About this Issue

Democratic politics sometimes changes dramatically in a short space of time. We may be living in one of those times. In his provocative lead essay, Stephen Davies argues that the forces of nationalism and populism are on the march in Britain, the Untied States, France, Germany, and many other countries. The sudden salience of the conflict between populism and continued globalization indicates that we are indeed experiencing a political realignment. Old causes and issues may fade in importance; new ones may take their place or even be settled definitively.

But is this really the case? Characterizing political trends across the democratic world is a complex business, full of exceptions, ambiguities, and mistaken identities. We’ve recruited a panel of political thinkers with varying perspectives to put Davies’s argument to the test: Francis H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. Jacob T. Levy is the the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University. And Henry Farrell is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and Elliott School of International Affairs of the George Washington University. Each will have a chance to respond to Davies, and all will discuss through the end of the month. Comments are also open for the month for readers’ feedback. We welcome you to join the discussion.

Lead Essay

The Great Realignment: Understanding Politics Today

For many it seems as though we are living through a time of political breakdown and chaos. In many democracies, established parties are losing votes and declining as political forces. This particularly affects the social democratic center-left but has started to affect the mainstream center-right as well. Everywhere there is success for new insurgent forces and parties, usually described as “populist.” Most of these, such as the Rassemblement national in France (RN; formerly the Front national), the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (AfD), or the Sweden Democrats (to give just three of many examples) are described as “radical right,” but there are also insurgencies from the radical left such as Podemos in Spain. In the UK there was the 2016 Brexit vote, seen everywhere as a popular revolt against the establishment, while the United States has seen the election of Donald Trump and the rise of a radical left in the Democratic Party.

Most observers see all of this as both unexpected and new or unprecedented. There has already been a significant literature describing it and trying to make sense of it. Most of this tries to explain the political upheavals in terms of something called populism. This is broadly defined as a kind of politics that sees society as divided between a homogeneous and pure “people” and a corrupt and even malevolent “elite.” The implication of much of this is that things such as the election of Trump or Brexit or the rise of parties like the AfD and RN are a kind of emotional reaction by disaffected voters, one that will dissipate once the cause of their disaffection (about which there is disagreement) has been dealt with.

All of this misconceives what is actually going on. What most developed democracies are experiencing is a realignment of politics. This is a process in which the one or two major issues that define political identities and divisions change. As a result, old alliances and voting patterns break down and new ones emerge. People who were once opponents become allies and vice versa. This reflects changes in the substantive divisions of interest and sentiment in society, shifts in the balance of power among social classes and within the class of political investors and donors, and changes in what primarily concerns both voters and the politically influential. Realignments of this kind occur regularly in most democracies, typically on a generational basis—every 40 years or so—and thus this kind of upheaval is not unprecedented or novel. While it is true that many of the new parties and politicians have a populist rhetoric and style this is not a core feature of the phenomenon of realignment itself; rather it reflects the nature of the emerging division in politics and the current situation. As such it will not persist, but neither will it fade away. Rather we will see a move to a new and stable political alignment in which the ideas associated with populism now will become one of the two major poles of political debate while the populist style diminishes.

What though is a political alignment? At any time there are many issues that divide people, over which there is debate and argument. There are many different ways in which positions on these questions can be combined. So one person might for example be opposed to abortion, also hostile to the death penalty, and a supporter of free markets, while someone else could be a supporter of free markets, in favor of the death penalty, and relaxed about abortion. There are potentially almost as many combinations of positions on the range of issues as there are voters. However, actual politics always has a binary quality with two broadly defined sides or camps. In countries with a first past the post electoral system these will be two large parties while in a proportional representation system there will be many parties, but these will be grouped into two broad coalitions. There is no system where voters elect individual representatives who then form shifting coalitions on an issue by issue basis.

This reflects two fundamental realities. The first is that stable and effective government requires stable and coherent bodies of politicians and voters who remain together long term. The second is that the fundamental division in politics is that between being in power and out of power, which is always a binary one. How though is the binary division achieved? The answer is that while there are many disagreements and divisions there are always just one or two that are particularly salient: that is, they are important to large numbers of people and matter to political investors. These are the aligning issues, and people tend to align themselves with or against others on the basis of the views they take on those aligning questions.

This means that broad coalitions often disagree internally on minor issues but their members discount those disagreements because they share a position on the main, aligning issues. It also means that with time their views on the other issues tend to align, even when there is no logical reason why they should—for example, there is no reason why support for free markets should necessarily go along with enthusiasm for capital punishment, but in many times and places this has been the case. Typically there are just two aligning issues, with one of those two the primary issue and the other secondary (sometimes there are as many as three, but this is exceptional). This leads to a quadrant with four broad groups of votes reflecting the four possible combinations of views on the two aligning issues.

However, political alignments (or “dispensations” as some call them) do not last forever. Eventually one or both of the aligning issues loses its salience and ceases to matter as much as it did. This can be because of a decisive victory for one side, or because people simply stop caring about it in large enough numbers. So in mid-Victorian Britain relations between Church and State and the position of the established church was one of the two principal aligning issues but this was no longer the case by the 1890s. At this point a new aligning issue arises, reflecting the actual divisions of power, interest, and sentiment in society. This will often cut across previous divisions, and so all kinds of political alliances and voting patterns are disrupted. This is a realignment, which typically lasts for anything from four to fifteen or sixteen years. Once it ends a new and stable alignment has formed, which then lasts for another thirty to forty years. Historically realignments in many countries involve party splits and recombinations, or the appearance and rise of new parties and the replacement of old ones. We can clearly see this in early realignments in the United States, such as the one between 1852 and 1860, or the earlier one between 1820 and 1828. Sometimes, however, a realignment takes the form of an abrupt transformation of a political party so that although it has the same name and even many of the same personnel, the ideology it stands for and its voting coalition undergo a radical change. This is particularly true of realignments in modern first-past-the-post systems that make the rise of new parties difficult.

In most developed democracies including the UK and United States, the last realignment took place in the 1970s. The primary aligning issue was that of the degree to which the government should intervene in the economy and support egalitarian redistribution while the secondary one was over how far the government should use its power and the criminal law to uphold a particular set of moral norms and rules. This produced four broad blocs of voters, of which two were dominant and the “poles” of that alignment. One pole combined support for egalitarianism and state intervention in the economy with support for social liberalism (an assertion of private judgment and independence in the area of morals and conduct), while the other pole combined support for a free market approach in economics with social conservatism and a role for the government in enforcing moral rules. We may describe these two groups as liberals and conservatives in the U.S. lexicon and as social democrats and free market conservatives everywhere else. The two “homeless” blocs were, firstly, consistent libertarians (opposed to active government in both areas) and, secondly, consistent authoritarians, who favored government authority in both. For various reasons the second group of “homeless” voters were not competed for but ignored and taken for granted, while the first group were the crucial swing voters. The result was a gradual move towards the moderately anti-government position on both issues.

