Departing the Shining City
On Labor Day 2016, as that year’s presidential election began its stretch run, the Claremont Review of Books website published the pseudonymous essay “The Flight 93 Election.” It was soon deemed an intellectual justification for Republicans and conservatives to put aside their reservations and zealously support Donald Trump for president. This was no mean feat given Trump’s loutish behavior, ignorance of American government and political philosophy, support for left-wing causes, and poor and unethical business history.
“The Flight 93 Election” argued that conservatives faced a dilemma similar to the passengers on the hijacked September 11, 2001 jetliner: Either accept a disastrous status quo—a Democrat-controlled White House—or fight back in the hope of avoiding that fate. The essay, whose author was revealed to be a Republican speechwriter named Michael Anton, conceded that Trump might wind up being a bad president, but Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was a threat to the nation’s very existence, and so it would be better to risk putting him in the Oval Office. Anton added that anyone who thought otherwise was either corrupted by “pecuniary interests” or else, deep-down, believed that conservatism is “wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong on its policy prescriptions.”
Clinton as president was certainly undesirable, given both her own ethics problems and her intention to continue Barack Obama’s flawed agenda. Her presidency (like Obama’s) would have generated plenty of bad policy ideas, executive and federal power grabs, and political appointments that congressional Republicans would have had to weaken and block while she was in office and reverse once she left.
However, with Trump in the Oval Office, congressional Republicans have meekly and sycophantically approved his bad policy ideas, executive and federal power grabs, and political appointments, even though they were well-positioned to guide his presidency and check his behavior. Now, an American electorate exhausted by his erratic leadership (to put it charitably) is giving the president terrible disapproval ratings and ugly early polling numbers. Those portend that the Democratic Party—which has become far more radical than it was under Hillary Clinton—will capture the White House and Congress in 2020 and be positioned to appoint three Supreme Court justices who will shape the court for a generation. Meanwhile, the Trump-stained Republican Party is at risk of becoming enduringly irrelevant on the national level.
It’s tempting to conclude pithily that Anton simply botched his metaphor. Instead of Flight 93, a Hillary Clinton win would have been like Flight 4013, the Southwest Airlines jet that landed at the wrong airport in 2014. Conservatives’ political ambitions would have been delayed, but they likely would have reached their desired destination in subsequent elections, propelled by voter backlash to a Clinton presidency. Instead, in 2020 the Democratic Party will get to campaign against a bigoted, incompetent, immoral, and unhinged President Trump; a corrupt, disorganized, and inept Trump administration; a bigger, more interventionist, and more indebted Trump government; and a weak and divided Trump America that is a laughingstock to foreign friends and foes alike. And the Democrats will repeat that highly potent campaign message in 2022, 2024, 2026, and beyond.
But concluding that Anton botched his metaphor is to misread (or not read) his essay. The Trump presidency is by-and-large what Anton wanted: a presidency that rejects not just Clinton’s and Obama’s policies, but also Barry Goldwater’s and Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of smaller and limited government, greater political and economic freedom at home and abroad, individualism, and private ordering. That philosophy, which more or less was Washington consensus in the last decades of the 20th century (Democratic Party rhetoric notwithstanding), held that entrepreneurialism should be rewarded, personal responsibility demanded, individual choice respected, market competition expanded, and government intervention viewed skeptically. This philosophy did not yield a perfect Eden nor did those who professed it always practice it faithfully, but the United States did win the Cold War, closed out the 20th century with two decades of barely interrupted economic growth, and became a respected and largely appreciated global hegemon—with a balanced federal budget to boot.
Anton would dispense with all that. He is the one who believes that American conservatism, as practiced in the latter decades of the 20th century, was “wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong on its policy prescriptions.” “The Flight 93 Election” was not just a rallying cry against Clinton, but a rallying cry against Goldwater–Reagan conservatism and in favor of big-government nationalism, a political philosophy that is little different from turn-of-the-20th-century progressivism.
“Today’s Most Salient Issues”
Despite the essay’s “Flight 93” framing device, Anton made clear that support of Trump was more than a binary choice over Clinton; he embraced “Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.” He wrote,
The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—immigration, trade, and war—right from the beginning.
