A Voter in His 20s Gives Up on Liberal Democracy

He supported Donald Trump on the theory that “his illiberal tendencies are actually a feature rather than a bug.”

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Many Donald Trump supporters have generously taken time in recent days to explain what the president-elect would have to do to lose their support. So far, I’ve highlighted two emails that represent significant if opposing factions within the Trump coalition: an immigration restrictionist hoping for conservative Supreme Court appointments and a moderate who wants Trump to govern as a liberal-centrist. It will be tough, I think, for the president-elect to satisfy both of those factions.

Today I present an email from a different kind of Trump supporter. He represents a much smaller part of the Trump coalition. And yet, it is a part that depresses me, because my 20-something correspondent has given up on the American experiment. Lest you think I exaggerate, I’ll let him present his ideas in his own words.

He begins:

I'm a college-educated white male in my late 20s. Before I became a devotee of Trumpism, I voted for Ron Paul in both 2008 and 2012. I used to define myself as a Libertarian, but have intellectually drifted away from it. These days, I'm probably better defined as a Neo-Reactionary with a fondness for the writings of Nick Land and the political economy of Lee Kuan Yew.  To answer the question as to why I would support Trump and how he could break my support, I think it’s important to step back and consider the broader context of Trump’s rise.

In the late 1970s, the assumption was that the Soviet Union’s system was effectively a permanent fixture in world affairs. Few would have imagined that within 10 years, the system that had looked so stable would collapse. The ideological boundaries it set for itself rendered it unable to address the crisis that afflicted its economy. We might have imagined 10 years ago that Liberal Democracy was similarly stable, but today, that looks increasingly less certain.

This should be no surprise. Every social idea, every system, is born for a particular set of conditions, and dies when the conditions that permitted its existence no longer hold. Liberal Democracy's underpinning was very simple: no other system could deliver constant gains to living standards, widely distributed prosperity, and government which was institutionally capable. The alternatives had either been systematically destroyed and buried by history or collapsed upon themselves.

The conditions which legitimized Liberal Democracy have now ended. Liberal Democracy, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, has produced a crisis of underemployment, stagnant growth, systemic incompetence, and total declining living standards for all but a tiny minority of people who have reaped essentially all meaningful benefits from globalization.

Here I want to pause for two interjections:

  1. As I see it, the most important underpinning of liberal democracy is that no system better safeguards life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not that it promises “constant gains to living standards” (though in the long run it excels at generating wealth, too). No system can promise constant gains in living standards. In America, the “Greatest Generation” survived a sharp drop in living standards during the Great Depression that makes our recent banking and financial crisis pale in comparison, and then lived through one of the greatest expansions of wealth in world history. Constant gains is an untenable standard.
  2. Though I agree with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders that today’s elites have rigged the system in various ways, and support many reform proposals on the right and left (though none of them original to the president-elect, who I expect to exacerbate the problem), it is an irrational moment to give up on liberal democracy. I suspect my correspondent underestimates both how bad things were at various times in American history and how much worse they could get. Living standards are orders of magnitude higher for my correspondent than for almost all Americans in the history of the country and 99 percent of humans for the history of the species. This represents... failure? It is folly to revolutionize rather than reform a system that got us here—to swap it for an unknown due to some low growth and government incompetence, ills with which residents of all systems of government are very familiar.  

My correspondent continues:

In my view, Liberal Democracy has failed and no longer carries  any credibility for solving our country’s increasing number of problems. Trump is a messenger, however imperfect, of an alternative that offers real, serious solutions. As Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, and perhaps the leader I admire most stated, “liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive.” He instead pointed out, correctly, that the most successful nations since the end of the Crisis have been states which aren’t liberal, and often not even democracies. Models like China, Singapore, Turkey, or even Russia to an extent, have delivered far greater gains in living standards to their population since 2000.

Viktor Orban’s solution was democracy unconstrained by Liberal Institutional forms – a pure, illiberal democracy. Donald Trump is probably not academically inclined in the same way Mr. Orban is, but his vision is similar to what Viktor Orban has built in Hungary. Trump is not anti-democratic. He is the voice for numerous people who despise the current “elites” and the systemically incompetent government they constructed. He is, if anything, a reintroduction of democracy into a system that was previously Liberal non-democracy.