This division, which could be found in most democracies (there are exceptions such as Japan), has now broken down. We are now seeing the emergence of a new aligning issue. What though is it, and what is driving its emergence? The question of the economic role of government retains its salience, and in fact we are seeing a revival of argument around that topic and a clear movement away from the free market pole of that axis. However, the second issue has been transformed. The question now is not so much that of social conservatism versus social liberalism. Instead the key issue is that of identity, and in particular the tension between globalism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand and nationalism and ethnic or cultural particularism on the other. This is often described as a polarity between “openness” and “closedness” and has been noticed in most contemporary democracies (Spain and Portugal are the major exceptions). Increasingly this new aligning issue is becoming the primary one and is supplanting the economic division (which as said persists) as the big political division.

This new alignment again produces four blocs of voters. One, which has already clearly emerged in most countries, may be described as “national collectivists.” They are nationalist and patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan and anti-globalism; they are economic nationalists and support an active economic role for government and a large and generous but strictly national welfare state; they are cultural traditionalists and (often) social conservatives, and they support traditional ideas of identity, particularly masculinity and femininity. Alongside them are the free market conservatives who we may describe as national liberals—their philosophy could be described as “capitalism in one country.” This is an increasingly unstable position politically, and this group is facing a squeeze from several directions.

The other two blocs are currently in a race to see which emerges as the main alternative to the “national collectivists.” The first and in most countries the largest group may be described as “cosmopolitan liberals.” They are broadly free market, strongly cosmopolitan and globalist, socially liberal, and egalitarian. The second are the radical left. They are strongly in favor of an interventionist economic policy, also strongly globalist and cosmopolitan, but also committed to a kind of radical identity politics. All of these four blocs have shared sociological features and are often geographically separate as well, which makes their political significance greater. The “national collectivists” are typically older, white, often working class, and people who have not attended university, while the radical left and liberal cosmopolitans are typically younger, university educated, and more affluent or professional. The national collectivists are disproportionately found in rural areas, small towns, and ex-industrial areas while the “cosmopolitan liberals” and radical left live in major metropolitan areas. University education in this case is a proxy for a related division, which is position in the meritocratic labor market and the degree to which people work in sectors that are globally competitive and traded.

From this perspective current upheavals make sense. Social democratic parties everywhere are in trouble because they have two quite different kinds of voter that are very difficult to combine into a voting coalition. Center right parties face increasing challenges because they are losing voters to both national collectivists and emerging groups of liberal cosmopolitans; this can be seen very clearly in France for example. What we are seeing everywhere except Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, is the emergence and increasing success of national collectivist parties. These often start off with a “capitalism/free market in one country” program, but the usual pattern is for a sharp move towards a more statist and dirigiste one. At the moment these parties have a populist style or rhetoric. This however is not essential to their identity: instead it reflects the position arrived at by the end of the last alignment and the nature of the division alluded to above. By the 2000s there was a true consensus among the political and media classes around a kind of politics that emphasized cosmopolitan ideas about culture and identity, so a politics that questions that will be seen as hostile to the elite because it has little elite support at the moment. The way that educational attainment is now connected to economic position via the meritocratic labor market means that the division between the “educated elite” and the rest has acquired much greater salience than in the past, and this also gives politics a currently populist cast.

Right now things are in turmoil, but we will soon see the emergence of a stable division. In most countries this will be between national collectivists and liberal cosmopolitans, but in some cases it will be between national collectivists and radical leftists. In some countries this realignment has already happened. Thus in Poland the basic split is between Social Forum (cosmopolitan liberal) and Law and Justice (national collectivist), while in France it is between En Marche (cosmopolitan liberal) and the RN (national collectivist).

What is causing this? The default explanation of many commentators is that this must derive from economic concerns and anxieties. The emerging national collectivist politics is seen as the response of angry left behind voters who have not benefitted from globalization. This suggests that their discontent can be assuaged, and the genie put back in its bottle, by appropriate economic policy. Deeper research shows that this is not the case. The work of people such as Eric Kaufmann in his book Whiteshift: Population, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities and John Judis in The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization, suggests that the real underlying factor is a set of deep concerns and anxieties about identity and a feeling that the world is changing or has changed in a way that is disruptive and too rapid. Sentiments of this kind are much more difficult to address and may require much more difficult shifts in policy that will be (rightly) unacceptable to many. That means that the emerging division is likely to persist and will probably become the new primary aligning issue.

What of the United States? Here the realignment is well under way and will probably be complete in another four years. As has been the case since the 1860s the realignment will see the transformation of one or both of the major parties and large shifts in voting patterns. The Republican Party is clearly becoming an American nationalist (national collectivist) party, combining economic nationalism and government intervention to favor certain business interests, nativism, and foreign policy unilateralism. The Democratic Party will probably emerge as the cosmopolitan liberal party, supporting free trade and (broadly) free markets together with egalitarianism, foreign policy globalism, and support for immigration. This however will probably involve several splits and serious ructions. Interesting times.

Response Essays

Welcome Back, American Nationalism

An English friend of mine once asked me what Francis Fukuyama was like, knowing that I knew him. “Well, he’s simply an American,” I answered. My English friend smiled at me as if to say, “How silly.” Because Fukuyama was of Japanese origin, you see.

They don’t really understand us, the Europeans. And Stephen Davies is no exception. His essay might, for all I know, be an accurate summary of modern European politics, but he simply doesn’t understand the 2016 American election. How could he, when he tries to compare the Trump movement to right wing movements in Europe? Whatever is happening in Germany, Italy, and Hungary has nothing whatever to do with America.

Between the nationalists of the continent and America there’s a gulf as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s because the American variant is a liberal nationalism based on the sacred texts of our founding. The focal point for nationalist and patriotic sentiments in America is the sense that we have a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called “American Scripture.”

Our constitutional liberties are the icon of American nationhood and constitutive of our identities as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.