This agenda is not without merit. Trump sometimes speaks of the need to avoid foreign entanglements, a policy change that would be welcomed after the Afghanistan quagmire, the Iraq misadventure, the congressionally unsanctioned war against the Islamic State caliphate, and other military actions undertaken by recent presidents of both parties. Too much national blood and treasure have been expended on ill-conceived foreign policy, weakening the United States’ standing with friends and foes alike. If Trump were to deliver this departure from recent American policy—or just open a critical discussion of it—that would be of great national benefit.
But “The Flight 93 Election” wasn’t too vexed by U.S. military adventurism. Of the essay’s 4,300+ words, fewer than 100—sprinkled throughout its text—concerned foreign policy and war. In many cases, those sprinkles were little more than throw-away lines appended to unrelated discussions, the equivalent of, “Oh yeah, and war is bad too.” Worse, what seemingly aggrieved Anton most about these exercises of military power wasn’t that they entangled the nation in conflicts of questionable national benefit, but that they didn’t yield swift and decisive victory. In one of the largest “sprinkles” in the essay, he lamented America’s “inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes.”
“Ceaseless Importation of Third World Foreigners”
What was Anton’s primary policy interest? Judging from the essay’s word count and rhetorical heat, it’s immigration. Concerning the entry of foreigners (and “The Flight 93 Election” discussed immigration simpliciter; the term “illegal immigration” appeared nowhere), he wrote:
This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.
Why does immigration upset Anton? Xenophobia probably is programmed into human DNA; it certainly would have provided a Darwinian advantage to our ancestors. But plenty of other things are programmed into our DNA—the raging desire to copulate and need to eat come to mind—that humans today are expected to control with reason. So, what reasons does Anton give for opposing immigration?
He wrote of immigrants committing “yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack.” He mentioned that they can hurt incumbent Americans’ wages, though he didn’t argue for that claim. But his chief concern was that—by his appraisal—immigrants are insufficiently committed to American values and they are likely to vote for Democrats. In “The Flight 93 Election,” he wrote:
The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.
Do [conservative Trump critics] honestly believe that the right enterprise zone or charter school policy will arouse 50.01% of our newer voters to finally reveal their “natural conservatism” at the ballot box? It hasn’t happened anywhere yet and shows no signs that it ever will. But that doesn’t stop the Republican refrain: more, more, more! No matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same.
The concern about immigrants voting for the “wrong” candidates is older than the U.S. Constitution. One of its early expressions in federal law was the Alien Acts of 1798. (Worth noting: those abhorrent laws and the likewise abhorrent Sedition Act were passed by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party in part to weaken Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Democratic Republican Party. Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election anyway, and the Federalist Party slowly withered away.) Seemingly every immigrant wave has brought similar claims of national doom: Frenchmen (who were the targets of the Alien Acts), Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, European Jews, Southeast Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners. Yet somehow, after all of that immigration, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Today, the purported immigrant threat comes from Latin Americans. They are predominantly Catholic and tend to identify on the center–right of the political spectrum. And they are entrepreneurial enough to leave their native societies and make the difficult and dangerous trek to join the American economy and provide a better life for themselves and their families. One would think such courage, family commitment, and industriousness would make them promising Americans (and conservatives!), but Anton believes otherwise.
Are his fears of immigrants justified? Concerning public safety, the data broadly indicate that immigrants (both overall and illegal immigrants specifically) pose no more—and apparently less—risk of violent and property crime than incumbent American citizens. And legal immigrants, whose entry Anton opposes just like other immigrants—present substantially lower risk. Simple mathematics dictates that if he truly is worried about the risk of “rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack,” he should want more immigration: the inflow of people with lower propensity to commit violent and property crimes reduces overall risk. “The Flight 93 Election” lament about immigrant crime was irrational fearmongering, not reasoning.
What about the concern that immigration hurts incumbent Americans economically? “The Flight 93 Election” offered no argument for this concern, but a subsequent op-ed by Anton in the Washington Post did make a half-hearted attempt. In it, he claimed that immigrants would loosen “tight labor markets and the concomitant necessity to raise wages” for incumbent workers. He does have part of a point—to be precise, a 10th of a point, which is the fraction of Americans over age 25 who lack a high school education. Labor data indicate that immigrants—many of whom lack school certification and advanced English skills—do compete in the labor market with incumbents (in many cases, previous immigrants) who also lack those skills and credentials, dampening the incumbents’ wages. But immigrants also appear to increase the wages of incumbents who have a high-school education. Apparently, immigrant workers act like tools for incumbent skilled workers, increasing the latter’s productivity and making their labor more valuable and thus better paying. As a result, immigration has no statistically significant effect overall on incumbent Americans’ wages. And higher-skilled immigrants appear to increase incumbents’ wages and employment because these immigrants’ skills stimulate the U.S. economy.
