At the dawn of western philosophy, Heraclitus mused on the “unity of opposites.” Millennia later, Hegel argued (apocryphally) that any given thesis gave rise to its antithesis. In a different field, Sir Isaac Newton postulated that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” and earlier this year Ultron sagely pronounced, “Everyone creates the thing they dread.”
In other words, if you want to understand where the Donald Trump’s soft fascism comes from, look no farther than the progressive left.
Progressivism Is a Fundamentalist Religion
You have to understand progressivism as a kind of religion—specifically, a fundamentalist religion. Any religion offers an explanation of reality and our place in the world. It tells a story about why pain and evil exist. It holds out an ultimate object of worship capable of overcoming evil. It prescribes a code of ethics centered on that object. And, in the West at least, religion tends to view history as moving towards a great transformation, after which good is triumphant and evil vanquished.
The gods of progressivism are individual autonomy, self-fulfillment, and self-expression. This is a departure from the gods of classical liberalism, which are merely individual freedom, self-government, and civil liberties. Progressives go further; it is not sufficient merely to be free from government oppression. Rather, human beings must be completely freed from their circumstances to be literally whatever they want and express whatever they feel, with no barriers or consequences whatsoever.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, one of the high priests of progressivism wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” He later expanded on this line of reasoning, saying “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”
These are, of course, statements of American constitutional law, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. You have a constitutional right to define the meaning of your existence and express whatever identity you so choose, he says.
In this view of the world, evil takes the form of any barrier to your self-expression. There is no ground from which to criticize anyone’s self-expression; the only sin is to say that someone else’s identity is bad. Progressives are so devoted to this ideal that they tied themselves in knots about a white woman pretending she is black. More straightforwardly, they were unanimous in affirming that you can literally choose whether you are a man or a woman.
Reflect for a moment on the implications for public policy. The classical liberal state had a comparatively humble role to play in human affairs: uphold public order, protect civil liberties, enforce the sanctity of contract, provide for the national defense, and little besides.
But the progressive state has a massively larger role to play. It is responsible for enabling hundreds of millions of people to express whatever identity they want—and also responsible for adjudicating the countless boundary disputes that erupt whenever two identities clash.
This is an infinite, impossible task. There are as many possible identities as there are human beings, and almost infinite grounds on which to claim grievance. Thus, yoga is an oppressive act of cultural appropriation. An email from a residential advisor about Halloween costumes creates a “hostile environment.” If someone else’s words make you feel uncomfortable, they are a “microaggression” or simply “hate speech,” and you may seek a “safe zone”—safe from the dangers of the First Amendment, apparently.
That is why universities—microcosms of progressive governance—have seen their administrative apparatus balloon beyond all possible reason while simultaneously becoming functionally ungovernable. University governance is no longer about managing an educational enterprise; it is an effort to build an exemplar of progressive governance writ small.
Conservatives Have Failed to Respond to the Illiberal Left
Progressivism is dangerous and destructive because of the lies it tells about human nature, because of the steep costs it imposes on society, because of the loss of individual freedom, and—what is increasingly clear—because of how it provokes the rise of an opposite form of illiberalism.
Progressivism and political correctness are deeply illiberal, by which I mean opposed to the tenets of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism advocated for the right of free speech, association, press, religion, and so forth. Young progressives increasingly do not believe in the unrestricted right of free speech. Progressives have labeled some traditional religious beliefs “hate speech,” reflected in the Supreme Court ruling that opposition to gay marriage is evidence of “animus” against gays and lesbians. People who violate the progressive code are socially ostracized, sued for discrimination, forced to resign, and driven out of business.
Some conservatives have responded by trying to reaffirm classical liberalism. This isn’t a winner come election time because it can always be painted as old-fashioned, out of touch, or simply the tool of the white men who invented and articulated it.
Rand Paul’s libertarianism goes further, trying to offer a distilled, purified form of classical liberalism that would, in truth, bear little resemblance to American public philosophy, and which has never been remotely electable.
But the biggest failing of the moderate and conservative response is that it doesn’t articulate what’s wrong with progressivism. It’s simply a reassertion of old principles, not a response to the new challenge.