Left-wingers and Europeans are quick to detect the whiff of fascism in American nationalism. It doesn’t take a history degree to recognize how hysterical this is, but if historical perspective were needed, Jean-François Revel provided it when he observed that, while the dark night of fascism is always said to be descending in America, somehow it lands only in Europe.

Libertarian readers of this journal cannot be nationalists, of course. Like religion, nationalism carries with it too much baggage. Nationalism promotes solidarity, the sense of attachment to and sympathy with others that is one of the most basic of human goods. It will pull one leftward on economics, since it asks one to support social welfare programs for fellow-citizens. Not aliens, mind you. The nationalist will distinguish between aliens and citizens, but what he’d deny the former must be paid for by what he’d give the latter. Otherwise the pose of nationalism is a pious fraud. That’s why a libertarian who objects to social welfare nets cannot be a nationalist.

Nationalism has too often been dismissed as retrograde, by a New Class largely indifferent to both natives and aliens. But if we thought that nationalism provided the single touchstone of political morality, we’d make a like mistake. If you’re a jusqu’au bout nationalist, here are some things you’re not fond of: humanity, the West, Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. Nationalism is not enough.

The final error in Davies’s paper is his failure to understand the economic reasons for the Trump victory. People on the left and too many libertarians assume that it represents a rejection of traditional free market Republican principles. Indeed, Trump explicitly rejected the green eye-shade Republicanism that objected to the 1962 Kennedy tax cuts, as well as the hostility to welfare programs. At the same time, however, he identified the barriers to free markets that made us an immobile class society.

In 2012 Americans told pollsters they no longer thought that their children would have it as good as they did. That was the American Dream, but it had died, or else had fled to more mobile countries such as Denmark and Canada. The Republican virtuecrat blamed the Oxycontin snorting spawn of unwed mothers. The libertarian said it was a consequence of a worldwide move to an information economy—without explaining how the Denmarks and Canadas had somehow avoided this. The liberals told us it could all be fixed by educating the coal miners to become software engineers.

They hadn’t a clue.

What had made us immobile were all the things which the libertarian rightly rejects. The most obvious of these is a broken educational system. Our Third World K-12 public schools perform poorly relative to the rest of the First World. As for our universities, they’re great fun for the kids, but many students emerge on graduation no better educated than when they first walked in the classroom door. What should be an elevator to the upper class is stalled on the ground floor. Part of the fault for this may be laid at the feet of the system’s entrenched interests: the teachers’ unions and the professoriate of higher education. Our schools and universities are like the old Soviet department stores whose mission was to serve the interests of the sales clerks and not the customers. Why the sales clerks should want to keep things that way is perfectly understandable. The question, however, is why this is permitted to continue, why reform efforts meet with such opposition, especially from America’s elites. The answer is that aristocracy is America’s default position. For our elites, the New Class that stands at America’s commanding heights, social and income mobility is precisely what must be opposed, and a broken educational system wonderfully serves the purpose.

America prides itself on being the country of immigrants. There’s a bit of puffery in this, since there’s a higher percent of foreign-born residents in Australia and Canada, and America ranks only a little ahead of Great Britain and France. Still, the country historically has been the principal haven for waves of immigrants (not to mention the 15 percent of people whose ancestors were already here as Native Americans or who were brought here as slaves). Before the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the new arrivals added immeasurably to the country’s economy and well-being. Since then, however, the quality of the America’s immigrant intake has declined, and we’ve imported immobility. We’re still admitting the stellar scientists of years gone by, but on average immigrants are less educated than they were in the past, or even than Americans are today (not the highest of bars). We’re also incurring the opportunity cost of a broken immigration system, in the high quality immigrants we don’t admit, and who either stay home or move to more immigrant-friendly countries. That burdens the country, but it’s very Heaven for an American aristocracy, which can hire cheap household labor without worrying about competition from high-skilled immigrants.

For those who seek to rise like the hero of a Horatio Alger novel, nothing is more important than the rule of law, the security of property rights, and sanctity of contract provided by a mature and efficient legal system. The alternative, contract law in the state of nature, is the old boy network composed of America’s aristocrats. They know each other, and their personal bonds supply the trust that is needed before deals can be done and promises can be relied on. We’re all made worse off when the rule of law is weak, when promises meant to be legally binding are imperfectly enforced by the courts, when a regulatory morass burdens entrepreneurs, but then the costs of this are borne disproportionately by those who begin without the benefit of an old boy network.

If we’ve become an aristocracy, then, it’s because of the artificial and unjust rules and institutions that keep people from rising, such as the broken schools and regulatory barriers that the New Class supports. They tell us that these can’t be changed, but that’s nothing more than a self-serving mythology. We had thought that magical thinking had been expelled by Max Weber’s disenchantment—entzauberung—but it’s still with us. So we are told to accept that which must never be accepted.

The narrative of a necessary and natural aristocracy was precisely what Trump rejected when he said we could make America great again. We could remove the barriers to mobility and in doing so America would thrive as never before. We could fix our schools, reform our immigration laws, drain a regulatory swamp, and return America to the country where we can believe that our children will have it better than we did.

That was the 2016 election, and since then we’ve begun the slow process of restoring the American Dream.

Populism’s Dangerous Companions

Stephen Davies’s characteristically rich and thoughtful essay suggests that in a two-by-two matrix of broad families of normative ideas about politics in developed democracies, the traditional left-right dimension of greater or lesser state control of the economy retains its salience, but the dimension of social and religious traditionalism or tolerance has given way to a more salient axis around issues of cultural identity, broadly nationalist vs. cosmopolitan (and, I would add, the latter view is domestically multicultural). This ideological transformation in the character of the big four blocs of voters is leading to instability and realignment between the major parties or coalitions that compete for electoral power in democracies.

It’s an interesting and illuminating exercise to single out a shift from debates about cultural moralism to those about nationalism as the important destabilizing influence. It’s certainly true that the culture war fights of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s have lost a great deal of their political force. Laws against consensual adult same-sex sexual activity are gone and indeed same-sex marriage is legal in many liberal democracies. Outside the United States, abortion has all but disappeared as a live political issue; even Ireland is on the verge of legalizing it. Marijuana is now tolerated in many places and legal in some. Women’s participation in the workforce and their professional careers still face obstacles, but they’re simply not objects of political contestation in the way they were forty years ago. With the internet awash in pornography, the fights in the 70s and 80s over Playboy are now almost incomprehensible. And the widespread decline in active membership and belief in organized religions seems to have sapped the energy from new moralistic crusades. Jerry Falwell Jr.’s sycophancy toward a serial adulterer, multiple divorcé, and seeker of sexual favors from nude models and porn actresses is a nice synecdoche for the apparent surrender of the old religious right, even in the United States, on everything except abortion. And Davies’ analysis suggests that the longing for something like cultural traditionalism may have latched onto national identity once public moralism fell away. As generalizations go, this has some plausibility to it, offering us a way to make sense of the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe all together.