Also, population data show that immigrants locate to U.S. areas with booming job markets that need workers of all skill levels, and stay away from economically depressed areas—think of Appalachia and the Rust Belt—where incumbent Americans struggle to find work. So, ironically, many of the places that were integral to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory are places with some of the smallest immigrant flows. (Worth noting: If incumbents in these economically distressed areas relocated 100 miles or so to job-rich cities and suburbs, just as foreign immigrants relocate several hundreds or even thousands of miles to the United States, the incumbents likely would improve their lives far more than what nativist policies would.)
How can this be? Economics dictates that increased supply of a good like labor lowers the good’s price, ceteris paribus. But immigration entails more than a simple increase in generic labor. For one thing, America has no shortage of work to be done, even by low-skill labor. The United States—and the rest of the developed world—is not caught in some Malthusian trap where resource supplies are fixed and increasing population means a decreasing standard of living. In fact, the correlation between population growth and resource availability is the exact opposite. Also, immigrants don’t only represent an increase in labor supply, they also increase labor demanded; people work to earn money to fund consumption, after all. With baby boomers now retiring and the cost of each retiree’s public entitlements falling on fewer and fewer workers, the United States needs more wage-earners, not fewer, and certainly would benefit from more labor, not less.
But Anton’s chief concern is that inflows from foreign cultures weaken U.S. social unity and commitment to the nation’s founding principles. This is an odd concern given the immigrant experience: As previously noted, many immigrants take great risk in leaving their homelands to seek their fortunes in the United States. That risk-taking and willingness to work seem like very American characteristics.
This concern also conflicts with U.S. history. The nation has long had tightknit immigrant communities that speak different languages, practice different religions, and follow different cultural mores. Yet, despite the dire warnings of previous generations of nativists, the United States’ Chinatowns, Little Italys, Jewish neighborhoods, and Amish enclaves are hardly “no-go zones” of anti-Americanism and crime. In fact, cultural diversity appears to enhance the American (and Goldwater–Reagan conservative) principles of limited government and private ordering: There is an empirical link between cultural heterogeneity and a smaller welfare state.
Anton offers no explanation for why the latest wave of immigrants would yield a different outcome from previous waves, especially as these newcomers settle into a nation of 330 million people. U.S. culture is wonderfully corrupting. Besides, if he believes American greatness is rooted in incumbents’ understanding of U.S. history and society, he should review the results of citizenship tests given to incumbent Americans.
What of Anton’s worries about global trade? “The Flight 93 Election” offered perhaps 50 words on foreign exchange, also sprinkled throughout the text. Only one “sprinkle” presents anything like an argument:
Free trade was unquestionably a great boon to the American worker in the decades after World War II. We long ago passed the point of diminishing returns.
On the contrary, the Principle of Comparative Advantage, which underlies the economic idea that trade is broadly beneficial, is as true today as it was after World War II. Crudely speaking, the principle holds that people are better off when many different producers focus on what they’re relatively best at making, and then trade their products with each other. That is especially true on a global scale, where different places have abundances of different natural resources, labor, and skills. By placing big-government constraints on industry’s access to foreign inputs and consumers’ access to foreign-made goods, protectionists harm both American workers’ incomes and consumers’ well-being.
In essence, Anton would (and Trump does) voluntarily inflict the same harms on the United States that warring nations impose on their enemies with embargoes and blockades. This is evidenced by America’s job losses and higher consumer costs from Trump’s various trade wars, contributing to a slowing economy. The harm from these policies will grow over time, rendering the country poorer and less secure than it would be otherwise. The only beneficiaries from these policies are the U.S. businesses (and their financial backers) that face less competition.
Anton might object that China and other U.S. trading partners engage in all sorts of unfair practices, harming the United States with trade deficits. But he would be confused on this point. Imagine that China and America strike a deal whereby China sends us all the goods we want, and in return we send them paper IOUs that China can redeem someday for American goods in exchanges we approve. Clearly, we would benefit from this arrangement: we get valuable stuff in return for easily reproduceable IOUs, and we dictate how (and even if) those IOUs are redeemed. (If Anton or Trump disagrees that this is a beneficial position, I have a deal for them.) Dollar bills are little more than IOUs, so why would inflows of foreign products in exchange for greenbacks be bad while inflows of foreign products for IOUs be good?
