The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts
by Salvatore Babones
Polity, 2018, 128 pages, $21.95
Salvatore Babones’s The New Authoritarianism is an important book. The central proposition is that a class of experts, an illiberal liberal elite, has hijacked representative democracy in America (and Western nation-states in general). Our new masters, though tyrannical and radical, are not Marxist or Fabian in the customary sense of championing ordinary working people. They despise ordinary people or “everyday great American patriots” as Donald Trump refers to them. The new authoritarians, well-travelled, well-educated and well-heeled, are intent on refashioning the West according to their own “liberal worldview”. Brilliantly insightful and always fair-minded, The New Authoritarianism is a compelling insider’s account of how the liberal-minded became close-minded.
Babones must be something of a class traitor, given that he himself belongs to the expert class as Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. The New Authoritarianism, remarkably, is an expert casting a coolly authoritative eye over latter-day liberalism and finding it tarnished by a desire to dominate, adjudicate and legislate every aspect of our lives. The customary role of liberalism, according to Babones, was not to vanquish the other two strains of political thought, progressivism and conservatism. Liberalism, as one-time stalwart of the British Liberal Party Winston Churchill opined, should be an integral part of a constructive tension between the status quo/stability and change/progress. The true liberal thinker, sophisticated and broad-minded, appreciates that not all change creates progress and that reactionary intransigence does not guarantee stability.
This review appears in December’s Quadrant.
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The genesis of liberalism is to be found in “English nonconformist Protestantism” and, subsequently, England’s 1689 Bill of Rights. A century later, liberals in the form of “New York financiers, Boston merchants, and Harvard intellectuals” opposed amendments to the American Constitution that “reserved” freedoms for the people and threatened to “limit the powers of the new federal government”. Liberals in power adjudged and apportioned rights for citizens while the people sought God-given freedoms. Modern-day human-rights movements are invariably liberal in nature. Experts in global organisations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch, monitor the extent to which locals enjoy universal human rights as defined, naturally enough, by the experts. This process of adjudication can shine a powerful light on unspeakable crimes, but it can also be vague, de-contextualised and ineffectual. The establishment of the European Court of Human Rights was an attempt to remedy the latter point on international civil and political grounds.
For most people, Babones maintains, the concerns of liberals have been a “side-show” because elections are mostly “decided on a conservative-progressive axis” between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. With the introduction of universal suffrage, the electoral fortunes of liberals invariably waned. The Liberal Party in the United Kingdom, for instance, was replaced by the Labour Party in the 1920s as the main opposition to the Conservative Party following the 1918 Reform Act. Liberals in the House of Commons had a fine record of legislating on behalf of the people, but the people, when given the opportunity, voted into government parties that defined themselves as either conservative or progressive. Thus, Winston Churchill, who had previously moved between the Tories and Liberals and various independent positions in between, in 1925 joined the Conservative Party for good: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat,” he commented. Nevertheless, liberals have not only allied themselves with conservatives. Tony Blair, according to Babones, is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who commanded (and commandeered) the socialist Labour Party or New Labour for almost thirteen years.
In the American context, likewise, liberals have insinuated themselves into one or the other main political parties after the Federalist Party faded in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Republican Party, with its anti-slavery, pro-business, libertarian and anti-big-government policies, was more often than not a home for liberals before the 1960s, when something of a volte-face occurred, and the Democratic Party became a magnet for liberals. Babones is careful to distinguish classical liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, which was not liberalism at all but state-sponsored wealth redistribution—progressivism, in short. Jimmy Carter, with his focus on global human rights, and Bill Clinton, the triangulator-in-chief, were less progressive than liberal. Babones cites the obvious philosophical differences between the politics of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’s left-wing populism. Hillary Clinton signed up to an array of Bernie Sanders give-aways by the end of their battle to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, but she was always playing catch-up.
One of the most damaging WikiLeaks disclosures to emerge on the 2016 campaign trail was a paid speech Hillary Clinton gave to the Brazilian Banco Itau back in 2013: “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders …” She believed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before she was against it. The TPP was to be one more pillar of the “liberal international order” which “liberal internationalist scholars, lawyers, pundits, and activists” saw as “the natural order of things”. While liberals view free trade—or what purports to be free trade—as “sheer common sense”, progressives fear it as “an attack on workers’ livelihoods”. Jeremy Corbyn was openly sceptical about the merits of the European Union up until 2011, and during the 2016 Brexit campaign many discerned his heart was not really in the Remain cause. Pointedly, Babones writes, the early Conservative Party supported the nineteenth-century Corn Laws, thinking that restrictions on imported grain “helped maintain the traditional social, economic, and political structure of the English countryside”. The Liberal Party of the day, in sharp contrast, championed free trade.
