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Progressive Totalitarians and Nativist Nationalists in Our Midst

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America seems to be an increasingly politically polarized society. Those on the “progressive” political left often seem livid in their hatred and fear of anything and anyone who they label as being on the Republican or “conservative” side of the ideological spectrum. At the same time, many Republicans, and especially those among the supporters of the Trump Administration, see political and cultural enemies everywhere wanting to prevent America from being made “Great” again due to “deep state elites” manipulating everything for their own political purposes. This does not bode well for the country.

How has this come about? A useful place to start is sorting out why do these two groups, respectively, see each other in this way. The fact is, each wants the same thing to achieve their, respective, sets of political, social and economic policy goals: control over the government to impose their particular “visions” of a “great” and “just” America.

Welfare Statism and Thought Control of Progressivism

Concerning those on the political “left” it is easy to see their very direct and clear desire and demand for increasingly larger government intervention, regulation, control and command over the everyday affairs of practically every corner of society. More welfare state spending, increased regulation of private enterprises, more intrusive government oversight over social and cultural life, higher taxes to feed the costs of the expanding paternalist state (especially on the higher income and corporate business categories), plus national and global planning schemes to “save the planet” and solve every problem in the world that catches their fancy as the “social injustice” issue of the month.

Matching this is a push among the more radical progressives to impose a dangerous “thought police” on discourse, discussion and debate that has shown its worst features, so far, on a significant number of college and university campuses. These totalitarian mind manipulators demand the right and the power to dictate what subjects may be discussed in any public arena, in what manner of language use ideas may be conveyed, and who will be permitted to participate in such forums. Any attempt to go outside their censoring criteria is declared by these progressives to be fair game for a speaker to be intimidated, shouted down, and physically assaulted and ejected from their self-imposing “safe spaces.”

This is combined with a new tribalism that uses the terminology of “inclusiveness” and “diversity,” but which simply covers the fact that everyone in society is no longer to be considered a distinct individual with his own personality, preferences, and preferred relationships with others. No, people are categorized and submerged in classifications of collective identity under increasingly minute sub-groupings under the general headings of “race” and “gender.” What unifies all in such sub-groups is an asserted “victimhood,” at the hand of other branded collective groups who are charged with exploitative and oppressive conduct and behavior.

Even if a particular individual so accused has never personally committed or defended any such declared “injustice,” he is just as guilty as any actual historical or contemporary perpetrator because of his being designated a member of the indicted group. Being assigned to an “oppressing” group is claimed to mean that such a person is a recipient of unjust “privilege” from which there was and is no escape; that person has benefited from such privilege even if he did not know he had it or didn’t want it. The “sins of the father” permanently fall upon the son, and for which they must pay as an “enemy of the people.” (See my articles, “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism”.)

The Threatened Tyranny of Identity Politics

It should be clear that following these ideas to their logical conclusion and applying them would reduce society to a crude race- and gender-based tribal tyranny equal to what was witnessed in the twentieth century under Nazism and Soviet communism. A government-imposed politics of race and gender and “social class” based on being assigned the role of either collective “victim” or “privileged” oppressor would mean the end to all notions of individual freedom and personal autonomy as these have been understood and experienced over the last three hundred years under the influence of philosophical individualism and political and economic (classical) liberalism.

Indeed, this new tribalism of identity politics and “safe space” thought control is the latest mutation of the same socialist-statist intellectual counter-revolution that has now long been working against the real revolutionary idea of the individual freed from the collective that emerged out of the eighteenth century Enlightenment “Age of Reason.”

For those who believe in and espouse these new tribalist views, the political conflict in society today is a “life” and “death” struggle. In this they are no different than the German Nazis who saw history as a struggle between “pure” and “degenerate” races, or the Marxists who insisted that the story of man is the irreconcilable “class struggle” between property-owning exploiters and the oppressed working masses.

