Hayek Saw This Coming

February 26, 2019
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Donald Trump speaks at a "Make America Great Again Rally" April 29, 2017 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Credit where credit is due: it was Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion, who first pointed out Friederich Hayek’s warning in connection with the Trump campaign. “For many of us, what is most troubling about Donald Trump is not his particular views or policies — much though we might disagree with them — but rather the aroma of populist demagoguery and menace that surrounds him.” Roger Kimball wrote in May 2016 in a piece headlined “How Hayek Predicted Trump With His ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’’”:

Take a look at the clips of his rallies: What do we want? he shouts. “A Wall,” screams the crowd. Who’s going to pay for it? “Mexico.” Time warp: Is this the 1930s? It’s a sensation that is heightened when Trump suggests that his fans “beat the crap out of” protestors — and don’t worry, he’ll pay for their legal expenses.

Back then, Kimball recognized who Trump was. “Donald Trump,” he wrote, “is a corrupt crony capitalist who throughout his career has supported the whole menu of ‘progressive’ causes.”

In the last two years, the term “irony” has been worn out, beaten with sticks, and put through the shredder. But it is still ironic that Kimball has emerged as one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, as well as a champion of right-wing populist nationalism.  

On The Bulwark’s first day, I paid tribute to Kimball’s intellectual gymnastics skill in crafting an apologia that argued that Trump’s policy accomplishments “go a long way towards a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.”

I wrote:

Do not overlook Kimball’s accomplishment here: There was a time when character referred to such hoary values as justice, prudence, truth, temperance, and fortitude. But in this telling, character becomes simply a threshold to be clear by tabulating policy outcomes.

Kimball’s shape-shifting is all the more extraordinary in light of his insightful reading of Hayek’s warning about all of this.

The Austrian-born economist and classical liberal, who played such a central role in the emergence of American free market conservativism, had a keen understanding of the temptations of authoritarianism. That’s what makes his warnings seem so prescient.

“’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded,” he wrote.

Hayek’s chapter on “Why the Worst Get on Top” in his classic work, The Road to Serfdom, diagnosed the populist impulse that would lead to the demand for ceding power to a “man of action.” This is “the position which precedes the suppression of democratic institutions and the creation of a totalitarian regime.”

At some point in a political or economic crisis, there “is the general demand for quick and determined government action that is the dominating element in the situation, dissatisfaction with the slow and cumbersome course of democratic procedure which makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough ‘to get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal….”

Hayek knew that it was in the nature of free societies for people to become dissatisfied “with the ineffectiveness of parliamentary majorities,” so they turn to “somebody with such solid support as to inspire confidence that he can carry out whatever he wants.”

Hayek then lays out the preconditions for the rise of a demagogic dictator: a dumbed down populace, a gullible electorate, and a common enemy or group or scapegoats on which to focus public enmity and anger.

Sound familiar?

The more educated a society was, Hayek wrote, the more diverse their tastes and values will be, “and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values.”  The flip side was that “if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and ‘common’ instincts and tastes prevail.”

But in a modern society, potential dictators might be able to rely on there being enough of “those whose uncomplicated and primitive instincts,” to support his efforts. As a result, Hayek said, he “will have to increase their numbers by converting more to the same simple creed.”

Here is where propaganda comes into play. The “man of action,” Hayek wrote, “will be able to obtain the support of all the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently.”

Slogans (“Build That Wall! Lock her Up”) should be simple and relentless.

“It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party,” Hayek predicted.

This led to what Hayek called the third and most important element of the demagogue’s program: in order to “weld together a closely coherent and homogeneous body of supporters,” he needed to find an enemy.

It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programme, on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off, than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they”, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses.

The identification of scapegoats has numerous advantages, not the least of which, is that it gives the leader far more leeway than a positive agenda for which he might be held accountable.

The enemy, whether he be internal like the “Jew” or the “Kulak”, or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armoury of a totalitarian leader.

Immigrants, foreigners, refugees, “elites,” “international bankers,” Mexicans, or the Davos oligarchy would work equally well. For students of history, the “air of populist demagoguery and menace,” around the Trump campaign — as Roger Kimball put it, back in 2016 — was deeply troubling because it seemed to be giving shape to precisely what Hayek had warned against. It was not a path to restored, “greatness.” It was, in Hayek’s terms, the road to serfdom.

And it was— and is — a radical rejection of values central to the conservative tradition.

Portions of this article are adapted from Sykes’s book, How the Right Lost its Mind.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.