Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden Is Going Protectionist. Republicans Are Going Off the Deep End.

Even after Trump has left office, ultranationalist views are still dominating his party.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A man wearing a patriotic suit and Donald Trump themed tie joins supporters queueing before President Donald Trump holds a rally on Oct. 26, 2020 in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
A man wearing a patriotic suit and Donald Trump themed tie joins supporters queueing before President Donald Trump holds a rally on Oct. 26, 2020 in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Last week, I attended a webinar hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft titled “What Does a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class Look Like?” The idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” championed by Joe Biden during the 2020 election, has an appeal so powerful as to be almost insidious. Of course U.S. foreign policy should advance the interests of most Americans, but would the mildly protectionist reforms proposed by Biden accomplish that objective? I was eager to hear an alternative view from Quincy, a collection of scholars and analysts who believe that U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of the Cold War has become overmilitarized, overambitious, and overstretched.

I did hear an alternative view, but it was not one I expected. The first speaker on the panel was the historian and polemicist Michael Lind, who has in fact written a great deal about the middle class. In his most recent book, The New Class War, Lind explains the populism that raised Donald Trump to power as the desperate response of ordinary Americans to a leviathan-like overclass that uses the levers of political, economic, and cultural power to perpetuate its domination. That class, Lind now asserted, had so abjectly capitulated to China that the United States was approaching the status of a “tributary state,” its sovereignty in doubt. Elites had similarly beggared the working class by opening the nation’s doors to immigrants, raising corporate profits while depressing the wages of working Americans. A foreign policy for the middle class, Lind concluded, would decouple from China as far as possible and choke off immigration.

Last week, I attended a webinar hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft titled “What Does a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class Look Like?” The idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” championed by Joe Biden during the 2020 election, has an appeal so powerful as to be almost insidious. Of course U.S. foreign policy should advance the interests of most Americans, but would the mildly protectionist reforms proposed by Biden accomplish that objective? I was eager to hear an alternative view from Quincy, a collection of scholars and analysts who believe that U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of the Cold War has become overmilitarized, overambitious, and overstretched.

I did hear an alternative view, but it was not one I expected. The first speaker on the panel was the historian and polemicist Michael Lind, who has in fact written a great deal about the middle class. In his most recent book, The New Class War, Lind explains the populism that raised Donald Trump to power as the desperate response of ordinary Americans to a leviathan-like overclass that uses the levers of political, economic, and cultural power to perpetuate its domination. That class, Lind now asserted, had so abjectly capitulated to China that the United States was approaching the status of a “tributary state,” its sovereignty in doubt. Elites had similarly beggared the working class by opening the nation’s doors to immigrants, raising corporate profits while depressing the wages of working Americans. A foreign policy for the middle class, Lind concluded, would decouple from China as far as possible and choke off immigration.

The next speaker, Daniel McCarthy, editor of the conservative periodical Modern Age, offered a Catholic gloss on Lind’s class-based nationalism. McCarthy argued, as Catholic conservatives have at least since the middle of the 20th century, that secular liberal culture has eaten away at the foundations of family, community, and traditional morality. But he raised the imagery of an elite war against the middle class to an almost apocalyptic plane. McCarthy described the liberal world order as a “kind of murder of the American middle class.” Elites have sold out the middle class not only to China but to allies like South Korea and Taiwan, with their low-cost steel and semiconductor industries. “A lot of our elites,” McCarthy declared, say “Americans are inherently a defective people” to be replaced by workers from abroad.

Listeners were treated to yet more denunciations of the “overclass international order” from the third and final speaker, Rachel Bovard, a former aide to Sen. Rand Paul and now the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. I felt a little shellshocked—perhaps a sign that I spend too little time in the Trumpian precincts of the policy world. Quincy leans, if anything, a little more left than right and draws heavily from those dreaded so-called elites; not only that, but the event was co-sponsored by the Center for the National Interest, publisher of the arch-realist National Interest—Henry Kissinger its honorary chairman and tutelary deity. The event was introduced by a center official, George Beebe, who blandly asserted that elites “look favorably on the prospect of a borderless world.”

What’s going on here? Has Steve Bannon executed a hostile takeover of the Quincy Institute and the National Interest? It appears not. Quincy continues to attract people whom I think of as left-realists, like Stephen Wertheim, its director of grand strategy, who regularly lampoons so-called economic nationalists obsessed with the threat from China. The National Interest continues to feature serious geopolitical thinkers like Robert Kaplan. Conservative internationalism—the “hawk” ideology of the half-century prior to Trump’s election—remains the default worldview of the big right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

Yet Trump has deposited spores of nationalism across the right-wing world, and they continue to multiply. Only a remnant of the Republican Party is committed to free trade and free markets, just as only a remnant of the party is committed to a hawkish internationalism. (Even Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Biden’s decision to withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan.) Those are the elites—the Washington pundits, the academics, the think tankers—whom the nationalists despise. Bill Kristol champions the liberal world order from the sidelines; Liz Cheney’s hawkish credentials meant nothing to the Trump ditto-heads who ousted her from her leadership position in Congress. Republicans are increasingly following Trump in turning away from the world, scorning allies, and repudiating not just “endless wars” but the very idea that the United States can shape better outcomes for itself through an active role in world affairs.

Trump taught conservatives to look for enemies at home rather than abroad. Perhaps they didn’t need much teaching; conservatives marginalized themselves in the 1950s by indulging in the paranoid anti-communist rampage of Joseph McCarthy. But there are a lot more liberal elites today than there were communists, or even crypto-communists, in 1952. Trump and his followers have had to advance a comprehensive and elaborate conspiracy theory to explain liberal hegemony. Lind, who seems to have gone very far off the deep end, believes that several generations of American elites have been raised with the conviction that U.S. protectionism caused the Depression, which caused World War II, which in turn means both that the United States is responsible for the war and that protectionism is a Hitler-level evil. I, personally, don’t recall that from World Civ.

The panel discussion was disconcertingly absurd. Yet it would not have been that hard to imagine a less fevered version in which the participants would have taken credit for Biden’s foreign policy for the middle class rather than regarding it as a globalist plot. That policy, as the administration has laid it out, involves reshoring critical industries, using the government’s procurement power to “buy American,” and working with allies to compel China to play by the rules of global economic competition. That agenda, in turn, rests on a belief, which has rapidly swelled to a consensus, that globalization has been a very mixed blessing for the middle class, even as it has proved wildly beneficial for corporations and owners of capital—that is, economic elites. Even arch-neoliberals like Larry Summers now advocate a “responsible nationalism” that benefits ordinary Americans whether or not it advances global goods. Biden administration officials are united in regarding China as a dangerous rival.

Mainstream Democrats are now soft nationalists. Indeed, the international economist Adam Posen recently complained that both parties have now converged around a protectionist “trade policy for the middle class” that threatens to strangle the golden goose of global free trade. The alleged debate between conservative nationalists and borderless liberal elites is largely illusory, for the ideological contest actually pits the modest nationalism of a post-neoliberal Biden administration against the virulent and conspiratorial nationalism that has zombified the Republican Party.

That’s a catastrophe for serious conservatives. But it’s also a misfortune for Democrats, as the new orthodoxy of a foreign policy for the middle class faces a serious challenge only from the socialist left. Once Republicans could be counted on to make the case that liberty means free people in free markets. That’s over.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.