How right-wing Republicans became America’s unlikeliest anti-capitalists

At a recent conservative conference in Washington DC, the slur du jour was “neoliberalism”.

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In 2013, a few days after Margaret Thatcher’s death, one of her closest allies made an intriguing admission. “I sometimes wonder,” Norman Tebbit told the journalist Andy Beckett, “whether our economic reforms led to an individualism in other values, in ways we didn’t anticipate.” By liberating the market, Thatcherism might have helped to create a country that wasn’t very, well, conservative.

Tebbit was right to wonder whether conservatism should be synonymous with unfettered capitalism. Conservatives are meant to love the old, settled things; capitalism prefers the new and “disruptive”. Conservatives, in theory, support families and communities; capitalism, as Tebbit noted, is individualistic. Conservatives are expected to promote moral virtue; capitalism quite likes us to be weak and impulse-driven, clicking, feeding and indebting ourselves through a lifetime of consumption.

In Britain, the curious relationship between conservatism and capitalism is stronger than ever. But in America, that relationship has started to unravel. Republican politicians, intellectuals and media figures are sounding increasingly sceptical about the supposed glories of the free market, and have started to call for more state intervention and tighter regulation of big business. At a recent conservative conference in Washington, DC, according to one attendee, the “slur du jour” was “neoliberalism”.

A turning point came in January, when the Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson told his three million viewers that “Republican leaders” were in thrall to “corporate propaganda”, and seemed to have forgotten that “market capitalism is not a religion”. Carlson expressed his loathing for private equity and payday loan companies, remarking of the latter: “Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work – consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting.” Subsequently, Carlson has railed against the Koch brothers, the billionaire funders of right-wing think tanks, and has characterised the average Republican politician as “a libertarian zealot controlled by the banks, yammering on about entrepreneurship”.

While Carlson fires off sound-bites, a phalanx of intellectuals offers a more in-depth critique. The philosopher Patrick Deneen has persuaded many of his fellow social conservatives that their true enemy is Enlightenment liberalism: a distorted idea of freedom, Deneen argues, which has led to both social progressivism on abortion and marriage, and the injustices and inequalities of modern capitalism.

In March this year, several prominent thinkers, among them Deneen and the writers Sohrab Ahmari and Rod Dreher, signed a manifesto celebrating the death of “the old conservative consensus”. Published in First Things, traditionally the intellectual journal of the religious right, the manifesto called for “a political movement that heeds the cries of the working class as much as the demands of capital”. The details have been fleshed out by thinkers such as Oren Cass – who advocates an industrial policy based on supporting workers instead of maximising GDP – and in the cerebral quarterly American Affairs, the most recent issue of which proposes a huge expansion of child benefit. Part of the money, the authors suggest, could come from a financial transaction tax.                                           

To some conservatives, this sort of thinking is outrageous – “socialism”, according to George Will, the grand old man of the US right. How, Will asks, can people such as Cass call themselves conservatives, when they apparently believe that the state can manage the economy more effectively than the invisible hand?

But Will may be out of step with the rising generation of conservatives, many of whom are rejecting past orthodoxies. Josh Hawley, at 39 the youngest member of the Senate, declared in his maiden speech that, thanks to the people “who run our large corporations”, America was suffering from an “epidemic of loneliness and despair”, as well as economic deprivation and the ripping-up of the social fabric. For Hawley, the ultimate example of the new elite is tech companies: he is pushing for regulations, some aimed at making social media less addictive.

Then there is Marco Rubio, who after his 2016 presidential campaign was crushed by Donald Trump went away to do some hard thinking. Rubio concluded that “the American work culture – being able to earn enough to support a family – is under attack from global economic elites”. The right had put too much trust in the market, Rubio now believes. In May he published a policy paper that startled left-leaning economists by echoing their criticisms of financialisation and shareholder primacy.

As Rubio’s experience suggests, Trump’s victory has helped to undermine the old conservative consensus. Trump’s dark rhetoric about the opioid crisis and unemployment, his harping on the theme of “American carnage”, just seemed more in touch with reality than breezy language about the wonders of capitalism.

Not that Trump himself has much of substance to contribute to the debate. But he does have a knack for identifying enemies, and his attacks on the Chinese government and Big Tech have prompted new thinking. As John Burtka of The American Conservative points out, the Republicans haven’t had a decent enemy since the end of the Cold War. But they are warming to Trump’s trade war with China (maybe free trade isn’t all it was cracked up to be?), and his broadsides against Amazon and Google. (Perhaps these giant corporations should be broken up, or at least reined in?)

It’s just possible, then, that the American right is about to shake off its past and become a populist coalition against plutocracy, monopoly and exploitation. On the other hand, it can be hard to persuade a conservative movement to abandon free-market dogma. Just ask Theresa May.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace