Trumpism has always been more interesting as a phenomenon than as an ideology. This is in part because, as even some of his supporters have conceded, Trump himself is a man of instinct and aggression, rather than reflection or—God forbid—wonkiness. Some would argue that Trumpism is therefore best understood as an ideology of the gut, rather than of the head: a visceral reaction to cultural malaise and to the economic shift from an industrial to a technocratic society. And, of course, Trumpism could always be understood as a resentment-driven reaction to liberal and progressive rhetoric and politics, directed against woke scolds, busybody politicians who spend other people’s money and activists who call for more immigration or want to defund the police. As Rich Lowry has put it, Trumpism was “the only middle finger available” to stick it to the “woke cultural tide that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between.”
To conceive of Trumpism as a visceral reaction, a mere politics of resentment or a cult of personality, more bang than substance, implies that Trumpists are unprincipled and intellectually shallow. So, unsurprisingly, conservatives have tried to define a more intellectually impressive Trumpism that goes beyond QAnon conspiracy theories and speculations on the virtues of injecting bleach. Contenders to be the spokesman for the Trumpist philosophy have included everyone from post-liberals like Sohrab Ahmari, nationalists in the vein of Yoram Hazony, self-described classical liberals and far right “traditionalists” like Steve Bannon, as well as popular infotainment conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin.
Defending the MAGA Doctrine
The MAGA Doctrine falls squarely in the infotainment camp. Kirk is the “millennial” (this comes up a lot in his book) founder of Turning Point USA, a conservative group that pushes right-wing narratives on school and university campuses. While Kirk got his start as a high-level troll, advocating controversial policies like 2016’s infamous professor watchlist, he now seems to be going the Ben Shapiro route of taking a stab at intellectual respectability. The MAGA Doctrine is peppered with handwavy appeals to luminaries like Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat and Thomas Aquinas and half-assed jabs at Karl Marx, “liberals,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Woodrow Wilson. It’s not always clear that Kirk really understands these authors. One notable example is Cicero. Kirk claims that Cicero was a venerable politician who warned that Rome was “losing its way, ceasing to be great because it was straying from its long-held republican principles,” while Julius Caesar “pushed Rome in the direction of empire” by destroying the basic principles the city stood for. This is a bad take on several levels. Kirk routinely goes out of his way to express admiration for Trump’s populism—sticking up for the little guy against elite politicians—while ignoring that fact that it was Caesar who led the Roman populares and mobilized the grievances of the Roman middle classes and soldiery against the optimates, who were keen to reserve power and privileges for themselves and rule through the aristocratic senate. Caesar, of course, did indeed try to overthrow the republic and replace senatorial, aristocratic rule with autocracy. But Cicero was hardly a friend of the little guy or of mass participation. He was a high ranking optimate who insisted on defending the better educated over the lower classes: “brute animal[s]” governed by instinct. He would surely have despised Trumpist populism for its lack of erudition, classical virtue and intellectualism. Vague generalisations and misunderstandings of this kind abound in The MAGA Doctrine.
Kirk initially seems to see Trumpism as libertarian:
What is the MAGA Doctrine? Bigger is not always better. The role of government should be so small that it is barely noticeable. Yet, over the past several decades it has ballooned into an enormous enterprise thanks to both political parties. Too many institutions created to counter the power of government, from the media to Wall Street, have practically joined forces with it. Fake news is out of control and defense contractors have taken unprecedented advantage of the American taxpayer.
But, of course, right-wing libertarians and classical liberals were only one part of the Trumpist coalition, and by no means always dominant. The most intellectually astute defenders of Trump tend to foreground the elements of Trumpism they like, while critiquing the rest. But Kirk seems to just assert all the movement’s contradictory claims at once, while insisting they fit together more or less seamlessly. The result is a mess. Nationalism—a collectivist doctrine if ever there was one, deeply inspired by Kirk’s bogeyman Rousseau—gets the thumbs up. But so does market individualism—unless it becomes necessary to regulate Big Tech, which risks transitioning into “capitalism turned against itself.” One minute, Kirk is waxing poetic about declining standards in universities, where the “classics of Western civilization” have been replaced by the “gospel of social justice,” which apparently includes “subversion, mysticism, socialism, collectivism, gun control, sixty-three genders, and post-modernism.” Never mind that Kirk himself praises Trump for subverting the establishment—as the “Great Disruptor”—or that many of Trump’s religious followers might identify with practices that could be called mystical. Because the next minute Kirk is insisting that all these anxieties about highfalutin intellectual philosophies are misguided, since the Ivy League elites who think they know better are so often out of touch. The contradictory claims go on for hundreds of pages. Often the only glue that seems to hold this together is the author’s personality. Like Trump himself, Kirk insists that the only way to stop American “decline” is to buy into what he’s saying. Maybe that’s why so much of The MAGA Doctrine focuses on longwinded stories about hunting alligators with Don Jr, ruminating on how much fun it was to watch Trump go at it on Twitter, or speculating on Kamala Harris’ sex life, rather than making compelling arguments.
