Donald Trump, American Social Darwinist
Donald Trump tweets a quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his detractors rush to label him a fascist.
A Washington Post Reporter tweets a photo at a Trump rally and the Huffington Post likens it to a scene from Nazi Germany.
Two of America’s most noted historians, Bill Maher and Louis CK, weigh in to conclude flatly that the comparisons of Trump to Hitler have validity, while a third — Jimmy Kimmel — resolves that Trump is simply Un-American.
Hope and change are long gone, supplanted by these days of rage. How far we have come in 8 short years; how little we have learned. That foreign-born, Muslim Barack Obama has ceded the stage to the European-style crypto-Nazi-fascist Donald Trump. Throw in Bernie the Bolshevik, and one would think the End of Times is upon us. This is not the America we know and love — whoever “we” are.
Stamping a politician as “foreign” to the American Creed is certainly nothing new in our politics. It’s exceptional quality, however, lies in its architecture, engineering, and execution. Americanism acts as a form of intellectual blackmail — you’re either with us or against us — while playing the “foreign” card serves as a salve for those warily eying the barbarians on the other side of the gates. No matter if the target is our current Kenyan-Muslim President or the ostensible second coming of Adolph Hitler: the un-American label is as easy to understand as it is dangerous, since it blinds us to the malignant genetics of our own political culture.
So let’s put to rest once and for all these comparisons of Trump to Hitler or Mussolini, or Trumpism to Fascism or Nazism, as interesting or as reassuring as they may be. Let us see Donald Trump for what he is: a loud American who has rekindled a deeply American idea — the politics of Social Darwinism — in this presidential election.
Forever In Search of the Forgotten Man in America
For over 200 hundred years now, presidential politicians of all stripes have been in a desperate tug-of-war over the Forgotten Man — that mythical figure in American politics whose hard work, decency, and political voice are consistently drowned out by political and cultural elites or corporate raiders. In short, the Forgotten Man ethos has given life to one of the most powerful of all political forces in America: populism.
Though populism’s undercurrent reaches deep in American political history, its appeal is deceptively simple. From Andrew Jackson’s self-anointment as the “tribune of the people” in the 1830s, to the billionaire Ross Perot’s promises to “clean out the barn” in the 1990s, to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump today, populist leaders have sought to stand with the people (whoever they might be) against the powerful (whoever they might be). Jackson railed against the “monster monopoly;” Perot against the Washington bureaucrat’s propensity to govern by flow chart. Sanders takes aim at the crooks on Wall Street, and Trump at the idiots in Washington. The substance of populist movements may differ, but the message has remained remarkably similar over time: you’re being held back by a small, mostly invisible group of very powerful people. It’s not right, and something needs to be done about it. Whether the populist narrative is completely true or not is beside the point. There is a truth in it, and that’s all that matters.
In this context, the Tea Party uprising and the Occupy Wall Street Movement we witnessed over the last decade are certainly nothing new. And one might argue that the campaigns of Trump and Sanders are, respectively, the logical continuations of these two populist movements.
However, the origins of the Trump campaign are much longer and much deeper — whether Trump himself is aware of it. It predates the Tea Party, George Wallace, Adolph Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. In fundamental ways, Trumpism is the mirror image of a version of Social Darwinism articulated in the second half of nineteenth century America.
William Graham Sumner’s Social Darwinism and Modern Conservatism
The modern American conservative movement was born in the formative years of the Cold War at a time when New Deal Liberalism was the American civic religion. More than fifty years later, the movement has spawned an entire industry of think tanks, publishing houses, scholars-in-residence, and Founding Fathers. Some of the canonical texts of the conservative movement include Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom,Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History.
Conservatism has many tributaries, but at heart are nonetheless a few core principles: societies are ordered in hierarchical fashion based on divine intent and/or personal responsibility; property and freedom are inseparable; markets should be unfettered from government regulation; traditions must be adhered to in order for stability to be maintained; societies should evolve slowly rather than change dramatically. All of modern conservatism’s Founders employ versions of these principles in their writings. Yet, nowhere on any reading list of canonical texts of modern conservatism will you find one of the true progenitors of contemporary social and political conservative thought in America: William Graham Sumner.
The reason is simple. Even Sumner is too politically incorrect for a group that has made a living over the last three decades bashing political correctness. He is unmentionable because he unapologetically preached one of the harshest versions of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century. But his ideas are nonetheless everywhere in conservatism and, indeed, in Trumpism.
