It has long been apparent that the strain of “populist nationalism” familiar to those on the Trumpier end of the Republican spectrum shares many of the progressive left’s policy prescriptions, even if both camps disagree on the outcomes those policies are designed to produce. From trade protectionism, to national “industrial policy” to rhetorical bombast about how “a small group” of elites benefits more from economic liberalism than “the people,” modern right-wing populism shares many affinities with 20th century leftism. Now, one of this philosophy’s premier champions has leaned so far to the left that he’s stumbled into outright Bolshevism.
Vance insisted that the Ford Foundation, and groups like it, “pretend to be charities.”
This week, right-leaning online news sites latched onto an otherwise obscure controversy involving a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University who filmed herself harassing white students with pro-police stickers on their laptops. Those sites tracked down the harasser: an activist who is also a fellow with the Ford Foundation, the nonprofit advocacy and philanthropy group. In his ongoing campaign to leverage the right’s cultural persecution complex for his own gain, the author and U.S. Senate candidate in Ohio J.D. Vance glommed on to the controversy. Oddly enough, though, his proposal to remedy this injustice is to use the far-left’s economic policies to stop the spread of the far-left’s cultural polices.
Appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” both Vance and the program’s host wondered aloud why the United States allows organizations like the Ford Foundation to exist as tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofits. Vance insisted that the Ford Foundation, and groups like it, “pretend to be charities,” which allows them to avoid paying corporate taxes. Vance went on to criticize American progressives for failing to target their own allies with political retribution.
“We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in ill-gotten, accumulated wealth,” Vance declared. “Why are we allowing the companies, the foundations that are destroying this country to receive tax preferences? Why don't we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who've had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?” Vance, who accused the institutions he wants to liquidate of being “the ultimate institutions of identity politics,” then rattled off a series of communities that should be the select beneficiaries of the largesse he would expropriate and redistribute.
This sort of thing is what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, called “boob bait for bubba.” It may sound good to some untrained ears, but is neither feasible nor desirable. Tax exemptions for institutions that devote themselves to advocacy and endure the federal scrutiny associated with their organizational status, to say nothing of the deductions available to contributors to those institutions, is a vital aspect of the social contract. They are exempt precisely so that avaricious demagogues can’t punish them for their beliefs. What’s so concerning isn’t that this is the sort of bait that Vance believes his “bubbas” will lap up. It’s that he might be right.
If Vance is indicative of a more coherent populist nationalism than the lifestyle brand Donald Trump promoted as president, he and his voters could represent the vanguard of a more familiar sort of “conservatism.” It was the “conservatism” to which politicians on the right were predisposed a half century ago.
This “conservatism,” embraced by President Richard Nixon, pushed price and wage controls that sacrificed economic dynamism in the pursuit of petty domestic popularity. It was championed by the likes of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose “middle way” conceded that the ideological fight over state control of the levers of the economy was all but over, and his side had lost, only to secure some scraps of political power. That brand of right-leaning economic thinking accepted “natural monopolies” as the most efficient structure for regulating the ever-growing list of public utilities. It acknowledged that inflated confiscatory taxation was necessary not just to fund the sprawling apparatus of the state, but to ensure no private entity could assume enough influence to challenge the state. It was mistrustful of markets and protective of the social status quo, even at the expense of growth and social mobility. It was, in short, a marginally less hard-nosed progressivism.
Vance and others who mimic Trump’s style of grievance politics fancy themselves fighters, but their preferred battlefields are almost entirely cultural.
That style of “conservatism” was undone by pro-market reformers who challenged both popular public opinion and sclerotic consensus among policymakers to dismantle the mixed economies of the 20th century. Among them, Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who favored vigorous, disaggregating commercial competition. They fought tooth and nail in defense of their visions, and they succeeded in displacing their more capitulatory colleagues on the right.
Populist nationalists of the strain represented by Vance and others who mimic Trump’s style of grievance politics fancy themselves fighters, but their preferred battlefields are almost entirely cultural. Their causes are political only insofar as they captivate audiences for whom politics is a source of identity and entertainment. Moreover, their solutions to those fleeting controversies are usually unrealizable. That is not to say that their ideas are not harmless. In accepting the notion that property rights are violable, so long as those violations are reserved for those whose prosperity is somehow retroactively deemed misbegotten, Vance is granting legitimacy to one of modern progressivism’s central tenets.
And so, we find ourselves back in the paradigm of an unhappy past. We are forced to choose between two allegedly competing value systems whose programs differ primarily in that the domestic enemies they seek to demonize and punish are distinct. We are offered two alternatives: one party that would impose economic hardships on whole sectors of society in the name of fairness, and another that would seize only the property of a few ideological enemies and perhaps manage the state’s sprawling decline with slightly more aplomb.
In that sense, the populist nationalists aren’t fighting at all. They’re surrendering. That isn’t an option American conservatives should accept.