I urge Hugh Hewitt, Brian Kennedy, Charles Kessler, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and others in the conservative movement to read this next part carefully:

I voted for Trump because I think his illiberal tendencies are actually a feature rather than a bug. When he undermines rule of law, I see not a danger, but someone who is undermining a system that has become a game for elites with access to armies of lawyers. When he browbeats Congress, I don’t worry about “checks and balances” which have become a recipe for dysfunction, but rather see him as a man taking on useless political prostitutes servicing everyone who can write a sufficiently large campaign check. When he strong-arms multinational companies like Carrier, I see someone standing up to the worst aspects of globalization.

The masses of the people do not have anyone in government standing for their interests and need a strong leader to fight an elite that is both rapacious and incompetent. Rather than accept our system of design by committee, what is needed is a strong leader to clear away the policy kludges, rent seeking, and incompetence of the lobbyists and their pet legislators.

By all indications, this is a minority view among Trump supporters, but conservatives would do well to understand that the anti-Constitution faction in their coalition is growing.

My correspondent finally explains that there is just one way Trump can lose him as a supporter:

The only way Trump can lose my loyalty is if he fails to fight the John McCains, Paul Ryans, Chuck Schumers and others on both the Corporate Right and Identity Politics Left who prefer fixed ideas and ideological navel gazing to national well being. If he takes them on, and can improve the living standards of most Americans, then he has my total support. The concern is not ideological consistency or respect for the rules.

Instead, my concerns will be very basic. Does he improve economic growth? Does he reduce crime? Reduce unemployment rates? Increase average incomes?

If he can do that, I’m happy.

Bill Clinton presided over GDP growth, falling crime, reduced unemployment, and increased average incomes, even as the Republicans gained power in Congress and did their best to run him out of office. Why was that possible in our gridlocked system in the 90s, but now impossible within the liberal democratic framework?

He concludes:

I very much suspect that Trump’s desire to fix these issues will run headfirst into institutional stonewalling by the Liberal democratic system replete with its rent-seeking interest groups.  If Trump decides to impose his authority on the system, he will have my support. But I strongly suspect that he will have to decide to lead the fight against the rest of the elites and their pet Congressmen, Senators, and the rest of the Deep State.

If he does, I will support him. If he caves to them, makes peace with them, then he will lose my support. I feel some sense of sadness stating these thoughts. Liberal democracy is, in theory, a very appealing system.

Yet looking at the economic ruins of Greece and the rest of Southern Europe, the pseudo-recovery in the US, and the lack of sensible ideas being put forward by the political center, I no longer believe that it is any different from Marxism Leninism – a system doomed by its own optimism in human nature and ideologically too rigid for real-world success. Perhaps systems like ours are condemned to fall into Caesarism as a refuge from an alternative of Plutocracy. It seems increasingly inevitable.

I hope to follow up with the reader, to suggest that he has far too rosy a view of Russia; that China is a rather odd model of success for someone who purports to be bothered by rent-seeking elites and unequal benefits from globalization; and that he is rather stacking the deck by designating Greece as the representative of liberal democracies and Singapore as the designated alternative! What about successful liberal democracies from Denmark to Canada to Australia to Switzerland to Germany? Residents of non-liberal democracies seem awfully eager to immigrate to countries like that, as well as to “the rest of Southern Europe,” for that matter. Again, if Spain, Italy, and France are what failure looks like, what a fine system! Or so I see it. I’d be curious to know how he’d respond to all of that.

I’ll return to neo-reaction in future pieces.

For now, I recommend Scott Alexander’s “Anti-Reactionary FAQ” for those tempted by the ideology; Will Wilkinson’s words on the urgency of revitalizing liberalism for everyone alarmed that a growing number of people seem to be tempted by reactionary ideology; and Damon Linker’s overstated but thought-provoking column on “the stunning end of left and right.” If the future turns out to pit liberal and illiberal factions against one another for control of the United States, conservatives and liberals in the Republican and Democratic parties will need to cooperate. If liberal democracy fails here it will be because they were too myopic to do so.