Sumner believed that “reform,” “progressivism,” or “socialism” — indeed, any ideology “whose aim was to save individuals from any of the difficulties or hardships of the struggle for existence and competition of life by the intervention of the state” — defied the fundamental law of the universe: survival of the fittest. Similar to the core of Trump’s campaign, Sumner’s brand of Social Darwinism propagated an unabashed but seamless defense of two groups in American society viewed by the left as irreconcilably at odds with one another: “the captains of industry” on the one hand, and the “forgotten man” on the other.
Sumner could praise the vast fortunes accumulated by the robber barons of his times without repudiating the hard-working, industrious common man, whom he believed was “threatened by every extension of the paternal theory of government.” “The reason why I defend the millions of the millionaire,” Sumner wrote, “is not that I love the millionaire, but that I love my own wife and children, and that I know no way in which to get the defense of society for my hundreds, except to give my help, as a member of society, to protect his millions.”
For Sumner, the millionaire and the forgotten man had more to fear from the Paternal State (or what modern conservatives call the Nanny State) than they did from each other. Take the millionaire first. Society for Sumner depended on the creation of individual wealth. Thus, social advancement for all relied upon the financial abilities of the few: “The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done…they get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is good for society.” Sumner chided those who believed that wealth would be created were it not for the captains of industry:
The popular notions about this matter really assume that all the wealth accumulated by these classes of persons would be here just the same if they had not existed…This is so far from being true that, on the contrary, their own wealth would not be but for themselves; and besides that, millions more of wealth, many-fold greater than their own, scattered in the hands of thousands, would not exist but for them.
“The aggregation of large fortunes is not at all a thing to be regretted,” Sumner declared. Society could not advance without vast fortunes or those who acquired them. “If we should set a limit to the accumulation of wealth, we should say to our most valued producers, ‘We do not want you to do us the services which you best understand how to perform, beyond a certain point.’ It would be like killing off our generals in a war.”
Sumner also defended vigorously the notion of hereditary wealth. That, too, was a product of the laws of nature, since hereditary wealth was a way of preserving to the industrious millionaire the success of his offspring. Since he and his offspring were responsible for enriching their communities through their wealth production, personal wealth had to stay in the family. To do otherwise was a threat to personal liberty and tantamount to an assault on the family by the State. In Sumner’s word, that would reduce men to “swine.”
If Sumner’s defense of the captains of industry was spirited, his defense of what he called the Forgotten Man and Forgotten Woman was equally fervent. “It is plain enough that the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the very life and substance of society,” Sumner wrote. “They are the ones who ought to be first and always remembered. They are always forgotten by sentimentalists, philanthropists, reformers, enthusiasts, and every description of speculator in sociology, political economy or political science.” What the forgotten man and woman prized was not wealth but liberty — the right to be let alone. Sumner argued that popular notions of “civil liberty” were mistaken; liberty did not reside in elections, or universal suffrage, or even democracy. Civil liberty was the idea “that each man is guaranteed the use of all of his own powers exclusively for his own welfare.” Thus, a free man in a free state has “no duty whatever toward other men of the same rank and standing, except respect, courtesy, and good will.”
Actually, the forgotten man and woman in society had one big duty: “to take care of his or her own self. That is a social duty.” If one could not take care of oneself, it was of no consequence to others. If poverty existed, it was neither the fault nor the concern of the industrious forgotten man and woman. Sumner believed that the causes of poverty were deeply misunderstood in his time — hence the policy of state intervention was misguided. He blasted economists distressed at the amount of misery and poverty in the world. “They do not perceive that here ‘thestrong’ and ‘the weak’ are terms which admit of no definition unless they are made equivalent to the industrious and idle, the frugal and the extravagant.” Social welfare through state intervention amounted to replacing the survival of the fittest with the survival of the unfittest. That would be disastrous for civilization. Sumner thus rested his economic theory upon the core elements of Social Darwinism: “Laissez-faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty.”
On the Road to Donald Trump: Neo-Social Darwinism and the Rise of Right Wing Populism
To be sure, no one in the Republican establishment or the grassroots has embraced Sumner’s Social Darwinism in name. And it is not even clear to me that Donald Trump himself knows who Sumner was. While conservatives have talked endlessly about industriousness and idleness, the “makers and takers,” no one on the right would dare utter the phrases “survival of the fittest,” “natural selection,” or “the struggle for existence through competition” in explaining their political, economic, or philosophical outlook.