But I’m struck by some doubts nonetheless.

I’m not quite as confident as Davies about the role of economic anxiety; it certainly seems to me as if the 2008 financial crisis and the deep recession and slow recovery that followed it catalyzed the new style of politics. But of course it remains true that it’s not the genuinely poor and precarious who have embraced it. The middle and upper classes from regions in relative decline—outside the coasts in the United States, outside long-booming greater London in the United Kingdom—are its engine. That as may be, Davies is probably right that the phenomenon won’t fade away with economic changes to come.

Davies’s dismissal of populism as temporary and epiphenomenal, and the treatment of it as more a style than anything else, seems more dubious to me. There are stylistic differences even now; President Trump’s self-presentation isn’t quite like anyone else’s, and it will not outlast him. But the kind of politics Davies is describing is a fearful one, and always ripe for demagoguery and hysteria. The more terrifying a picture can be painted of aliens and immigrants, foreigners and elites, the better for the electoral prospects of those promoting borders closed to trade and migration. In his desire to present the national collectivists as just another ideological cluster, Davies suggests a gradual normalization of their politics that I see neither on the horizon nor in history. National collectivism has predecessors and ancestors in different political eras in various countries; have they ever stabilized into a calm and mature advocacy of their distinctive political positions? There have been normal parties committed to economic protectionism, but hostility to immigration and immigrants calls forth something else.

This brings me to the two omissions that trouble me from Davies’ picture: authoritarianism and race.

Davies is drawn to grouping Trump in the United States with Brexit in the UK, and there’s obviously something to that. But the Trump presidency is not only part of the cross-national phenomenon of parties of the right turning toward nationalism in developed liberal democracies. It is also part of a different cross-national phenomenon of constitutional deconsolidation, democratic decay, and the rise of authoritarian demagoguery. Here I think the right comparisons are not to the United Kingdom, France, or Germany, but to Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, to a certain extent Poland and Israel, and now probably Brazil. No western European country has yet followed this path, and so it doesn’t strike Davies as being the core trend of interest. But those of us who are concerned about the turn to populist nationalism partly have this other trend in mind: the close affinity between that kind of politics and rising authoritarianism.

The combination of a longing for unity and distrust of elites makes populism congenial to one-man rule. A would-be autocrat can speak in one unified voice, as competing elites cannot. He can offer the many an alliance against the few, marking them as enemies of the true people. If only you give me the power, I’ll rid you of these lawyers, bankers, professors, Jews, globalists, immigrants, senators, judges, media, and so on. Due process, fair partisan competition, judicial independence, academic freedom, and freedom of the press are all vulnerable to that kind of politics; constitutionalism gives ground to a plebiscitary presidentialism. So far only the United States looks vulnerable to this among the wealthy democracies that used to be called “advanced,” “consolidated,” or simply “liberal,” but when we expand our field of vision more recent and more obviously fragile democracies such as Hungary and Turkey, Davies’s vision of gradual normalization after realignment looks more suspect still.

Finally, if we set aside the questions of populist “style” or democratic fragility and focus as Davies suggests on substantive ideological cleavages and alignments, I wonder whether there’s as much discontinuity as he suggests. His case for realignment is not solely a matter of nationalist cultural conservatism replacing religious cultural conservatism. The old bloc of “free market conservatives” is being squeezed out, he says, leaving those with an interest in reducing government intrusion into the economy to migrate to a new home among cosmopolitan liberals. Davies argues that unlike the free market conservatives, the national collectivists “support an active economic role for government and a large and generous but strictly national welfare state.”

But at least in the United States, supposed “free market conservatives” have held that latter position for generations. It was never the redistributionist state as such most of them objected to. Agricultural subsidies, Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration, and the GI Bill amount to a large and generous but mostly white welfare state from the 1930s on. The federal government subsidized housing in ways that entrenched existing patterns of segregation, subsidized higher education at a time when discrimination against black students was widespread, enacted a redistributionist social insurance old age program that favored the long-lived and excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, and poured money into the hands of farm owners. This represented a massive redistribution of wealth that helped to create the postwar white middle class. And none of this was ever seriously challenged even under Reagan or Gingrich.

It was the additions to the redistributionist state of the 1960s, aimed at urban and minority recipients, that were stigmatized as “welfare” and constrained in the succeeding decades of conservative politics under small-government slogans. These decades saw the partisan realignment of white southerners from the Democratic to the Republican party without much change in their substantive views. Sometimes a free-market conservative politician or wonk would believe their own statements of principle and try to limit, say, Social Security or agricultural subsidies, only to get their fingers badly burned. Which is to say, the broad base of voters electing people Davies calls “free market conservatives” were only very rarely really free market conservatives as Davies imagines that position. And the distance they have traveled thus isn’t as large as he imagines it to be. Race is always one of the dimensions of alignment in the United States, and it exerts a gravitational pull on the others. Sometimes the racial identity politics on the right is more sotto voce; sometimes, as in the era of “very fine people on both sides,” it’s loud and proud. I think Davies may by implication understate the exceptional character of the Trump presidency in terms of its effects on constitutional democracy by treating it as the birth pangs of a new normal partisan alignment. But I think he may by implication overstate its novelty in substantive ideological terms.

The Hollowing Out of Democracy

Stephen Davies suggests that our apparent situation of chaos is neither new, nor, for that matter, nearly as chaotic as it seems at first sight. Instead of being a potential breakdown in democracy, it’s an issue realignment within democracy, where the old divisions that political parties and voters organize themselves around are giving way to new ones. We are bidding goodbye to a world where the big fights were over how much the government should intervene in the economy, and ushering in a “new and stable political alignment” where politics will be fought out between populist “national collectivists” on the one side and either cosmopolitan liberalism (who will prevail as the opposition in many countries) or the far left (who will prevail as the opposition in a few).

