. I genuinely don’t understand how his mind works. But I do think that if he cares at all about accuracy, then he knows that he doesn’t [00:32:30] speak accurately.
Trevor Burrus: I just want to point out that FDR, I’m currently working on a long piece about FDR and Trump, but he was also a well‐known liar to his staff. Some of his friends by the end of his few terms had become very distrustful the way he would actually play his people against each other. He also kicked people out of the White House press briefing room and Nixon had an aide call CBS after he won in ’72 to tell them that he would break their network because they didn’t play ball in the first term.
Aaron Powell: [00:33:00] Going forward with Trump, do you think he represents like, so is there … I guess, put it this way. Is there something such as Trumpism as a political ideological force in American politics in the sense that, do you think that we will see whether in upcoming congressional elections or in upcoming presidential elections Trumpist candidates who continue [00:33:30] to do, if not winning the presidency, do well enough to be scary and well enough to exert a meaningful influence on American politics going forward?
Jacob Levy: I think so. I think that this is something that Stephen Bannon has been right about, to say there is such a thing as Trumpism at some level and it’s more or less continuous with the Jacksonian tradition in white American populism. It is [00:34:00] anti‐elite. It is anti‐trade. It is anti‐foreigner. It is anti‐black. It is populist in the sense of being oriented toward wholism and saying the true people is a unified American whole, and anyone we identify as not part of that whole, therefore as such is not genuinely American, is something like an enemy, is something to be treated with contempt and disdain and outside institutional norms. The Republican party has [00:34:30] been riding that particular tiger for a long time, but Republican elites were for a long time in control of what it was they were doing with that voter sentiment. This is something that became almost a cliché about Republican politics was the difference between what sentiments they would cultivate on the campaign trail and what their governance then looked like in Washington.
With the breakdown of the ability of the Republican elites [00:35:00] to control their nomination process, a tremendous opening I suspect has been created for candidates who are much more genuinely committed to that Jacksonian bi‐populist, nationalist tradition. Yes, I think we’re going to see Republican candidates for Congress and Republicans elected to Congress who are instinctively anti‐trade, instinctively anti‐immigrant, have very little affection for the rule of law or for constitutional traditions as such.
Aaron Powell: [00:35:30] So then does this … That group of people, that group of voters, the people who would be, so white working class, anti‐trade, anti‐immigrant are a relatively small demographic compared, and a shrinking one. They’re also a demographic without a lot of economic might, and that’s going to probably accelerate as we see more automation take more of those jobs [00:36:00] and as we see as more immigrants come in and more people move out of those small towns to the coasts and become more culturally …
Trevor Burrus: Whole Foods‐ish.
Aaron Powell: Whole Foods‐ish, yes. Does that mean that that movement is not sustainable? Because we have a kind of all or nothing system in the US, like we can’t have them [00:36:30] take some minority party status, they can’t carve out as much of a chunk, and certainly not successful at the presidential level, and then does this provide an opening for the Democrats to take over as the party of cosmopolitanism, as the party of trade and an open society?
Jacob Levy: I think the answer to the last question is yes. I think that some of the answers to some of the premises leading up to that [00:37:00] are more ambiguous. For one thing, the Senate doesn’t get reapportioned as population moves around and as it were the Jacksonian populations, there’s a certain number of states that they are just going to continue to be overwhelming majorities in and the Senate will provide a relatively long‐term public and powerful representation for them.
Another thing is that it’s not just the white working class. It remains [00:37:30] true that there was an income gradient for willingness to vote Republican in the last election, and within states or within regions, you could get a relatively strong income gradient. Richer people were still more likely to vote for Trump. Some of the strongest support for Trump was from local business elites in rural or exurban or post‐industrial or non‐coastal places. There was a significant donor class that was associated [00:38:00] with all of that. That is to say there are people who are going to continue to have economic resources they can divert to the support of causes like that. It’s not just the people those people employed. It is their employers in all of the non‐coastal, non‐cosmopolitan, non‐elite parts of the country.
Then finally, constitutional democracy works better with two relatively functional parties and [00:38:30] in a presidential system in a two‐party system, there’s going to be a certain amount of alternation in power. Political scientists emphasize the difficulty of winning a third term in a row. There’s an amount of voter fatigue that sets in. This by the way is one of the reasons why I think that Hillary Clinton is getting a bad rap for having been a bad candidate. Compared to political science models about where the economy was and about seeking a third consecutive term for the same party, she did just fine.
[00:39:00] But eventually there will be party turnover, and if one of the two major political parties is in the grip of anti‐institutional, anti‐constitutional, anti‐rule of law, anti‐alliance and all the rest authoritarian sentiments, then you’re always one mistimed recession or one mistimed FBI letter away from a very bad outcome.
Trevor Burrus: You’ve written about the political correctness thesis, which is obviously a very nebulous term, [00:39:30] whatever that means, but it’s also related to identity politics. You push back saying that political correctness is not, and identity politics is not the cause of this. It actually maybe paradoxically for liberals in the small L sense, identity politics is a good thing. Why is that?
Jacob Levy: There were a couple of different moving parts to that essay. One of them was the explanation of the election itself. There were [00:40:00] a lot of people who had written in the immediate aftermath of the election essays that had the conclusion that eventually got reduced to a cliché that said that’s how you get Trump.
Trevor Burrus: Yes. “This is why Trump won” is the new “Thanks Obama.”