Conservatives’ failure to respond is what allowed the rise of Donald Trump’s soft fascism. Trump’s ideology, if it can be dignified with such a label, goes on the offense and purports (falsely) to offer an answer to progressivism. I say falsely because Trumpism, like progressivism, is deeply illiberal and dangerous for democracy.
Progressives leverage their power in the media, the universities, and the courts to enforce their code of political correctness on the country. They arrogate to themselves the moral and intellectual high ground, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be backwards, “medieval,” and uneducated. Trump attracts followers with his angry rejection of the code and his refusal to grant progressives the high ground they so presumptuously claim. The more politically incorrect Trump gets—saying things that would compel other politicians to resign in disgrace—the stronger his base supports him.
Progressives never exclude anyone, under any circumstances, or ever suggest that anyone’s ideas or worldviews are wrong, except for those who disagree with progressivism. Trump capitalizes on the obvious hypocrisy, giving himself a free pass to exclude and demean whomever he wants—Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Russia, Islam, China, all politicians, all journalists, and so on. Voters like this not so much because they hate Mexicans and Muslims, but because they hate progressive bigotry and feel like Trump embodies a living rejection of it.
And so on: progressives are the champions of every minority group’s grievance, so Trump gives voice to white grievance. Progressives are suspicious of truth claims, except their own. Trump makes sweeping statements with firmness and conviction, tenaciously holding on even when they are proven false—which is attractive to Americans who are sick of progressives’ self-serving narrative about how everyone is wrong except them. Progressives are suspicious of all authority, except when they wield it. Trump refuses to grant the progressive divine right to rule and flaunts his autocratic personae. Progressives are fixated on welcoming everyone, even to the point of abdicating routine border control and endangering national security. Trump feeds on fear and suspicion of outsiders.
Progressives, in their overreach, provoked their opposite. Their hypocrisy, double standards, and ruinous public policy have created a thirst for something, anything that looks and feels and smells different. Trump’s ideology is different but, with its nativism, bellicosity, and celebration of jack-booted big-government, it is also at least half-fascist.
Nominating Donald Trump Will Ruin Republicans
Trump has, unfortunately, captured the zeitgeist. Some have drawn parallels to the Know Nothings of the 1840s. A better analogy is to the Agrarian Revolt and the populist movement of the 1890s, a movement so broad that it captured and merged with one of the two major parties. Tellingly, that party—the Democrats—spent decades in the political wilderness. Democrats won the White House only briefly when the Republicans split in 1912 and did not truly return to the mainstream until 1932, after Republicans were discredited through the Great Depression.
If Republicans nominate Trump for the presidency, it will be a generational catastrophe for the party. It will likely lead to a third-party run by some establishment eminence gris and Hilary Clinton’s landslide victory.
In the longer term, the party will have a difficult time living down the reputation of this electoral cycle. This cycle has been unique in its ugliness, coarseness, and sheer tribal ferocity. These are formative political experiences for a generation of Americans, one they will not quickly forget. The side they pick this year is the side they’ll stick with for a long time.
It is unclear if there is an electorally viable alternative to either progressivism or whatever Trump represents. The Democratic Party has depopulated itself of moderates and Roosevelt-style liberals. The economic populism that used to be central to its identity—and who worst sin was a forgivable inefficiency and over-abundant faith in government—has been overtaken by social progressivism, identity politics, and grievance hustling. The party spent the last two decades mandating a self-deportation of pro-lifers and advocates of traditional marriage.
The Republican Party is at least still fighting for its soul. But, aside from Trump, it is a tired, old fight: business conservatives advocating for smaller government so they can make a buck; libertarians peddling their fanciful and unelectable utopia; and the “establishment,” those who speak in complete sentences and appear to have a modicum of understanding about the art of governance, which immediately disqualifies them in the minds of today’s angry voters. Of the choices on tap, the establishment is the least of all evils and the only conceivable route to a non-Trump, non-progressive presidency next year.
But if an establishment candidate somehow wins the primary and the general, it will be by the thinnest of margins, achieved by walking a tightrope that grows ever weaker, and he will find his ability to govern severely handicapped by Washington’s institutional paralysis and America’s ongoing cultural crisis. The two illiberal camps, progressive and Trumpist, will still be there, will still be angry, and will immediately start preparing for 2020.
The author advises Marco Rubio’s campaign for president.