The hopes expressed in his essay are twofold. First – that the apparent chaos of current politics is merely temporary, as we move from one equilibrium from the other. Second (and this is not directly stated; merely implied) that the new equilibrium will be better for libertarians than the old one. Davies states that the dying structures of politics had no stable home for libertarians, although it did provide them with influence. Though he does not say so directly, liberal cosmopolitanism, which is “broadly free market, strongly cosmopolitan and globalist, socially liberal, and egalitarian,” seems far more congenial to straight-line libertarians. For better or worse, though, there are grounds to be skeptical of both claims.

What Davies gets right is the level that we should study these questions at – which is cross-national rather than America-centric. There are strong similarities between what is happening in the United States, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and France, and weaker but significant similarities to other countries where democracy is backpedaling rapidly, such as the Philippines. This is the product both of common shocks – many of these countries are experiencing similar problems – and of cross-national reinforcement, as various movements and parties look to their peers in other countries for inspiration. For sure, each squalid national jingoism makes its particular claim to uniqueness and exceptional status; that is, after all, what nationalisms do. Yet the family resemblances are undeniable.

What Davies arguably gets wrong though is the significance of these changes. Notably, he doesn’t provide any very specific theory of why we are changing from one alignment to another (perhaps it is just that he didn’t have room in this essay). Instead he describes in quite general terms how different interest groups, funders, and so on may shift from one alignment to another. This means that he doesn’t engage with any of the arguments that others have made about what is driving these shifts, and accordingly plausibly over-emphasizes the likelihood that we will return to a new, and stable, form of competition.

To my mind the most convincing of these theories is the one that was first articulated by the late Peter Mair (and, slightly differently) by Colin Crouch’s work on “Post-Democracy.” This identifies the shock to party systems as a result of the failures of systems of representation. Both Mair and Crouch point to the increasing enfeeblement of democracy in western European countries. Mair in particular identifies problems in political parties and party systems. Together with Richard Katz, he identified how political competition had given way to “cartel parties,” which increasingly declined to compete for voters across tricky political issues, instead delegating these issues to purportedly non-political bodies within the state (technocratic institutions such as central banks, which increasingly became independent), or above them (the European Union). This coincided with the fracturing of traditional class alignments, which made it harder for voters to organize according to their material interests, and for parties to compete for voters on the basis of those interests. Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman’s work on “hollow parties” points to related albeit somewhat different phenomena in the US.

The result (as Crouch also describes) was the gradual hollowing out of democracy, as the votes cast by people were increasingly irrelevant to the actual political decisions that were made. Neoliberalism, in an important sense, involved the political project of removing political decisions from the national level, and subjecting them instead to international structures that were resistant to popular pressure (see also the important recent book by Quinn Slobodian).

The consequences of this are well described in an important new paper by Jonathan Hopkins and Mark Blyth. This old system of cartelization stuttered on until the financial crisis, and the European debt crisis revealed how threadbare it was. The old parties had no useful solutions to offer, while the real decisions were being taken at a level where voters had little influence. Under this account, populism is a “predictable reaction to the increasingly undifferentiated policy positions of the mainstream parties and the growing detachment of elected politicians from civil society.” For example, as Adam Tooze’s recent book on the economic crash discusses, countries like Hungary were hung out to dry by EU elites during the economic crisis, creating an opening that right wing populists like Viktor Orban were happy to exploit.

What this suggests is that the “new alignment” pitting liberal cosmopolitanism against national collectivism is not a stable one, but is itself a temporary conjunction as a different political structure emerges. The liberal cosmopolitans – at least as they have traditionally conceived themselves – are toast. They are the old tacit alliance between the center left and center right parties of the old regime become explicit and concrete, as they desperately try to protect the world that they thought they had built against the forces that threaten to overwhelm it.

Davies, for example, says that the new division in France is between “En Marche (cosmopolitan liberal) and the RN (national collectivist).” Given the events of the last few days (which have been foretold by Macron’s dismal approval ratings over the last several months), I would not want to put any money on En Marche’s survival as a long term political force. It’s a party without a constituency.

All these writers highlight the pertinent fact that the relationship between the nation state and international economic institutions and markets has changed radically. National level democracy has been hollowed out by internationalizing forces, with the result that major protagonists on both sides of the fight are uncommitted to democracy. Many cosmopolitan liberals are unenthusiastic about the potential unruliness of democracy, and would prefer to return to a world of technocratic management. Many of the nationalist parties that have revolted against the movement of political power from the nation state are not particularly interested in competitive pluralistic democracy, since they portray democracy as involving a more or less homogeneous “people,” whose interests are being undermined by a variety of internal and external enemies. When neither side is deeply committed to democratic competition, it is unlikely that any stable competitive framework will emerge. Instead, what we are likely to see is continued contestation over what levels of rule will prevail.

Some readers may object that this analysis is annoyingly leftwing, influenced by it is by suspect notions such as “neoliberalism.” Such readers should take themselves to Ernest Gellner’s last book, Conditions of Liberty, which made broadly similar arguments from a more traditionally liberal perspective with great perspicacity over two decades ago. Gellner perceived the importance of the basic cleavage that Davies emphasizes. However, he stresses its origins in a far older and trans-national set of disputes originating in the Hapsburg Empire.

[T]he nationalists were hostile not merely to rival cultures, but also, and perhaps with special venom, to bloodless cosmopolitanism, probably in part because they perceived in it an ally of political centralism, and felt it to be a support for the old trans-national empires against neo-ethnic irridentism. They felt special loathing for those they considered to be the principal carriers of such cosmopolitanism. (They were right in the end, the liberals committed to an open market in goods, in a sense men and ideas, were the last supporters of centralism, remaining faithful to it even when the old baroque absolutist partisans of the ancien régime had themselves given up the struggle. (pp.111-112)

The collapse of Hapsburg rule was indeed a transition, but not of the kind that Davies identifies. It was instead the collapse of an old transnational imperium, and its replacement was a new and often brutal logic that organized politics along ethnic lines. This was accompanied, as Gellner notes, by that particular loathing for the “principal carriers of cosmopolitanism.” Gellner, as an émigré Czech Jew, knew what he was talking about. The cosmopolitan liberals that he wrote about did not constitute one side of a new political cleavage. They disappeared, and very many of them were murdered.

This does not mean that we are staggering along the precipice, about to fall into a new age of violent irredentist and indeed eliminationist nationalism. What it does mean is that we cannot assume that forces which are at best indifferently committed to democracy will necessarily be contained within democratic institutions, falling along standard axes of democratic competition. Such optimism may not only be misleading, but actively treacherous.