The expert class or liberals might find it impossible to win a political election in their own right, but this did not prevent them from exercising power. Donald Trump is the democratically elected president, although his immigration program will not be the last word on the matter if activist judges have any say on it. Consider the political clout of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justices on the Supreme Court have authorised everything from abortion to gay marriage, all without a vote in the people’s house, on the pretext of promoting constitutional rights. The furore over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court judge had less to do with uncorroborated tales about the man’s behaviour as a teenager, than the prospect of an originalist majority on the bench for the first time since the 1920s. In other words, Democrats made it blindingly obvious they do not consider the Supreme Court to be a disinterested adjudicator operating above the fray but, rather, a political weapon to be wielded. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the democracy-minded Babones recently suggested, in the National Interest, that the electorate ought to vote for Supreme Court judges.
Naysayers will argue that the Supreme Court needs to be independent from the partisanship of party politics, just as our own government-subsidised Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia Council for the Arts, Melbourne Writers Festival and so on ad infinitum are all independent from the petty politicking of our parliamentary representatives. This is all well and good, of course, but what if these “independent” experts have an ideology of their own to push? Babones would call that creed liberalism. The New Authoritarianism helpfully documents any number of non-democratic ways the expert class has found to rule over us, from unelected transnational bodies to institutions of education. European technocrats, for example, foisted their expertly-written constitution on the member states of the EU with hardly a nation voting on the matter. After all, to oppose the illiberal liberal elite’s transnational vision would be irrational or, in the case of Brexit, racist and xenophobic.
Much the same might be said about education today, where scholarly knowledge and authentic debate in the Humanities are being superseded by Grievance Studies and Critical Theory. Teachers and instructors discourage students from engaging with a topic (from literature to musicology) without consulting an ideologically appropriate expert. It is as if we have travelled back in time to some high-tech version of the worst aspects of a medieval world. Memorise and recite the Catechism before opening the Good Book, which is in Latin anyway and so no point bothering with it too much.
Salvatore Babones’s suggested remedy for the new authoritarianism in education is, paradoxically or not, a return to classical liberal principles in the form of John Dewey’s entreaty: educators must, if a democracy is to flourish, encourage students to genuinely and directly engage with literature or whatever the subject and not impede the unique and epiphanic (and skill-making) opportunity that offers. Better, certainly, than warping young minds with the “mad incantations”—as conservative philosopher Roger Scruton describes them—of Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze et al. Does the liberal-left academy retain any integrity at all? Babones, in Quadrant, bravely called out our professoriate who were apoplectic about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation but untroubled by foreign-sponsored Confucian institutes.
Babones, like so many liberal professionals, is unconvinced by the “boorish, bumptious billionaire” Donald Trump and his “inchoate promises”, but is, in a broader sense, sympathetic to the results of the November 2016 election. Though “progressives and conservatives [have] oscillated in power” since the time of Andrew Jackson, “the authority of America’s expert class has never been seriously challenged”—until now. Babones boldly welcomes that challenge despite the fact that the professoriate (mostly) view The Donald as not only a carnival barker but a madman or Nazi (or both), and Trump’s supporters as dangerous ignoramuses. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” jibe was a cry from her heart. A know-nothing real-estate developer and reality-television performer and his know-nothing admirers have deprived a member of the expert class of what was rightfully hers. As Harvard-educated Barack Obama explained at the 2016 Democratic Convention: “There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States.”
Maybe our experts are not so knowledgeable about democracy. After all, the commentariat, professionals one and all, mocked Candidate Trump’s assertion that he loved the “poorly educated”. The punditry did not appear to grasp, until it was too late, that Donald Trump was closing a deal with “everyday great American patriots” who wanted to make America great again by reviving manufacturing, revitalising infrastructure, ensuring energy independence, strategically deploying tariffs, renegotiating international trade deals, lessening unemployment, reducing taxes, championing law and order, rebuilding the armed forces, casting off PC orthodoxy, calling out radical Islamic terrorism, destroying Islamic State, avoiding unnecessary new wars and securing the borders. Candidate Trump was pledging to run a government “for the people” by bypassing the interests and opinions of the expert class.