Did Anton have any other policy reasons for preferring Trump? “The Flight 93 Election” made no mention of judicial appointments or abortion. Taxes were referenced only once, in passing. There was nothing about Social Security, Medicare, health care, the budget deficit, or federal regulation. What few conservative policy ideas the essay did reference—whether specific items like enterprise zones and charter schools or more philosophic ideas like federalism and decentralization— “are all well and good,” he allowed, but he had nothing more to say about them.
Indeed, Anton—like Trump—seems to have little interest in any traditional conservative Republican policy. In the essay, he wrote:
Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent.
So, Trump is to the left of Republicans generally, and to the left of Democrats on the issues Anton cares about most. Usually, this is enough to get one labeled a RINO, a “Republican in name only,” a heretic on the party’s core principles. Instead, Anton sees this rejection of Goldwater–Reagan conservatism as one of the chief reasons for Republicans and conservatives to support Trump.
This is not unique to Anton; it is the animating principle of the so-called “national conservative” movement of which Trump is an avowed member. As Yoram Hazony, a leader of the movement, declared in his closing address at the recent National Conservatism conference:
Today we declare independence from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics.
So, national conservatism is against the primacy of individual liberty, which Reagan called “the very heart and soul of conservatism.” But what is national conservatism for? If “The Flight 93 Election” is any indication, it is a single-issue movement: keep the immigrants (not just dangerous immigrants or illegal immigrants) out. Or, at most, it is anti-immigration and anti-trade, along with pro-industrial policy and social homogenization, administered by a powerful central government—all ideas championed at Hazony’s conference. Given the nationalist agenda, it’s puzzling why Anton is so vexed about foreigners “with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”
Policy preference is not the sole reason Anton embraced Trump in “The Flight 93 Election.” Another was that, in Anton’s estimation, Trump is a winner, an assessment that calls to mind the ravings of Charlie Sheen circa 2011. As for the political philosophy of Goldwater and Reagan, he wrote in the essay: “The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure. … Our side has been losing consistently since 1988.”
To be sure, many items on the conservative agenda envisioned during the Goldwater–Reagan years remain unrealized. But the notion that small-government conservatism is a long-time “loser” (to borrow Trump’s language) clashes with reality. From victory in the cold war, to the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, to declining tax rates and global trade barriers, to important affirmations of First and Second Amendment rights, to the stunning market deregulations of the 1970s–1990s, to the Democratic Party embrace of Third-Way politics in the 1990s, to welfare reform, to the blocking of many of the big-government ambitions of the Obama administration, Goldwater–Reagan conservatism has scores an impressive string of political victories.
But then, these aren’t the victories Anton wants, because Goldwater–Reagan conservatism isn’t the political philosophy he favors. He wants nationalist big government, with its interventions, industrial policies, giant budget deficits (and thus future tax increases), and expansions of federal and executive power, all arranged around a core of xenophobia. No wonder he feels like he’s been losing under Goldwater–Reagan Republicanism.
Reagan, in the metaphor that defined his presidency, envisioned a very different notion of American greatness, the Shining City on a Hill:
I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
How Did We Get Here?
If the Goldwater–Reagan conservatism of the late 20th century was so successful—and it’s hard to argue the 1980s and 1990s weren’t successful, even though important societal issues remained unresolved—then why does Anton and today’s Republican Party reject it? Here is a hypothesis:
Those decades saw a classically liberal America contented in peace and prosperity, an increasingly neoliberal Europe growing more economically stable and socially unified, the Iron Curtain crumble, and China embrace market economics while its citizens bravely rallied for liberal democracy. All this prompted talk of whether the developed world was nearing “The End of History,” with pluralistic liberal democracy and a market economy as the final stage of societal evolution. Though not steeped in that intellectual discussion, many Americans had long believed in this idea reflexively.