In this worldview, there is no room for tolerance, common ground, or honest disagreement. It requires an ideological fanaticism because the outcome can only be the triumph of “good” or “evil.” It is a form of a secular Messianism through which a victorious and absolute “social justice” can transform the world from its prevailing corrupt existence. Either “we” win, or “they” win. The “salvation” of the world is at stake. (See my article, “Campus Collectivism and the Counter-Revolution Against Liberty”.}

Progressive Delusions and Excusing Close-Minded Ideas

Now, of course, it would be incorrect and unfair to claim that everyone today who views him- or herself as being on the political left in American society consciously desires, calls for, or believes in the extremist version that I have briefly outlined. But the anger, disgust and disbelief that “Trump” won the presidential election in 2016, and that so many Americans could have voted for him over the admittedly tarnished and tainted Hillary Clinton, has driven a good number of the more “moderate” progressives in politics and the media into a mindset of “resistance” and “opposition” not much different from the more radical totalitarians in the progressive camp.

They have conjured up and persuaded themselves that dictatorship, mass arrests of political opponents, and a rounding up of anyone who doesn’t have the same skin pigmentation as the president, is merely a tweet away. As a result, they too often acquiesce in or downplay or rationalize away the actions of the new tribal totalitarians in their own ideological circles. In this they resemble some Western European “democratic socialists” during the Cold War who so hated “capitalism” and “Amerika” that many of them apologized for or looked away from anything done by communist regimes around the world, no matter how brutal and tyrannical; some even actively collaborated with the Marxists in Moscow, to assure that nothing prolonged the existence of the “evil” capitalist system and delayed the true socialist future-to-come.

Trump’s Ignorant Economic Nationalism

And what about the “Trump threat,” that arouses such determined resistance and opposition? Donald Trump may have been a master of maneuvering through the maze of political and economic cronyism that enabled him to “play the system” and make his millions. He may have been equally masterful at knowing how to play to millions of viewers within the genre of “reality television.” And he may have used these skills to mesmerize and manipulate crowds of potential voters with his bombastic buffoonery on the presidential campaign trail and on his Twitter feed, which has so grated the “cultured” sensibilities of the intellectual and celebrity elites of American society.

But he is basically an economic illiterate who spouts and seems to believe some of the most illogical and debunked economic policy ideas of the last two hundred years. He espouses a foolish and ignorant economic nationalism that conceives the world through the misplaced notion that if any other nations “win” in the global marketplace it must be because some other country – America – has lost so to pay for their gains. His conception of the balance of trade and the “danger” from trade deficits are so crude that if some of the more enlightened Mercantilists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could be brought back from the dead, they would blush from embarrassment upon hearing Trump declare his version of their ideas.

These atavistic ideas drive Trump to wail against the on-going invasion of – oh, the horror – foreign-made washing machines and tremble in fear upon the arrival of imported steel made on foreign shores. His mind seems too underdeveloped to fully understand that the real gains from international trade are not measured in the amounts of whatever it is that we export, but rather by the amount of riches in the form of imported goods and services that our exports enable us to buy based on what we sell to others around the world. (See my articles, “The Economic Nationalism of Donald Trump” and “Trump’s Economic Warfare Targets Innocent Bystanders”.)

Trump Needs to Learn the Truths in Adam Smith

“Cheap” prices for the goods we buy from abroad indicates the degree to which the terms of trade benefit the consumers of America, in that one unit of our exports is able to buy a lot of units of whatever it is that people wish to import. Imposing tariffs and other trade barriers to limit or prevent the arrival and sale of foreign-made goods makes all of us poorer in America, in that every dollar we earn in production now purchases less of what we desire as a smaller reward for our work in the form of reduced fulfillment of our own consumer demands. The road to a standard of living “hell” is paved with the claimed good intentions of trade protectionism.

Trump’s misguided policy views on trade explain his insistence that industry and “jobs” have to be kept at “home” in America, and that any such industry or jobs that have moved abroad must be enticed or even bullied back to the United States. How badly Trump needs a remedial course in the essential insights to be found in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy . . . What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better to buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage . . .

It is certainly not employed to the greatest advantage, when it is thus directed towards an object which it can buy cheaper than to make . . . The industry of the country, therefore, is thus turned away from a more, to a less, advantageous employment, and the exchangeable value of its annual produce, instead of being increased, according to the intention of the lawgiver, must necessarily be diminished by every such regulation.

Only the market, which is now an increasingly global arena of advantageous trade, can indicate and direct where industries and jobs should be located, as those employed in earning a living find those niches in the international system of division of labor from which they may earn the greatest rewards from the products they can offer to others in exchange for all the goods and services they would like to buy.

