Note: this will be the last free column for a while.
I’m reminded of what is supposedly an ancient Chinese saying—a curse, actually—that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” The thing about “interesting times,” though, is that the impact of events ushers in theory and discussion that challenge traditional notions of and approaches to political problems. “New realities can bring about,” as Carl Schmitt wrote, “a reaction against the ‘formalistic’ method.”
I’ve been writing about these things for a while, so the renewed discussion has been interesting.
Middle America's Road to Power
Last year, I set out what I think is the path forward for “prince” using theories and concepts from Machiavelli, Georges Sorel, and Antonio Gramsci. A key premise is that the political base of Americans is more akin to a proletariat than a true middle class. Thus, rather than effete, wannabe aristocratic conservatism, a demagogue—the closest thing to a statesman in mass democracy—and a party appealing to Americans’ sense of resentment, dispossession, and degrading material conditions could galvanize enough people to create a mass movement. Though it should not be an end in and of itself, populism can and should be utilized as a vehicle to dislodge and replace the incumbent regime and ruling class. I wrote:
. . . a fundamental problem with conservatism is that it reflexively seeks to conserve institutions that either don’t exist anymore, or which have been perverted to become hostile to the right. The only answer that avoids being crushed by ideologues is not to shrink from power, but to pursue, seize, and use it to demolish the overgrown political and cultural organs of the left. Abolishing tax exemptions, subsidies, and federal contracts for universities and subversive foundations is an imperative first step. But eliminating much of the entrenched bureaucracy and its various agencies, along with uprooting an army of managers, can only be achieved by embracing a mode of governance akin to that used by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Thus, one should not let this opportunity pass, for Italy, after so much time, to see her redeemer,” Machiavelli wrote in the conclusion of The Prince. “I cannot express with what love he would be received in all those provinces that have suffered from these floods from outside; with what thirst for revenge, with what obstinate faith, with what piety, with what tears.” Whatever hope there is for something like a return to the “golden times,” for the emergence of a new and lasting civil order, begins with breaking the ideological chains of left and right, conservative and liberal, and embracing Machiavelli’s “prince” as a vehicle for national restoration.
Although he now seems to view it as an acceptable approach, BAP and others attacked me as a “socialist” a few months ago for advocating this way.
In January, I argued that confronting Trump’s failures is necessary for the development of a more formidable movement capable of buttressing a competent leader in the future. Trump was not and will not be “the man,” but he was an important step in the right direction.
It’s also worth noting that both Trump’s shortcomings and his being co-opted by the GOP parallel the Tea Party’s assimilating into the Republican establishment. Something similar happened with the energies of Occupy Wall Street, which were effectively deflected from their original target—Wall Street—toward socially progressive projects that mainly put leftists in conflict with Main Street. I wrote:
Pain teaches lessons we won’t soon forget, and every overreach by the ruling class is a length of rope it sells against itself in the future. Indeed, the point of the ongoing political repression is to ensure that future never arrives.
Fifty-five percent of Trump voters said they would prefer a more competent leader who adopts “Trump’s views on controlling immigration, nationalism and being willing to challenge the mainstream media, political correctness and elites.” In 2017, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that “Trump may not be the culmination, but merely a way station toward an even purer populism.” Who comes next will “add an anti-corporate, anti-tech layer,” taking a hammer to companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. In The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci recently wrote that liberals should count their blessings because “Trump is not good at his job.” But make no mistake, she warns: “The attempt to harness Trumpism—without Trump, but with calculated, refined, and smarter political talent—is coming. And it won’t be easy to make the next Trumpist a one-term president. He will not be so clumsy or vulnerable. He will get into office less by luck than by skill.” Christopher Vials echoed the sentiment in Jacobin magazine: “Trumpism is not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.”
What is happening now is to ensure that leader and those voters and the ideas underpinning Trumpism do not dare rear their heads again.
If it is willing to learn and endure and mature, the phenomenon that began with Trump will emerge as a more formidable animal in the years to come, one with a vision capable of conquering the future.
The Mask that Power Wears
In February, I wrote about Xenophon and the world of power. Again, conservatives tend to either shrink from using political power to achieve their ends or prioritize “good arguments” over that. Ideas do have consequences, but who holds power often determines which ideas are most consequential.
In examining the life of Cyrus, then, one can approach the persistent formulas and structures of power and the masks that power wears in the way that postmodern literary critics approach texts. The iron fist behind the velvet glove is revealed only upon closer examination of the hand of the master. Cyrus’ use of appearances, appeals to justice, virtue, piety, and egalitarianism form the defensive armor that must be deconstructed before it can be penetrated and discarded to reveal the designs of despotism that lie beneath. But there is another lesson in the Education, one that Machiavelli knew well: the inevitability of power and those willing to use it compels us not to eschew but embrace it with both hands and open eyes. “No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power,” wrote James Burnham, a disciple of the Machiavellians. “Only power restrains power.”
The only way to challenge and dislodge incumbent elites is to learn the ways of the world of power with which they built institutional strength and facilitated their own rise and reign. The “prince”—whether that is an individual, a movement, a political party, or some combination of all three—that will conquer the future will do so by endeavoring to wield power responsibly and formulating a countervailing myth. The choice is between becoming the prince or being enslaved by the prince.
The Long Shot
Most recently, I made the case for Huey Long as a concrete model to emulate.
Long’s critics portray him as an egomaniacal cynic and defiler of democracy. But Louisiana was corrupt before Long rose to power. Indeed, its corruption is why he was able to ascend in the first place.
The political machinery of the state served no one more than a self-dealing elite. That is not to say that elites are ever altruistic, but an effective ruling class will operate with a sense of noblesse oblige. Absent that, a ruling class sows the seeds of its own destruction and, indeed, deserves to be destroyed. “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept,” as The Bard said.
Long was able to create a political machine and consolidate power precisely because he offered the people of Louisiana a better future when others did not.
. . . the fact that “Jeffersonian Democracy” had already died made Long’s rise possible. Avarice had plunged America into the Great Depression. A self-interested ruling class had fueled her wars. Politicians, tycoons, bureaucrats, and journalists feasted on its corpse. The ruling class then, as now, stood above the constitution, which had already become a dead letter. Long, like Caesar, saw the rot in Rome, saw the petty princes of his day, and put new teeth on the notion of using “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.”
Today, the American Left is more concerned with the latest social depravities than they are with the material and moral welfare of the country. If a Long or a cohort of Longs should arise, it likely will and should happen on the Right. It should strive to create its own army of bureaucrats and capture offices, and though it need not embrace a carbon copy of Long’s redistributive program, it should embrace his method, his spiritedness, his willingness to fight dirty against corrupt elites who only yelp for civility and constitutionalism when they’re losing.
“Share the Wealth” should be seen by the Right as a means to a new order, because most Americans don’t object to the modern state in principle; they object to it in practice, they object to paying more in taxes and receiving nothing in return as its size and scope balloons. And even if the Right wanted to decentralize and localize government, it would first require a Longist approach to governance to take command of and bend or break the engines of industrial-political centralization to its will.
The task over the next decade will be developing not one but several Longist political machines across different states. Dislodging and replacing a regime and ruling class means conceiving and cultivating alternatives. That will take time and effort.