Liberalism and the age of Trump

This post is adapted from a thread I wrote on Twitter.

To truly understand American politics in the age of Trump, you need to understand liberalism — but not as most Americans use the term.

In the U.S., “liberal” is used as a synonym for “progressive” or “left-leaning,” but we’re idiosyncratic that way. Most of the rest of the world uses “liberal” to refer to ideas coming out of “classical liberalism” — John Locke, J.S. Mill, etc.

Precisely defining a term like “liberalism” is hard, but the favorite definition I’ve seen is that it’s an ideology primarily concerned with “protecting the liberty of individuals.” Both parts of that are important: Liberalism is obviously concerned with liberty — it’s right in the name. But just as importantly, liberalism is an ideology whose primary unit of analysis is the individual — not socioeconomic classes, or racial/ethnic groups, or religious communities, or families.

To understand this, it can be helpful to contrast liberalism with other ideologies. Marxism, for example, sees social class rather than individuals as the primary unit of analysis. Nazis thought in terms of a racial “nation.” Both are more concerned with “power” than “liberty.”

Beyond that general definition , though, there’s huge variation among “liberals.” For example, some define “freedom” narrowly — “negative liberty,” the right to not have the government tell you what to do. Other liberals prefer broader definitions of “positive liberty,” where, say, being poor infringes on your liberty, by constricting your options. Liberals fight about which is better, but both are varieties of liberalism.

Similarly, as Jacob Levy argues in his book Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom, liberals disagree about the greatest threat to individual liberty. Some see the national government as the biggest threat, and accordingly want to bolster local government, private associations, business, churches, etc. as a bulwark against central governmental tyranny. Others see the biggest danger to individuals’ liberty as precisely being those local governments, private associations, etc., and want to use the federal government as a tool to protect people from these “intermediary institutions.”1

Right-liberals and left-liberals

The point is, “liberalism,” understood along these lines, is not definitionally an ideology of the left, or of the right. There are left-liberals and right-liberals.

Historically, American politics has been dominated by liberals. For much of the 20th Century, for example, the Republican Party was principally a right-liberal party, while the Democratic Party was a left-liberal party.

There were, of course, non-liberals in both parties – people who shared a lot of policy goals with right-liberals or left-liberals, but for different reasons and through different reasoning. They were, however, largely marginalized.

In other countries, the political spectrum is wider, with liberals just one smaller group among socialists, communists, Christian Democrats, ethno-nationalists, and more. Given the very real policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, it can seem absurd when some people criticize the two parties for being basically the same. But understanding that both traditionally come from and are constrained by liberal frameworks makes that critique make more sense!

The age of Trump

But think about American politics since 2015 or so. What are the two most novel phenomenons? Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, and Donald Trump, who is many things, but is definitely NOT is a liberal.

The fierce rivalry between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, despite very similar policy positions, makes more sense through this lens. Warren is a left-liberal. Sanders comes out of non-liberal strains of the left.

Trump, similarly, tramples disdainfully over liberal political mores. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both always tossed platitudes into their speeches about respecting people of other beliefs and creeds, even if their opponents were skeptical about how much they meant it. Trump doesn’t. Congressional Republicans, mostly right-liberals, largely back Donald Trump. But if you look at the areas where they DO criticize him, it’s most frequently on areas where Trump violates liberal mores about freedom of speech, conscience, etc. (Also foreign policy, but that one doesn’t have much to do with liberalism or illiberalism.)

In a European political system, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump would not be part of the same political party, though they might serve in a coalition government together. The same goes for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. (Of course, this actually sort describes Sanders and Biden, given that Sanders is not actually a Democrat.)

Liberalism in its various forms historically has had its strongest support among the professional class living in and near cities. The Republican Party’s collapse in suburbs under Trump is driven precisely by this group. (The realignment of the suburbs predates Trump, of course, and has lots of causes; my hypothesis here is that Trump’s illiberalism has accelerated the trend.)

No one knows what the future will bring, but the old model of American politics, where the center of gravity was liberal and non-liberals of left and right had to either forge alliances with liberals or be completely marginalized, seems battered at best. Both the illiberal left and the illiberal right have risen in power in recent years, and become more vocal in their demands. First-past-the-post voting makes a two-party system very durable, but both America’s coalition of the left and coalition of the right will have to either find a way to accomodate new illiberal factions, or find ways to defeat or co-opt them, or possibly splinter into separate parties.

This short essay is in part a thought experiment. I’d love to hear feedback, whether you agree or disagree, or think I overlooked an important line of thought.

  1. Something else important to keep in mind is that most people aren’t just motivated by one ideology. Some ideologies aren’t really compatible, but others can overlap, with varying degrees of unease. You can be a “liberal nationalist,” for example, combining a commitment to liberal ideas with those of nationalism. Not all liberals are also humanists, either — many historical liberals have believed in the liberty of individuals, but excluded some groups in society, in part or in whole, from their definition of “individual.” Liberalism is just one frame to use to understand American politics, but I think it’s an important one.