I’m not a libertarian – far from it. But it seems to me that libertarians don’t have the happy political future that Davies predicts for them, and I’m not sure that they ever did; Davies’s claim that they used to be the key swing voters seems to me to be at odds with the political science. But they do face a difficult political choice. Either they can continue with their current approach, which seems likely to be even less likely to be politically efficacious than it was in the past. Or they can make common cause with pro-democratic forces, recognizing the value of the state, working to strengthen and bolster the institutions on which the open society depends. Here, again, Gellner’s ideas are worth taking up as a starting point to doing this right.

The Conversation

Responses on Populism, Liberalism, and Authoritarianism

The responses to my original piece by Francis H. Buckley, Jacob T. Levy, and Henry Farrell raise a number of issues, some of which I am actually uncertain about. In some ways I agree with the comments made but I also welcome the chance to clarify some of my positions and arguments, as well as seeing what the four of us have identified as being the big questions to consider.

Jacob Levy and Henry Farrell both think I am optimistic, probably unreasonably so, and in particular that I am too optimistic about the prospects for liberal politics in general and classical liberal (or “libertarian”) ideas in particular. Actually I am not that optimistic. I do think that it is wrong to see the current state of politics as a collapse into chaos or as the possible end of constitutional government, at least in most developed democracies, so in that respect I am less fearful than Levy or Farrell. I do think that we will see the emergence of a stable political division in most democracies, although I am prepared to qualify that with regard to some countries, more of which in a moment.

However, I do not think this new and stable division or alignment is going to be particularly friendly to liberals in general and classical liberals in particular. It is perfectly possible that the outcome will be something like that of the realignment that took place in the 1920s in the UK and some other European countries, which saw politics coming to be dominated by two kinds of anti-liberal thinking and liberalism of all kinds largely sidelined. Even if (as I expect in most cases) that doesn’t happen, the likely outcome is not going to be particularly welcoming to liberals.

In the alignment that is now ending, each of the two dominant poles was close to consistent liberal thinking on at least one axis; the social democrats supported social liberalism while the free market conservatives gave at least lip service to economic liberalism. Henry Farrell and Francis Buckley both think I overestimate the role of libertarian voters in the last thirty to forty years. If by that you mean self-identifying and aware libertarians then they are right. However, in the United States and the United Kingdom, surveys and studies showed that about 15% of voters were ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’ so in that libertarian quadrant. These people often self-identified as “moderates.” In the event politics moved towards the free market position on the economic axis and the social liberal one on the other axis, because those voters were geographically in the key places.

By contrast the “national collectivists” are, from a liberal perspective, wrong about everything—they are clearly anti-liberal on both axes of the new alignment. People such as Viktor Orban explicitly define their politics as being anti-liberal. If we then have a political alignment where one pole is overtly anti-liberal, what about the other pole, if it is the cosmopolitan liberals of my analysis?

Here I actually agree completely with Henry Farrell’s central point. Over the last two or three decades liberal ideas (defined here as being both economic and social liberalism) have become identified in both practice and theory with a kind of technocratic managerial elitism. This is particularly true in the area he focuses on, economic policy. Economists have come to see themselves as technical experts or mechanics, who deal with the nuts and bolts of economic policy. Given that, it does not make sense to subject economic and social policy to the rough and tumble of democratic politics or normative arguments about ends as well as means (the ends are just assumed). Hence the phenomenon Farrell alludes to, of democratic politics being hollowed out and decisions handed over to regulators, central bankers, and unelected experts. As he says, the result is a lack of serious political argument and choice.

That also meant that serious and genuine divisions of both interest and belief were not being addressed by the political process. Another way of thinking about this is that policy and administration came to be dominated by a class of university educated technocrats, who also dominated the media. This “new class” as some have called it shared a number of other beliefs, in particular cosmopolitanism. They were the “anywheres” of David Goodhart’s analysis. This is what has given the new emergent politics its present populist form.

Henry Farrell argues that the parties I have identified as occupying or representing the new cosmopolitan liberal pole are actually the remnants of the increasingly discredited liberal technocrats and as such are toast. This point is well taken and indeed parties like En Marche do fit that description (as does the other one I mention, Civic Forum in Poland). The question though, and the challenge for liberals, is that of whether they will continue that way. He says that there is no constituency for a politics of the cosmopolitan liberal type. I think that is clearly untrue, and we can easily identify the social groups who are the constituency for that politics. It is people who work in the globalized and internationally traded parts of the economy, who live in large and economically successful metropolitan areas, who have the human capital and qualifications to succeed in the activities that employ them.

However, he is surely correct that if voters of this kind and the politicians who represent them continue to espouse a technocratic kind of politics (usually contrasted to the “ignorant” and “prejudiced” mass) then they are done for. There are enough voters however for a more principled and normative kind of liberal politics to emerge that actually tries to engage with other parts of the population that support the national collectivists. In geographical terms this will be large, globally connected cities versus rural areas and small towns plus decayed ex-industrial areas. The big question is how will this work out? I’m not as pessimistic as Jacob Levy, but I am not necessarily optimistic either.

Another big question that comes out of the responses is how to locate the United States in this bigger picture. Francis Buckley and Jacob Levy both argue for something distinctive in the current American experience that makes it different from what is happening in Europe. Buckley argues that I misunderstand the nature and uniqueness of American politics, and that the unique quality in question is a commitment to the principles of the Founding and the American civic religion. This means, he thinks, that Donald Trump (and by extension the Republican Party since his election) are not the same kind of creature as the European parties I mention, but a response from within the distinctive American tradition to particular American problems or challenges to that tradition, in particular the way that the dysfunctional American education system undermines and thwarts the central American value of meritocracy.

I think that Buckley has identified a major problem (but also that it is not unique to the United States). However, I disagree fundamentally with his core argument. There are obvious and overt connections and sympathies between Trump and the grass roots movement that has consolidated around him, and European individuals, movements, and parties. When people in the United States themselves say that they are part of the same movement as the RN or other European populists, should we just ignore them? Moreover, the reality that American politicians use a rhetoric that draws on the history of the Founding and the Constitution, which is not available to their counterparts elsewhere, does not mean that there are no shared features of ideas, social and economic circumstances, or kinds of actual politics and policy.

Jacob Levy by contrast thinks that populism is potentially much more long lasting and dangerous than I mostly think it will be, and that the United States is experiencing something much more dangerous than its counterparts in places like France and Germany. He argues that populism as a style and form of politics has a natural affinity with authoritarian strongman government, as indeed the history of Latin America demonstrates. Essentially he argues for a distinction between countries such as France, Britain, or Germany, where the populist impulse will probably be contained and tamed as I predict, and ones such as Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, where it will not (and possibly Poland as well). This may well prove to be true, and again, we will have to see how things work out. In the 1920s the growth of anti-liberal politics took a democratic form in some countries and an authoritarian one in others, and we may see something similar this time.