The 9/11 attacks and subsequent Iraq war and its aftermath shook that idea; some people in this world do not want to live in such a society. As columnist George Will wrote in 2006:
It’s an American idea, sweet tempered, kind, optimistic, generous, well-intentioned, utterly American and quite preposterous. … [It was believed] that our values are not Western values, they are values shared by ordinary people everywhere. False. The world is full of ordinary people who do not define freedom as we do, who do not value it as we do, who prefer piety, ethnic purity, religious solidarity, military glory, or the security of despotism. There are all kinds of competing values in the world, and liberty has to be fought for and argued for and defined. It is a learned and acquired taste.
Nationalism and nativism have always been present in America and around the world. But they gained new currency on the U.S. political right in the first decade of the 21st century, while Goldwater–Reagan conservatism was deemed discredited by the Iraq quagmire and the Great Recession.
This was short-sighted. The fact that some societies reject pluralistic liberal democracy does not mean that some people born in those societies—specifically, the people who accept hardship in order to leave them for the West—cannot join in pluralistic liberal democracies. The fact that markets can experience downturns and even manias and panics doesn’t mean that state-planned and -controlled economies are preferable. Indeed, history is filled with examples of such successful immigrants and such unsuccessful economies. But Anton ignores all this. “Conserving” America, to him, necessitates dispensing with the core values of Goldwater–Reagan conservatism, and of America itself.
Anton wants no part of Goldwater–Reagan conservatism. As “The Flight 93 Election” made clear, he wants an interventionist government that tightly guards who can participate in society and the economy, and how they do so. His fellow travelers in the American branch of this nationalist movement—Patrick Deneen, Steve Bannon, Victor Davis Hanson, Sohrab Ahmari, et al.—flesh out this agenda, intent on reestablishing “traditional” America, seemingly circa 1955.
It’s tempting, when reading their works, to recall the quip that Republicans want to live in the 1950s and Democrats want to work there; the nationalists would do both. Problem is, their idylls to that era are largely odes to the way we never were; the 1950s were a time of military adventurism, recession, and civil strife. Besides, an earlier era would be more appealing to these nationalists: the original progressive era, with its calls for industrial policy, fears of immigration and of blacks and women joining the workforce, and condemnations of “elites” and “the wealthy.”
To appreciate how different Anton’s ideas are from Goldwater–Reagan conservatism, recall a story Reagan told during his 1988 farewell address:
I’ve been reflecting on what the past eight years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind, like a refrain, is a nautical one: a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor.
It was back in the early ’80s, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant.
The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled: “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter [to me], couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.
Admittedly, Reagan was imperfect. But he helped move the nation closer to embodying its founding ideal, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As such, he is a serious problem for Anton and his fellow travelers, so much so that they’ve tried to reinvent him. But the real Reagan was a historical fact, one that taunts Trump and discredits Anton. And, like the Shining City on a Hill, the real Reagan serves as a beacon for today’s Republicans and Democrats who recognize that both parties’ current statist, anti-liberty turn bodes ill for America. The Republican and Democratic parties of the 1980s and 1990s had very real and important policy differences, but they were both rooted in the liberal tradition that Hazony rejects and Anton dismisses.
“So what do we have to lose by fighting back?” Anton asked in “The Flight 93 Election.” In the essay, he wrote of the long-term harm from a Hillary Clinton presidency:
Have you thought about the longer term? The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three.
Is this different from what Trump has delivered? Under him, the presidency has grown even more imperial and constitutional checks on the office have further eroded. The nation has grown more fractured by race, class, geography, and religion. Foreign rivals now freely meddle in American politics, with Trump’s jovial acceptance. He spends his weekends at exclusive golf clubs and his weekdays consulting with billionaires—when he and his family aren’t jetting off to enclaves with other global leaders. There is no wall along the Mexican border (a good thing because it’s a foolish idea) nor Mexican money to pay for it, no significant trade breakthroughs, and no repeal of Obamacare and replacement with a new health care system. There are, however, reinvigorated North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, diminished U.S. stature among both allies and opponents, and a soaring national debt that, along with the entitlement crisis that Trump ignores, poses a serious long-term threat to the U.S. economy. Oh, and there’s the increasingly likely Democratic landslide in 2020 and the radicalization of the American political left.
But there’s an even greater loss to this “fighting back”: the loss of the Republican Party’s credibility, its Goldwater–Reagan conservative principles, its very soul. And in return for this flight from the Shining City on the Hill, the GOP didn’t even gain the whole world, but just Donald Trump.