Trump’s Nativist Views and the Benefits from More Working Hands

The same primitive ideas are reflected in Trump’s view of immigration. He seems blind to the fact that labor offered on the market reflects a multitude of diverse and different, and useful skills and ability. To simplistically presume that more foreign workers entering the United States means lower wages for all or many Americans misses an essential point. Just as more investment in different types of capital equipment can successfully complement laborers in the workplace to increase the qualities, quantities, and varieties of the goods that can be manufactured, the same applies from additions to the labor force that can fill supporting roles in the division of labor, whether those workers have started out in America as less or more skilled employees.

Generations of wave-after-wave of immigrants to America over the last more than two hundred years have added hands to do work previously not able to be done because not enough hands were available or were too expensive to hire for the work to be done. The end result of all those who have come to America’s shores is that they have helped make us a more prosperous country than otherwise would have been the case. It has also made us richer in another way as well.

America Benefits from Freedom-Based Immigration Diversity

For most of its history, America was and has been a unique “melting pot” of people representing different cultures and historical backgrounds that has added to the varieties of talents, experiences, and offerings in the marketplace and to the culture of the country in general. Many of our own ancestors, when they first arrived in America from many other lands, were ridiculed, resented and feared by those who had come to America during an earlier wave of migration to the United States. Many of us are, nonetheless, the fortunate beneficiaries of those who were able to successfully make it to America in the past. We are beneficiaries not only in the sense that if they had not we, ourselves, would not now be Americans, but we also have gained by all they contributed earlier to America’s economic development from which we enjoy the fruits.

Instead, Trump fills the air with an embarrassing nativism that sees many new immigrants as the “wrong types” that will make America weaker and, well, less “American.” He asks why we don’t have more immigrants from “Norway” instead of “Haiti.” Whether he means it and believes this or not, his words convey a desire to restrict more of the  “inferior” types coming into the country.

It is worth recalling that before the First World War, when immigration into the United States was still relatively unrestricted, the “inferior” types entering the country that many then in America said threatened the quality of the nation were Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews, and a variety of others from Eastern Europe. And before that, the asserted danger was from the arrival of Irish in large numbers. America, today, would be a poorer place if those “inferior” types had not successfully made it to our shores in those earlier times. (See my articles, “Freedom to Move: Personal Freedom or Government Control, Part I”, and Part II”.)

Trump expresses a wide array of stupid, ignorant, and often bigoted sounding ideas. And he clearly has a noticeable number of supporters who either share the same intellectual limits as he or who are so angered at the cronyists who game the political system for their own benefit through the mechanisms of the interventionist-welfare state, that they count on Trump’s promise to “drain” them out of the Washington “swamp.” In addition, many of those supporters are afraid of and frightened by the menacing madness of the totalitarian progressives who have contempt for their everyday ways of living and who want to dictate how they may live.

Progressive and Trumpitarian Agendas are Both Against Liberty

But the problem is that the corruption and abuse of the political system cannot be reduced or eliminated as long as government is considered a means and a mechanism for manipulating people into actions and avenues different than they would choose and follow if they were left to peacefully plan and direct their own lives.

The progressives want to micro-manage mankind in particular directions through the power of the State that frightens Trump’s supporters and many other conservatives. The Trumpitarians want their champion in the White House to do the micro managing and manipulation in a different direction that frightens the delicate sensibilities of the enlightened and self-anointed on the political and cultural “left.”

Thus, they see each other as mortal enemies, with each representing apocalyptic disaster to the other. And both are right. The progressives, and especially the totalitarian tribalists in their midst, threaten political freedom and economic well being in America with their insatiable desire for bigger and bigger intrusive government.

The conservatives, and especially Trump and his supporters, offer America a nativist economic nationalism, along with their own “big spending” agenda on untouchable entitlement programs and bigger military budgets to make America “great” again at home and aboard that reinforces the fiscal irresponsibility of those on the left.

Each seeing the other as a mortal threat, they end up jointly reinforcing the same tendency and direction of the country toward economic and political collectivism. The common victim of both remains the cause of individualism and classical liberalism. (See my article, “State of the Union: Progressives, Conservatives and Trump”.)

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).