The question is where will the United States fit in that scenario? Levy implies that Trump is closer to people like Bolsonaro and Erdogan or Orban than he is to constitutional populists such as Le Pen. That would mean that the United States has a higher risk of the realignment leading to a collapse or deformation of constitutional government than most European countries do. So like Francis Buckley, he argues for American distinctiveness vis a vis Europe, but in a bad way rather than a good one. I am presently not as alarmed as he seems to be. The Constitution was partly drawn up precisely to deal with the challenge that someone like Donald Trump would pose (although many of the people at Philadelphia probably had Alexander Hamilton in mind) so you could say that currently it is undergoing a stress test.

Again the question we do not yet have the answer to is how will this work out? Personally I think the constitutional regime in the United States is sufficiently robust. In addition to institutional stability, the key factor everywhere will be whether there is a sufficiently large and coherent group of voters and politicians to form an effective cosmopolitan liberal pole to check the national collectivists, particularly if that politics takes a populist strongman form. In Hungary, the liberals are both relatively few (mostly confined to Budapest) and internally divided. In Turkey they make up just under half the population but are very divided. We will have to see how things work out in the United States, but I think a much more effective kind of cosmopolitan liberal politics will eventually take shape in opposition to the national collectivism of the Republicans.

This brings up a point that all three of my interlocutors consider, which is the role of economics and economic circumstance in the realignment process. Levy thinks I may have underestimated the importance of economic anxiety, and both Buckley and Farrell think that economic grievances are driving much current political unrest. I would still argue that the new emerging division is primarily one of outlook or attitude as much as economic position, and that it is driven more by cultural shifts (metapolitical shifts in the fashionable terminology) around questions of change and identity than by economic divisions.

However, economics does play a part, and there is a connection between the economic divisions and the cultural ones, which is the topic Francis Buckley raises, the part played by the formal education system. I think that the big economic division is not simply or primarily one of wealth and success versus poverty. It is rather about the degree to which one has access to and ability to participate in the global and city-region based economy that currently drives economic growth. Access to this is determined and regulated by formal academic attainment and certification, delivered by advanced secondary and above all university-level education. Crucially, this does not only involve getting a paper qualification: it also often involves assimilating a particular kind of cultural and intellectual outlook, which has cosmopolitanism, slighting of tradition, and trust in the role and importance of technical expertise as key elements. It is this technocratic labor market that connects the cultural divisions over identity with the hollowing out of representative politics Henry Farrell decries and with the economic concerns over lack of opportunity that Francis Buckley identifies.

The final point of engagement with my interlocutors for now is related to this, that is the question of what the economic position of my emerging national collectivist pole is and how different it is from the position of the free market conservatives I identify as one of the two poles of the old alignment. Jacob Levy argues that these people were not actually that free-market, and that consequently there will not be a really significant shift. I would make two rejoinders. Firstly, while the practice of centre-right parties was often far from the pure doctrine of Chicago (much less of Vienna, whether Austria or Virginia) the rhetoric and the justifying ideology for the policies was free-market and (in the early years of that alignment until the 1990s) it was set in contrast to an explicit defense of extensive government intervention or even outright socialism. We are now increasingly seeing attacks on free trade and free markets as undermining national sovereignty and identity from people like Marion Marechal Le Pen.

Secondly, there is a clearly emerging political and intellectual division over economic nationalism as opposed to globalism. Trade policy is the obvious sharp point but this also raises the issue of national industrial and economic policy, frequently to revive old manufacturing areas. This is clearly an emerging divide in the United States but is even more explicit in France and the UK. This partly reflects a division of interest within the class of political investors between broadly manufacturing and other sectors (such as old fashioned retail) that are national in orientation and depend on support from national governments, and globally traded sectors such as finance and IT that are much less attached to particular places and jurisdictions but need a functioning transnational legal and economic order to flourish. Henry Farrell asked what the mechanism of transition is: in my view the key players (with agency) are political investors, although large groups of voters who come to both have a common interest and are aware of it are also important (and these have increasing agency for technological reasons).

So I reiterate my essential argument that we are seeing the emergence of a new political alignment in which one of the two poles will be national collectivists (currently populists). It is uncertain whether the populism will prove to be a phase that ends as the concerns of voters are addressed instead of being ignored, or whether it will be a lasting and deeply destructive development that undermines constitutional government. I think that in most developed countries (including the United States) it will be the former, but as Hungary shows there will be others where local circumstances and institutional fragility lead to the darker outcome. I do think that a liberal cosmopolitan pole will also emerge in most countries, but I am prepared to hedge my bets, partly because the longer term viability of that kind of politics and electoral coalition depends on abandoning the technocratic managerialism that has come to dominate public life. That means that questioning the way the education system works will be vitally important.

“Make America Free Again” Isn’t Trump’s Agenda

I have had my say about Stephen Davies’s lead essay. I cannot, however, let Francis Buckley’s apology for Donald Trump, for whom he has previously worked as a speechwriter, pass without comment, as it is marked by grave falsehoods.

It is false in its particulars, for example, that, “on average immigrants are less educated than they were in the past.” In fact, according to a Pew Research study earlier this year, immigrants to the United States “are better educated than ever, due in part to rising levels of schooling in many of the countries they came from and an influx of high-skilled workers to the U.S. in recent years, especially from Asia.” Thirty percent now have at least a bachelor’s degree, with more than 12% holding a postgraduate degree. According to the Census, the proportion of immigrants with postgraduate degrees is now a hair more than the proportion of native-born citizens (see Table 1). Remember that mass immigration in the era of Ellis Island drew so many of Europe’s poor that a key immigration policy debate in the 1910s was whether to impose a literacy requirement.

And it is false in its larger central claims. Among these are that the Trump presidency stands for the rejection of the privilege of inherited wealth; a return to respect for the rule of law; and equal opportunity to prosper rather than “the old boy network,” deal-making, and cronyism.

