By Ross Douthat
Over the last few weeks Sohrab Ahmari, well known as a leading intellectual exponent of a combative Trumpian conservatism, has been making the rounds explaining why he’s giving up on right-wing populism.
That’s a slight overstatement; his new book, “Tyranny, Inc.,” on the cruelties of corporate power in America, bears blurbs from leading populist Republicans like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio. But he describes these figures as “shining exceptions on the right,” whose willingness to consider interventionist economic policies contrasts with the broader trend in which populism is “turning into a niche/trashy online-media product,” with no policy content beyond resentment of elites.
No doubt Ahmari’s liberal readers would respond, it’s always been that way! But part of the reason that the “Tyranny, Inc.” author and his circle earned so much attention in the Trump era is that the age of populism really did unsettle economic orthodoxies on the right.
The Trump administration often defaulted, as Ahmari laments, to warmed-over Reaganite policymaking. But Trump’s victorious campaign really did kill off, for a time at least, the Tea Party-era emphasis on entitlement reform and hard money. And Trump did follow through on elements of his economic nationalism — while the Biden administration has embraced similar ideas on trade and infrastructure, to the point where it’s fair to say that both parties have been reshaped by Trump’s ’16 campaign.
Meanwhile, a populist intellectual ecosystem exists on the right, through think tanks like American Compass and journals like American Affairs and Ahmari’s own Compact, where before the Trump era there was little more than a scattering of gadflies. The Hawley-Rubio-J.D. Vance faction in the Senate is small, but more influential than any past equivalent. And Trump himself, the Republican front-runner, is still making promises — new cities! new tariffs! flying cars! — that smack more of industrial policy than supply-side economics.
So why is Ahmari despairing of his cause? In part, he’s reckoning with forces he probably underestimated before — the folk libertarianism of the G.O.P.’s donor base and the cynicism of its celebrity-industrial complex.
But then Ahmari is also disillusioned because, while remaining socially conservative, he has personally moved farther to the left than some of his fellow populists.
With its potent anecdotes of corporate malfeasance and its (somewhat overstated) account of the ruthlessness of American economic life, “Tyranny, Inc.” is a book more in the pessimistic spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” than — well, to take a personal example, than “Grand New Party,” the book I co-authored with Reihan Salam 15 years ago making the case for a more populist conservatism. Ahmari sometimes describes his view of American capitalism as close to that of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and there is simply no way to infuse the full Sanders vision into the current Republican coalition; in that sense, he’s right to deem himself politically homeless.
Finally, though, Ahmari doesn’t always fully reckon with how recent material and cultural changes complicate his argument that cultural renewal depends on economic transformation — that “efforts to change the culture without reforming the economy are futile at best.”
If so, what should we make of the fact that the American economy was arguably worse, and yet the culture healthier, 10 or 20 years ago than today?
When Barack Obama ran for president, inequality had been rising since the 1980s and the health care safety net had a significant hole. When Trump ran for president, household income had been stagnating since 2000 and economic policymakers had let the unemployment rate stay unnecessarily high.
But today inequality may actually be declining, wages have risen generally and risen faster for the working class, unemployment is extremely low and we are closer to universal health care than we were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the big Biden-era problem for wage earners has been an inflation spike, which a Bernie Sanders agenda seems ill-equipped to solve.
Yet despite these economic improvements the cultural fabric looks more frayed than ever, with liberals as well as conservatives fretting over the slow fade of church and family, with crime and homelessness returning to American cities while a haze of marijuana settles over twentysomethings, with a spiritual despair shadowing every social rank.
You can blame Covid for deepening this era of bad feelings. You can argue that our social malaise just shows economic improvements haven’t gone nearly far enough. And you can pin blame for certain social trends — internet addiction among teenagers, say — on bad actors in big business.
But in terms of priority and urgency, I wonder if Ahmari’s harder-edged social conservative side — the anti-pot, anti-porn, anti-crime aspects of his politics, let’s say — may actually be more relevant to our situation than the New-Deal-liberal side that’s earning him new interest from the left.
Cultural conservatism absolutely needs an economic policy, and corporate power absolutely shapes the culture. But our own social crisis feels a little less economically determined, a little more essentially cultural, in 2023 than at any previous moment in my adult life.
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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT • Facebook
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