Against Jonathan Chait’s One Weird Trick

Jonathan Chait (BookTV/YouTube)

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has continued his turn toward conspiracy theory with a new essay. Inspired by our “Against Socialism” issue, it’s titled “The New Socialism Panic Is the Right’s Trick to Justify Supporting Trump.” The central thesis of Chait’s submission is that National Review — a magazine that was founded to fight socialism — is still fighting socialism in 2019 because this gives us . . . cover to back Donald Trump. Before 2019, we apparently didn’t mean it.


Chait is particularly annoyed by my contribution to the issue — in which I make the fairly straightforward argument that free markets are democratic tools, and that the Constitution presupposes a limited government that is flatly incompatible with socialism — and he for some reason uses it as the main evidence in support of his main proposition, which is that:

The conservative movement’s embrace of Trump has puzzled so many outsiders as a betrayal of principle. Cooke’s essay makes clear that, on the contrary, their support for the plutocrat-in-chief is a vindication of conservative principle: Strongman government in the pursuit of oligarchy is no vice.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this silliness. My essay makes no mention of Trump in either direction because it isn’t about Trump, it’s about socialism and democracy — both perennial, timeless topics that are far, far more important than who happens to be president at the moment. The idea that the argument I advance makes anything “clear” about Trump — or of my view of him — is ridiculous on its face, especially when one considers that that I haven’t, in fact, “embraced Trump,” so much as I have resolved to speak honestly about him. As I argued last time that Chait tried this, being honest requires admitting when Trump is right, it requires arguing against him when he is wrong, and, most crucially, it requires maintaining the views that I held before he came along irrespective of whether Trump likes or loathes them. That Chait cannot stop thinking about Donald Trump irrespective of the topic at hand is sad. But it is his vice, and his limitation, not mine.

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As for the absurdity of using me as evidence for a supposed preference for “strongman government” . . . does New York magazine have editors? I am, for my sins, a broken record on two topics in American life: the dangers of the imperial presidency, and the need to restore Congress — and to the point of being a bore. I write about these topics more than any others. I speak about these topics more than any others. I hijack conversations in order to bring up these topics more than any others. After President Trump announced that he hoped to bypass Congress and build his wall unilaterally, I slammed him in print, in a video, across the radio circuit, in a speech in Washington, on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast, on The Editors podcast (for several weeks running), on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast, and so on. Moreover, I did so in precisely the same language (“king,” “emperor,” “tyranny”) as I used when discussing President Obama’s overreaches; that I use when criticizing, say, Kamala Harris; and that I use when criticizing presidents of both parties for their foreign policy Caesarism. If you’re using me as an example of enthusiasm for “strongman government,” in any way, you’re a fool.

You’re also spectacularly missing the point. The analogy I drew in my piece was with the First Amendment, which, I noted, both restricts the power of transient majorities and is regarded as an invaluable part of our democracy. In my view, markets are similar: When government declines to get involved in them, it is both declining to take a democratic vote and freeing up space in which people may engage voluntarily and vote with their feet. Chait is free to disagree with this supposition if he likes; if everybody agreed with me, I wouldn’t bother arguing. But unless he believes that by defending the First Amendment I am by definition endorsing “strongman government,” it’s unclear why he believes that by endorsing laissez-faire I am somehow setting myself up to endorse President Trump — who, incidentally, is not even a laissez-faire kind of guy (don’t take my word for it; here’s Jonathan Chait on that topic). I have no doubt that it would be convenient for Chait if I were of the view that capitalism needed a Pinochet to sustain it. But I’m not, as anyone with elementary reading skills can discern.

On the contrary. My view of America in 2019 is the same as my view of America in 2014: That power should be localized as much as is possible; that the federal government should be limited to a core set of tasks, and that, within its structure, Congress should be dominant; that markets and civil society are the essential backbone of our system; that the Constitution should be understood as a contract and strictly followed; that free trade is not just an economic good, but a democratic good, too; that America is the one country in the world in which the Anglo-American conception of “democracy” still flourishes (by my lights, “America is the only country in which . . .” is usually a compliment, not an insult); and that free people should decline to relinquish any rights that they would need were the government to turn tyrannical. As Chait charges, I do indeed list “‘the right to bear arms’ as one of these fundamental human rights that ‘6,000 years or so of human civilization’ has shown is essential to human liberty.” Know why? Because I’m not into “strongman government.”

Chait’s final complaint is that I chose to outline a set of principles and approaches, rather than a set of specific policies. But there is nothing problematic about that in this case, because every single part of the agenda that has been proposed by the new “socialists” would take us in the wrong direction. Were the new “socialists” to take power, they would preside over a massive increase in the power that the federal government exerts over individuals, families, and other little platoons; they would increase the power of the executive branch at the expense of Congress; they would increase the power of bureaucrats at the expense of the free market and its players; they would increase by two-fold the revenues that are forcibly removed from private hands and put under the control of politicians; they would continue their march toward the forced subsidization of opinions and activities of which vast numbers of people disapprove; and they would put further pressure on the Constitution’s commerce clause and on the integrity of separation of powers. These are not the marginal disputes of the 1990s, and we’re not haggling over minutiae, but over foundations. The socialists know this. I do, too.

As Chait puts it himself, “American conservatives have never relinquished their conviction that the entrenchment of the New Deal is not only suboptimal but fundamentally undemocratic.” Because he flits so seamlessly between making observations such as this one and implying that National Review has not really believed what it has said in the past — and, indeed, that it is now warning about socialism only as part of some “trick to justify supporting Trump” — I’m not entirely sure whether Chait believes this about conservatives or he’s just throwing anything he can find at the wall and hoping it sticks. But, at least in my case, he is correct: I do, indeed, think that about the New Deal. And, given that the people I was writing about in my essay want to go even further down the New Deal road, it is quite obvious why mine was not an essay about trivialities. The issue was against socialism, not against technocratic tinkering from annoying center-lefties.

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