Salvatore Babones, wrongly I think, believes President Trump will not end up being “a hero to anyone but himself”. Notwithstanding that, he insists there is no crime in being populist, in contrast to the experts on populism such as Jan-Werner Müller. In the opinion of Babones, populism in America—and I would add the Anglosphere in general—is not about excluding people but responding to the “desperation” of the people—the very point, surely, of a representative democracy. Though conceding the expert class is, almost by definition, more efficacious at completing executive/managerial tasks, Babones predicts that a “populist purgative” will chasten an illiberal liberal elite and restore democracy to health.
I am not so sanguine. The New Authoritarianism conjectures that America’s populist revolt “has the potential to prod (or more likely to scare) the country’s entire political establishment into respecting the dignity of (all) the people the next time around”. Good luck with that. Where Salvatore Babones sees the threat to democracy in the ascendancy of New Authoritarianism, I discern something more ominous taking us hostage (see “The New Totalitarians”, Quadrant, April 2017 and “The Great Bohemian Cultural Revolution”, Quadrant, June 2018). The advent of Donald Trump, the first populist President since Andrew Jackson, has provided us with an unprecedented insight into the machinations of today’s Left Power Elite (to borrow from C. Wright Mills) and its proclivity to unleash hell on anyone with the temerity to challenge business-as-usual late modernity. Hollywood, the mainstream media, pop singers, comedians, talk-show celebrities and footballers, Big Tech, Obama’s intelligence community, the professoriate, activist judges, the Democratic Party, the old GOP establishment, major book publishers and billionaire-funded community organisers have not been—and will never be—chastened by Trumpism. Instead, they are responding with the ferocity of a stingray’s instinctive, venomous slashing at the presence of an intruder.
The New Authoritarianism is right on the money in asserting that our new masters are not Marxist or, at any rate, not Marxist in any sense Karl Marx would endorse. They despise blue-collar workers and do not care that manufacturing jobs disappear overseas; for many, frankly, it is in their interest that jobs disappear overseas. Incapable of making an electoral majority in their own right, our class of liberal experts has, Babones contends, forged an unlikely alliance with Big Money and minorities (or modern-day tribes): “Broadly speaking, professionals provide the ideas, the wealthy provide the money, and the minorities provide the votes.” The role of PC ideology is to somehow rationalise a partnership between left-wing identitarian blocs—the Muslim Brotherhood, third-wave feminists, LBGT+, Black Lives Matter, pro-Palestinian militants, enviro-activists, refugee campaigners, self-selected ethnic representatives—and liberals, who previously advocated for the rights of individuals but now fight for the rights of groups. The difference between championing the rights of groups and the rights of individuals might seem insignificant, and yet this progressive-liberal compact amounts to negation of everything we once considered, well, liberal. As Salvatore Babones has remarked: “There is something deeply incongruous in condemning past people for their group disparagement (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) while celebrating group identities today. Surely the goal should be the abolition, not the equalization, of essentialist identitarianism.”
One of the many virtues of The New Authoritarianism is that it explains the origins of liberalism, a political philosophy that assumes the task, as James Kalb would say, of “administering freedom”. But what one hand gives, the other snatches away. Their dispensation has become a tyranny; the hubris of the liberal expert class has made it anything but liberal in its dismissive attitude towards ordinary people and traditional thinking. G.K. Chesterton, in Edwardian times, famously mocked liberals for eternally striving to be “ten minutes in advance” of the latest intellectual fashion, but today’s liberal-left intellectual trends, from open borders to Critical Theory, invite something more than mockery. Contemporary liberal thinking and practices, paradoxically, are a threat to the principles of our liberal democracies. Few express this dangerous irony as well as Salvatore Babones.
Not all liberals are fated to throw their lot in with the tyranny of politically-correct rectitude. Classical liberals, if contrarian and fearless enough like Salvatore Babones, are welcome to join us on the freedomist side of the political divide, where Trump is not a Nazi, enlightened patriotism can be respected, ordinary working people are not to be deplored, liberty is not bestowed on us by our betters but is God-given, and the precepts of Western civilisation are something to live by and die for.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann. He wrote “Jeremy Corbyn and the Moral Perils of Anti-Zionism” in the November issue