Jacob Levy: Yes. So that’s how you get Trump because, well, black people or gay people or trans people or women or some cultural elite or member of Hollywood society said something relatively aggressive in demanding recognition for [00:40:30] or accommodation for some minority interest. It’s a morally toxic argument insofar as it treats the white conservative voters as passive responders. They are merely objects who when they are acted upon, they will lash out.
One of the things that I said a number of times over the course of the last year and before the election was [00:41:00] the voters who feel so insulted by coastal, cosmopolitan and minority elites, I’m not sure that anyone had said anything as bad about them as, you in a fit of pique will elect the presidency, someone who is mentally and emotionally incapable of holding the office and who has no relevant competent experience, and who is a serial sexual assaulter and who is a serial adulterer, a bankrupt and a … The idea that they were [00:41:30] other elite, the other insults going around that were bad enough to justify that, which was a much worse thing to do than what they were being charged with in the first, that seems to be just a very strange account of morality and social morality.
But more importantly, when you look at the polling over the course of the campaign, Trump’s moments of most aggressive political anti‐correctness or incorrectness were the moments [00:42:00] when his poll support cratered. His attacks on Judge Curiel for being incapable of hearing a case against him because he’s Mexican, his attack on the Khans, the speculation that Mrs. Khan was not able to speak because she’s a Muslim and Muslim women aren’t allowed to speak, and the Billy Bush tape, those are moments when his poll results really cratered very quickly. That, it seems to me, is just fatal for the thesis that says what [00:42:30] we had was a sheer hunger for political correctness and for telling feminists and minorities what’s the what and for making them back off.
It was a close election that he lost the popular vote for and where his ability to cut across the finish line was in detail, well, it was about the timing of the Comey letter. It wasn’t because he had bravely stood up to the forces of feminists or …
Trevor Burrus: So why is identity politics okay, though?
Jacob Levy: [00:43:00] Because identity politics provides a way to channel the energy of knowing where the shoe pinches. The populations that are injured or disadvantaged by state policy very often in the United States, for example African Americans, they rally and they organize and they put political energy into things because they understand at a basic level when they are being [00:43:30] targeted and mistreated. We’ve read, we in this building, have read policy document after policy document for as long as any of us have been politically literate about the evils of the drug war, about the evils of civil forfeiture, about the evils of over‐incarceration. Terrifyingly little happened or things got worse and worse and worse.
Then Black Lives Matter [00:44:00] happened over the course of the last several years and for the first time in my lifetime, there was a real political movement about over‐incarceration, about police mistreatment, about the drug war that provided enough political cover that the Obama administration’s Justice Department was finally in about year six of his presidency able to start making tiny but in the right direction changes. After a generation [00:44:30] of every change being in the wrong direction, it seemed to me that Black Lives Matter was doing real work at channeling and organizing black political energy because people get emotionally invested in things when they sense at an inchoate level that it really matters for them, for their lives, for their communities. More good got done over a couple of years on police, on prisons, on the drug war as a result of Black Lives Matter [00:45:00] than as a result of policy paper after policy paper after conference after workshop among libertarians who understand the evils of those things but who don’t have the same kind of ability to organize and channel a mass political movement around them.
Aaron Powell: We’re recording this right now as the building around us is in a festive state celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Cato Institute. What does we’ve discussed [00:45:30] today so far say about and for the future of the libertarian movement that Cato is a part of? Does Trump’s victory and the forces that led to it change the way that libertarians should approach our overall mission? Does it say that we’ve somehow failed in that mission? Should we be at least, is there any [00:46:00] cause for optimism about the future of Liberty?
Trevor Burrus: Or I had one more question. I was actually talking with Matthew Feeney, a sometime cohost of Free Thoughts, which is, should we worry about if we don’t resist the regime we’ll be considered like a Vichy government that are collaborators with when Trump goes away? We’ll just resist it with all of our might and never try to work with them.
Jacob Levy: Yes, I do think we should worry about that. I absolutely think that we should have an orientation toward [00:46:30] very, very firm and clear opposition throughout the Trump presidency.
Trevor Burrus: Even on things that we might agree with him on.
Jacob Levy: I think it’s important not to chase little shiny objects and not to say because one person we like, someone we’ve been going to meetings with for a long time, someone who says things like what we say got appointed to one position, or because in Trump’s erratic random descriptions [00:47:00] of various things, one day the stopped clock happens to say something relatively deregulatory that suddenly we say, well, we will cooperate on areas of shared interest. If you understand that the Trump administration is basically erratic, basically lawless, basically opposed to the free and open society, if you understand that there’s never going to be a serious deregulatory movement as much as there’s going to be just a kind of chaotic [00:47:30] under‐enforcement of regulations that will remain on the books, thereby significantly increasing regulatory uncertainty because you never know when you’re breaking the law and when you’re not. If you understand that tax cuts and deregulation combined with increasing trade barriers are really very rarely a net improvement in market conditions, then the stance has to be one of very clear, consistent, principled opposition.
[00:48:00] Even more profoundly than that, libertarians are a part of the liberal, Democratic, constitutional market center in an important way. This is something that I have been thinking about and taking a lot more seriously not just since Trump but in the wake of the populist uprisings around the world. I do think that libertarians have underappreciated how much our vision [00:48:30] for a free and open society is one that is situated within the institutions of liberal constitutional democracy, and that which is bad for liberal constitutional democracy is bad for our vision of the free and open society even when there’s an occasional as it were haphazard policy win. We need to care about the health of the political institutions that keep at bay the forces that would destroy the whole system that we are aiming for.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode [00:49:00] of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.