Few, if any, have ever mentioned Sumner. The notable exception is Grover Norquist, who in his book aptly titled Leave us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off of our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives references Sumner in a passage about Amity Shlaes’ 2007 book The Forgotten Man. Norquist and Shlaes both point out that FDR pilfered the phrase “the forgotten man” from Sumner during the New Deal and appropriated it to mean that he “was in need of being discovered and ‘helped’ by the government.” Norquist was indignant at Roosevelt’s theft: “This phrase was knowingly stolen from William Graham Sumner, who correctly pointed out that the true ‘forgotten man’ was the taxpayer who was expected to pay for the false philanthropy of politicians.”
Any politician or strategist will tell you it is a winner when you are perceived to be on the side of the little guy and gal. That is why, after all, FDR would steal the “forgotten man” phrase — and then attempt to direct the wrath of this forgotten man toward the “captains of industry” whom New Deal liberals claimed to be the real culprits of the Great Depression. The New Deal was about many things, but at its core it sought to rearrange the relationship, formed in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, between the government, these forgotten men, and the captains of industry. Government was now needed to step in and protect the forgotten man from the greed and irresponsibility of the captains of industry.
Over the last four decades, the conservative movement has been quite successful in mounting a credible counter-argument to the New Deal narrative. What hasn’t been properly understood, however, is that Sumner’s Forgotten Man and Womanare precisely the mythical figures right-leaning populists have been fighting for.
Years ago Thomas Frank argued that working and middle class voters in red states consistently voted against their economic interests when they opted for the culturally driven policies of the Republican Party. Frank’s analysis was astute, yet missed the populist appeal of Sumner’s Social Darwinism. “Mind your own business” and a “doctrine of liberty” from government make sense to these forgotten men and women, even as their lives become more tenuous.
It really doesn’t matter if conservative policies affect you adversely. What matters is that, everywhere, the Forgotten Man and Woman are constantly (in the words of Sumner) “threatened by every extension of the paternal theory of government.” This is the logic of Sumner’s Social Darwinism, and its broad appeal lies in an elegant simplicity: anything government does takes away one’s liberty — both from the industrious and the idle alike, from the millionaires and the forgotten men and women alike.
One would expect the modern conservative movement to formulate a narrative of the forgotten man and woman because all successful movements in America have to engage in populist rhetoric at some point. In fact, the entire edifice of modern conservatism has been built on this logic. Since Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964, conservatives have sought to reframe New Deal liberalism’s populist narrative.
Of course, much of that effort has been directed at the white working classes — whether it was through Nixon’s Southern Strategy or the rise of the so-calledReagan Democrats. The racial underpinnings of these efforts are evident and rather easy to cast as a cynical, racist scheme on the part of conservatives. But those who do so miss a larger point that transcends racial antagonisms and forms the true origins of the message’s salience. William Graham Sumner would be positively giddy at the success Donald Trump has had thus far in reuniting the “forgotten man and woman” with the “captains of industry” in the belief that they have more to fear from the government than they have to fear from each other.
How else do we explain the appeal of an ostentatious billionaire who openly questions the virility of opponents and the dignity of women? Who sees everyone and everything through the prism of “strength and weakness,” “high and low energy,” “stupidity and intelligence”? Who views everything in terms of a struggle for existence between “winners and losers”? Who makes connections to people and places on the campaign trail through his relationship to his plebian employees and lavish properties rather than citizens and democratic spaces? Who holds victory rallies in a ballroom that looks more like the Palace of Versailles than your every day Town Hall? The entire spectacle, the entire campaign, has successfully recast the relationship between a captain of 21st American industry like Donald Trump and those millions of forgotten men (and women) who are voting for him.
Trump’s message has brought in new voters and reconnected old ones to the electoral process in a way other rich white men running for the Republican nomination (Romney, McCain) have not been able to accomplish in the recent past. Most of these new voters are white, working-class, predominantly uneducated, and ill-informed about American politics. They are the mythical people politicians have been in search of since the early days of the Republica. And they are giving Trump’s campaign its buoyancy.
It might by reassuring to many to simply cast this dynamic in terms of racism, misogyny, economic anxiety, fascism, Nazism — you name it. But something deeper is going on here — something that taps a primal, undeniable element of our American political culture that has been with us for two centuries.