2018: A Gathering Storm for Classical Liberalism

“But Gorsuch,” the slogan used to criticize those on the right for supporting Trump, does not fairly capture the dilemma of classical liberals during his Presidency. In 2018, as before, Trump’s pursuit of classically liberal policies has emphatically not been confined to the judiciary. Certainly he has continued to appoint judges who are broadly-speaking originalists, likely to sustain our fundamentally classically liberal charter of government. But he also has mostly pursued classically liberal policies, such as those of lower taxes and deregulation. In some areas, he has in fact been the most effective implementer of classically liberal policies since Reagan.

His Department of Education, for instance, has rolled back dreadful Obama polices, like ones that effectively forced universities to deprive those accused of sexual misconduct of due process protections and encouraged a racial and ethnic quota system for discipline in K-12 education. And as importantly, that Department is putting end to the practice by which many such policies are imposed by so-called Dear Colleague letters, which avoid processes requiring public input into regulations. Classical liberalism includes adherence to structures that force government to slow down and deliberate before regulating its citizens, and the Trump Administration is reviving them.

And even in the areas in which the administration has failed to implement a classical liberal agenda, like foreign trade and entitlement reform, it is not as if Hilary Clinton or any other Democratic President would have  proved better. Indeed, most Democrats today would expand entitlements. Larger social security benefits, free college, and Medicare for all are recipe for an America that would put it on the dismal low growth and low innovation trajectory of Europe.

The most significant economic area in which Trump’s policies may be worse is the environment. While Clinton would have engaged in excessive regulation, the Trump administration has sometimes not forced companies to internalize all the costs of using fossil fuels and some other pollutants.  And the administration is too hostile to encouraging immigration of highly talented individuals who will add to economic growth and create no substantial risks to social cohesion. But on balance, there is a classical liberal case for giving one or possibly two cheers to the Trump Administration, particularly given the alternatives.

And yet at the end of 2018, I fear for the future of classical liberalism. To be sure, much of the reason for my concern has little to do with Trump. Many of our universities, mine very much included, are places of ever greater political correctness and ideological orthodoxy that nurture a coming generation of social justice warriors. The Democratic Party has lurched to the left and radical leftists, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are given glowing mainstream media treatment. And the disruption of technology quickens, making many people feel insecure and more open to the “protections” of the state, even if the benefits of this technology, like internet search and social media, are often free and are more broadly shared than almost any innovations in human history.

And Trump adds to this disquiet because he has singularly failed to burnish the reputation of classical liberal ideas in this turbulent time. His mercurial persona, divisive tweets, and ill-informed and more than occasionally false comments discredit some good policies that should be popular. Rhetoric counts as much as policy in a democracy, because many if not most voters are rationally ignorant of complex policy arguments and even results. But many of the uninformed follow what Trump says, do not like it, and transfer that dislike to his policies. That is one of the explanations of midterm elections, the results of which portend ill for classical liberalism. Trump uses the bully pulpit but to undermine his policies and political standing. In this, he is the reverse of the greatest President and political expositor of classical liberalism in my lifetime, Ronald Reagan.

Moreover, his continual focus on himself is the opposite of a classically liberal tenor of governance, because it gives the public impression that that government and politicians should be the center of our social life. To the contrary, classical liberalism wants to minimize that presence. Presidential rhetoric should reflect that modesty.

In short, forces appear to be gathering to push America toward the greatest aggrandizement of the state since the New Deal. The President’s policies rightly resist these forces, but policies are woefully insufficient for political victory. To be equal to the moment a classically liberal statesman needs to enlarge the coalition of liberty by attracting the wavering and confused middle. Here the President is squandering the opportunity to turn back the powerful momentum for a collectivist revival.