The following guest post is by T.R.C. Hutton, author of Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South.
I am hesitant to present anything in electoral politics to intellectual historians, but the recent entry by Ben Alpers has made me brave, especially given the recent oddball successes in the Republican nomination race. Intellectuals of varying political stripes have been rending their garments for months over the campaign success of Donald Trump. Not only is Trump’s style tactically anti-intellectual, his rhetoric about immigration, taxation and foreign policy is strange enough to suggest that actual partisan policy experts are of no utility to a modern candidate.
Indeed, Trump is a candidate who goes beyond reactionary populism, and reaches a depth of erudition that almost suggests an absence of any discernible ideology (say, what would Daniel Bell think?).
However, I do believe there is a familiar ideology at work that has propelled Trump to his current height, while also doing it for two other candidates, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. For decades, the doctrine[s] of neoliberalism dominated political discourse in the United States. Milton Friedman began a full-on scholarly assault on Keynesian economics during the stagflation of the 1970s, and his work (along with fellow economist Arthur Laffer) found political voice during the “Reagan Revolution” sometime between 1976 and 1980. Intellectuals and politicians who favor social democracy, or even simple dampers placed on market rapaciousness, have been playing defense ever since. Very recently, amid the Tea Party revolt within the Republican Party, neoliberalism has entered a more pronounced phase, with privatization the cure to all ills in the playbooks of politicians all over the United States. As historian Daniel Stedman Jones writes in Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (2012), the predominance of neoliberalism anti-statist state policy can be traced to an incremental series of steps taken by politicians and economists from monetarism to mass deregulation rather than a sudden change. But, in terms of political rhetoric, politicians kept taking the steps regardless of changing economic conditions.
It stands to reason then that presidential candidacy itself might become privatized, with veteran public servants like Jeb Bush and Mark Rubio forced to contend with colorful entrepreneurs who have no experience whatsoever in the public sector. Donald Trump represents this trend most flamboyantly. Trump is hardly a Friedman purist in the same way as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Kentucky senator Rand Paul. Indeed, Walker and Paul’s relative failure appealing to a national audience suggests that they over play their respective hands. Rather than espousing privatization, Trump chooses to embody it. By touting his personal wealth, Trump echoes the old republican ideal of patrician disinterestedness while betraying it with populist snarls against elites and “special interests.” More pointedly, he, Carson and Fiorina point to their successes outside of government as alternatives to government itself. None of the three fits perfectly into the neoliberal mold as far as what they present in terms of policy. Instead, they present themselves to voters as a new product is presented to consumers. Their foibles as individuals overshadow their poorly outlined policy proposals and their voting base seems, so far, to like it that way. They represent a mass rejection of career politicians just as their chosen party ostensibly rejects government itself. Donald Trump is hardly what Hayek and Friedman pictured in the twentieth century, but as a privatized candidate for the highest office in the land, he is their ironic progeny.
This privatization of candidacy is not entirely unprecedented, even if it seems to be occurring in a purer form than ever. In the Gilded Age it was rare for captains of industry to run for office. Ohio petroleum pioneer Mark Hanna stands as one of a small number of businessmen to go from business to Republican politics, and his historical impact was more that of a party kingmaker than a candidate (the same could be said for occasional Democrat William Randolph Hearst). There remained a vestige of the old republican ideal of disinterestedness and why run when you could manipulate?
It was not until 1940 that a businessman unseasoned in politics, Wendell Willkie, made the first serious attempt at the presidency- and in doing so, carried a greater electoral share than any of Franklin Roosevelt’s three other challengers, not to mention the largest sheer number of Republican ballots in history. In Amity Shlaes’s telling (in The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression ), Wilkie represented the last gasp of classical liberalism against the overwhelming forces of the federal government. Willkie had lost a fortune to the mega-Keynesian Tennessee Valley Authority, and his candidacy represented a “forgotten man’s” attempt to reclaim what was his against the New Deal. Although Willkie ended up one of the most fascinating losers in the history of presidential elections, he did not set much of a precedent; no one tried to make the direct leap from business to presidency for decades to come (even Reagan had an extended sojourn in the California governor’s mansion as a rest stop between Hollywood and the White House).