The Libertarian Case Against Trumpism
As a cosmopolitan liberal socialist, I have deep reservations about virtually every element of Trumpism. I’ve argued that we should understand it as a kind of postmodern conservatism, emerging from the complex cultural dynamics of the neoliberal era and defined as much by what it opposes as by what it is for. But, in addition, Kirk’s arguments don’t hold up even on their own terms, as libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has shown.
Brennan is an unabashedly elitist author who argues for the gradual replacement of democracy with an “epistocracy”—rule by the knowledgeable. His 2016 book Against Democracy marshals a formidable volume of data to argue that most voters are either too ignorant or too partisan to make sound political decisions. Against those who argue that people have a right to participate in politics, Brennan argues that there is a competing right to competent government. He justifies this on explicitly libertarian grounds. This naturally cuts against the liberal argument for state management of the economy, and the socialist case for workplace democracy. But Brennan’s argument is also directed against conservatives like Trump and Kirk, who endorse protectionist, nationalist policies.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of immigration. In his book Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, Brennan chastises conservatives who claim to be libertarians but still support one of the most insidious exercises of statism: deciding who gets to live in the country and who doesn’t. Brennan points out that policing the benefits of citizenship is a spectacular example of state power being exercised over millions of people. A principled libertarian can therefore not support strict—or maybe even any—immigration laws. Strict immigration policies also run counter to an ideal free labour market, in which companies and firms are free to hire whomever they want from wherever they want. If conservatives believe that interference with the free market will make people poorer in the long run, there is no reason why they should support restricting economic activity by insisting that companies hire Americans, when workers from elsewhere might be better equipped to do the jobs concerned, and more economical. Such workers also bring with them all the educational skills and abilities other states have invested in—the benefits of which the host country reaps for free. Or, as Kirk himself puts it, “to the extent that trade is voluntary—you want something, and I am willing to sell it to you—it’s always a plus.”
The few arguments Kirk makes for the stricter immigration policies Trump put forward are flimsy and unconvincing. He repeats a few anecdotes about crimes committed by migrants, claims that “the rights of refugees and immigrants” should not be protected at the expense of “other Americans’ rights or the values that made America unique,” and warns that migrants may take advantage of the American welfare state—disregarding the fact that migrant workers also pay taxes. None of this addresses the principled objections theorists like Brennan would raise. Kirk claims to want small government and freedom, while endorsing a president who spent billions on walls and police to keep people from exercising their freedom of movement to enter and work in the United States and employers’ freedom to hire them.
Hagiography and Pastiche
The MAGA Doctrine isn’t the worst piece of pop-conservative pseudo-intellectualism I’ve read, since unfortunately we live in a world that contains Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Book. I agree with Kirk’s criticisms of the neoconservative movement, and agree that Barak Obama made some bad foreign policy decisions. Kirk is also right about the anti-democratic ethos that underpinned decades of neoliberal governance, and the resultant dangers posed by crony capitalism and the influence of big money in politics.
But insofar as the book is a defence of “the MAGA doctrine,” Kirk does a lot to vindicate critics who claim Trumpism was an intellectually incoherent collection of grievances, instincts and insults: a lot of hot air and middle fingers directed at “liberal elites” by Wharton educated billionaires. Moreover, beyond aging poorly in light of the 6 January 2021 riots and the mishandling of the COVID Crisis, the never-ending hagiographic passages about Trump himself strongly imply that the MAGA doctrine was largely the personality cult of an infamously erratic and historically dishonest man. The smartest defenders of twenty-first century conservatism have acknowledged that Trump is an imperfect vessel at best, and his doctrine needs a lot of tinkering to be plausible.
As a postmodern cultural phenomenon, Trumpism was defiantly contradictory: appealing to a pastiche of identities and value systems unified only by antagonisms and fears. The fact that Trumpism could emerge testifies to the profound problems underpinning contemporary American society. But it is symptomatic of such problems, rather than their cure. It remains unclear whether Trump himself has a political future. If not, postmodern conservatives like Kirk will need to find someone else to be their flag-hugging standard bearer.
Image by Gage Skidmore