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When Did Conservatives Stop Loving a Free Economy?

National Review contributor and rage-inducing controversialist Kevin Williamson has a new book out, “The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics,” which covers a lot of big-picture theory on democracy, social psychology, and even theology. For the moment, I’m most interested in what he says about capitalism’s history and its recent evolution (if I may use that biological term).

Toward the beginning of the book, he writes that in the United States today, “two competing strains of angry populism are locked into a cold civil war over the same piece of psychic real estate.” One of the things I find alarming about the twin poles of leftist class warfare-style populism and economic nationalist populism is their current, and not-at-all cordial, anti-corporate entente. Lefties have always been suspicious of corporate America, of course, but in the age of Peter Navarro’s trade war, Sen. Josh Hawley’s hounding of Facebook, and the commander-in-chief’s cyberbullying of Jeff Bezos, we now have a right-wing anti-corporatism that no doubt would have amazed an earlier generation of conservatives.

What has brought about this newfound hostility? Left-leaning critics have been rolling their eyes for generations over the apparent false-consciousness of working class conservatives who refuse to embrace Progressive economic policies that would supposedly empower them. The title of Thomas Frank’s George W.-era lament, What’s the Matter with Kansas? became the shorthand of every lefty writer who was sure he (and it was usually a he) had the secret to finally convincing socially conservative voters that they should embrace Marxism.

Up until the era of Trump, however, all of the witty Slate columns in the world were unable to persuade the Rust Belt diner customers of America to stop clinging to their guns and religion long enough to grab a beer with Elizabeth Warren. Now, however, we have Fox News’ Tucker Carlson delivering anti-corporate rants that would make a Wobbly blush, while Sen. Warren herself is co-opting revered conservative rhetoric by declaring her platform to be one of “economic patriotism.”

The most popular explanation for this unexpected realignment is that, while the contemporary global economic system has been very good at raising standards of living in recent years, gains from trade have been unevenly distributed, and that has created historic discontent. Williamson writes, “Globalization has brought wealth and cooperation, but it has also disturbed longstanding modes of life and upended communities, especially those affected negatively by outsourcing and offshoring…” Is that why we see some much Trumpian market bashing?

The lack of growth in real wages for blue-collar workers (and free trade getting the blame) is certainly an issue today, but it was also one in previous generations. I suspect that the earliest furrowed-brow thinkpieces about America’s industrial heartland being decimated by global trade are now older than most Trump voters. Detroit’s population decline started in 1950, not 2000. I’m (just) old enough to remember when opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992 made the now-deceased H. Ross Perot the most successful third party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt headlined the Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912. Those of sufficient age will also remember that before we feared competition with China, American workers—in particular Detroit’s auto industry workers—feared competition with Japan. William Greider wrote an article for Rolling Stone in 1982 titled “The UAW Fights for Survival,” with the far more revealing subtitle “Must America play the good-natured wimp in the name of free trade while Japan gets the jobs and the money?” Subsitute China in 2019 for Japan in 1982 and that’s pure MAGA rhetoric.

So while it’s possible a long-simmering resentment merely came to a head circa 2016, I don’t think worries about foreign competition and allegedly stagnant wage growth really explain today’s right-wing anti-corporatism. There’s something about unease with Big Tech and a backlash against perceived identity politics excesses that are involved as well. Ideally, conservatives would kiss and make up with the Hayekians before we need a long-term answer, but I wouldn’t bet on it.