Privatized candidacy reared its head again in the most neoliberal decade of all, the 1990s, when eccentric Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot made a short series of runs that turned into the short-lived, and poorly defined, Reform Party (now best remembered as the opportunity for wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura to defeat Hubert Humphrey III and became governor of Minnesota). And then there was Stephen Forbes, of his father’s eponymous magazine, whose primary contribution to 1996 was the proposal of a flat tax. Forbes was never a vital threat, but he got enough attention to make most of the other GOP candidates (including eventual nominee, the affable, hoary statesman Bob Dole) propose their own flat tax initiatives. Forbes was quite open that he openly embraced trickle-down economics and everything Friedman-esque, more than a decade before such things became undeniable articles of faith for the GOP.
But in the twenty-first century the trend grew somewhat more surreal, especially in the personage of pizza magnate Herman Cain, who had a brief moment in the sun during the 2011 Republican nomination race. Cain’s chief ideas were as business-friendly as they were simplistic: the leveling of federal income and capital gains taxes to nine percent to match a corresponding nationwide sales tax–a more gimmicky variation (“Nine, Nine, Nine”) on the Forbes plan from sixteen years earlier. Despite his lack of ultimate success, he proved his worth as a candidate via his showy personality and (unlike the legatee Forbes) Horatio Alger-esque business successes. Cain’s brief moment in the political sun did little but show there is a demand for candidates who are strangers to government.
Trump, Carson and Fiorina do not necessarily fit the Alger mold perfectly, but their potential voters do not seem to care. The three candidates are alternatives to the mandarinate of career politicians that are, in some eyes, as much forces of “big government” as the Department of Health and Human Services or the IRS. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz can repeat Reagan’s dictum of government being the “problem” ad nauseam, but they can never deny their own (albeit brief) presence in the US Senate. They are running against products of their own rhetoric, the ultimate rejection of politics as a vocation (but not in the sense that Max Weber meant it in 1918). Trump seems to barely notice most of the other contenders except when he is forced to acknowledge them on the hustings. At this writing, his most recent proposal is a boycott of the Starbuck’s coffee chain based on the company’s overly secular cardboard cups. It may be an irrelevant maneuver, but it seems appropriate that Trump would launch a salvo against what he considers the only worthy adversary in sight: an international corporation.
What does this mean for American political culture and the future of presidential races? Possibly, nothing; this cycle may prove to be a bizarre aberration, and it is still likely that both parties will end up nominating candidates with ordinary careers in public service. I have scurried to finish this essay before what I think is going to happen starts to become obvious: the polling decline of the private sector candidates and the almost structurally inevitable (a word I hate to use because I don’t believe in political inevitability, but bear with me) lining up of likely Republican voters behind one of the “establishment” candidates with a traditional background in elected office. The successes of Trump, Carson and Fiorina may prove to be short-lived since the Republican National Committee clearly prefers to throw its support to known quantities that understand the value of pre-blueprinted talking points–the panic that surrounded Sarah Palin in fall, 2008 is still a raw memory in the party’s country club sector.
But whatever the GOP’s electorate or party elites do, they will do it while advocating the same neoliberal forces that gave birth to these rogue campaigns. What will happen when the Republican Party has to face off against the walking, talking personification[s] of its own platform?
In candid moments, Republicans may own up to the fact that privatized candidates are mutations of their own rhetoric, the next logical step in the process of turning everything into a commodity, including the potential leaders of the “free world.” It does not matter whether or not these campaigns make headway in 2016. What matters is that neoliberalism has extended from rhetoric (Reagan) to policy (Clinton) to the political process itself. It does not bode well. but, given the last thirty years, what took it so long?