I hardly know where to begin. Trump inherited great wealth and then made his living as a “deal-maker” in two of the croniest branches of American capitalism: the casino business and big-city real estate development. He did not do so respecting the “sanctity of contract provided by a mature and efficient legal system,” but rather with a long record of bilking contractors, defaulting on debts with a series of bankruptcies, and defrauding customers. Since he began running for office he has openly ignored the rules meant to prevent cronyism and self-dealing: funneling Republican donors’ money into rent for office space in his own properties, refusing to place his assets in a blind trust, leaving his immediate family members in control of the businesses that bear his name, turning his Mar-A-Lago resort and his golf clubs into near-constant sites for presidential visits, raising the fees on them as membership and attendance became obvious ways to get presidential access, and so on, ad infinitum.

But the more crucial falsehood, the one that animates Buckley’s response to Stephen Davies, is this:

They don’t really understand us, the Europeans. And Stephen Davies is no exception. His essay might, for all I know, be an accurate summary of modern European politics, but he simply doesn’t understand the 2016 American election. How could he, when he tries to compare the Trump movement to right wing movements in Europe? Whatever is happening in Germany, Italy, and Hungary has nothing whatever to do with America.

Between the nationalists of the continent and America there’s a gulf as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s because the American variant is a liberal nationalism based on the sacred texts of our founding. The focal point for nationalist and patriotic sentiments in America is the sense that we have a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called “American Scripture.”

Our constitutional liberties are the icon of American nationhood and constitutive of our identities as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.

I’ll address that “including Trump” and its attempt to preserve plausible deniability below; set it aside for the moment.

Buckley is wrong about American nationalism and egregiously wrong about Trump. American nationalism is a complicated mixture of the creedal and the ethnonational, sometimes coexisting quite comfortably and sometimes in tension with each other, but neither ever simply disappearing. At the border, demagoguery and panic about unacceptable categories of immigrant—Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican—are too recurring a feature of American history to be hand-waved away. Domestically, white supremacist ideology and practice, including slavery, Jim Crow, the massacre of American Indians, and the expropriation of their lands, have been constituent features of American nationalism. Self-conscious American nationalism has been white nationalism for a great deal of American history. One can wish it were otherwise—I certainly do—but that’s very different from asserting that it has always been otherwise in order to draw a bright-line separation between nationalism in the United States and elsewhere.

And Donald Trump is very far from emphasizing the creedal side of American nationalism. Racism toward African-Americans and American Indians were regular features of his view of the world even before he made himself a political celebrity with the suspicion that an African-American president just had to be not really American. He rode to office on racialized demagoguery about Mexican and Muslim threats, and those remain centerpieces of his rhetoric in office: the travel ban, the wall, invading caravans of Central American refugees that are somehow both filled with radical Islamist terrorists and funded by globalist Jews.

He has tilted toward Viktor Orban, praising him as “strong and brave” for walling out Muslim refugees; attacked Angela Merkel for failing to do so; and recurrently endorsed the European far right’s narrative about the decline of white Christian European civilization. He sees kindred spirits in European politicians like Marine Le Pen. He embraces what Buckley says he has nothing to do with.

Creedal American nationalism does not aim to slash legal immigration to the United States by half, and it does not prefer immigrants from Norway over those from “shithole countries” full of black people. It does not cut admissions for refugees by two-thirds; it has traditionally conceived the United States as a haven for those fleeing persecution from illiberal and undemocratic regimes. But then creedal American nationalism actually cares about which regimes are liberal and democratic and which ones aren’t, rather than currying favor with autocrats like Putin, while expressing contempt for liberal democratic allies.

Creedal American nationalism takes Lincoln’s side in the Civil War. It is white supremacist ethnonationalism that is concerned with the “very fine people” marching in support of statues of those who committed treason in defense of slavery.

On the strength of Steve Bannon’s work at Breitbart, which he said he had turned into a “platform for the alt-right,” Trump appointed him chief executive of the presidential campaign and chief strategist in the White House. While he eventually fired Bannon, it was for leaking and self-promotion, not for his (ongoing) work to solidify connections between “the Trump movement” and the European far right. Steven Miller continues the ideological work within the administration that Bannon began. And insofar as Trump himself has a coherent worldview, it is one in which being “great again” combines strength of the kind autocrats show and white dominance of the kind he is nostalgic for.

I say all of this although I am a skeptic of creedal nationalism. I have argued throughout my academic career that it is always dependent on an underlying non-creedal idea of “peoplehood” and can’t actually escape entanglement with ethnocultural nationalism. But to the degree that those are distinguishable strands in American nationalism—as they sometimes are, and not only in the United States but also in France, Britain, and Germany, among others—Trump shows no sympathy for the creedal side. Buckley’s objection to Davis here is utterly false.

In the long passage I quoted above, Buckley says, “if some Americans (including Trump) have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.” That parenthetical “including Trump” seems to be an attempt to preempt these objections: any evidence that Trump and his administration are illiberal, lack attachment to constitutional liberties, and have a great deal in common with European far-right nationalists will be met with the reply “but I acknowledged that Trump himself might be illiberal.”

But that move makes a hash the rest of his apology. It would either require that “the Trump movement” has nothing to do with Donald Trump himself and those around him, or require acknowledging the truth in Davies’ comparison of “the Trump movement” to those European far right movements after all. Given the celebratory tone of the whole essay—”since then we’ve begun the slow process of restoring the American Dream,” no less!—it’s hard for me to believe that Buckley means that parenthetical aside as a serious rejection of Trump.

Maybe Buckley prefers to imagine a “Make America Free Again” movement, one that is more concerned with a restored commitment to liberty and constitutional principles than to racism and demagoguery. But that imaginary movement isn’t the one Stephen Davies was analyzing, and it isn’t one in which the really existing Donald Trump has ever shown any interest. Buckley can’t have it both ways. Either Trump, his campaign, and his administration are relevant to how we think about “the Trump movement” and the era of politics Davies is considering, in which case Buckley’s story about the moral purity of American nationalism can be assessed with the evidence of these actual nationalists, or true American nationalism is by definition always creedal and idealistic, never ethnic or racial, in which case he can’t simply identify “the Trump movement” with this imagined true American nationalism.

Buckley closes his essay with a paean to the 2016 election and what has happened since, and in an overlapping essay elsewhere he claims that “Trump has triumphed over a tone-deaf Republican Establishment, killed off the old party and created a new one called the Republican Workers Party. No mean feat. So whatever happens to him, the causes he identified will continue to dominate American politics and his effect on that will be indelible.”

I think it’s fair to say that he thinks he’s defending the real Donald Trump, his real campaign, administration, and presidency. And that defense rests on claims that simply are not true.