On the weekend of October 17, the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy interview with political writer and historian Fred Siegel, conducted by a Journal contributor, Tunku Varadarajan. The piece is headlined “An Ex-Liberal Reluctantly Supports Trump”—but Siegel never considered himself a liberal; he viewed himself as a democratic socialist and his support for Trump is anything but “reluctant.” The piece’s subheadline notes how Siegel “came to appreciate the president’s defense of ‘bourgeois values’ against the ‘clerisy.’”
The first question to raise is what did the pro-Trump Journal editors think they would achieve by giving Siegel this important slot in their paper just two weeks before an election? Siegel has a new essay collection out from an obscure press, but that’s a flimsy hook on which to hang this interview. One gets the sense that the Journal wanted to portray someone who purportedly shifted to deciding to vote for Trump in the hope that some readers who are on the fence might be persuaded to do the same. Unlike a conversation with, say, Victor Davis Hanson or Roger Kimball or other avid, longtime supporters of Trump, an interview with Siegel might give such wavering readers the cover they need.
Fred Siegel and I have been friends for decades, going back to the late 1980s and early ’90s when we were both democratic socialists who belonged to the socialist group started by Michael Harrington that eventually became Democratic Socialists of America. In January 1993, Siegel and I both spoke at a major conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by an anti-Communist offshoot of the democratic socialists, Social Democrats U.S.A. Called “Does America Need a Social Democratic Movement?” the conference featured heavy hitters such as William Galston, Seymour Martin Lipset, Will Marshall, Michael Novak, Paul Starr, and Charles Lane. Charles Krauthammer also attended the sessions.
Siegel’s comments then were prescient and help us to understand how he came to be where he is today. He brought up the issue of immigration, at a time when few were talking about it as a problem. Immigration, he said, once produced “social solidarity.” However, at present (remember, the “present” is 1993!), “a new wave of immigration” has “shattered that solidarity.” He explained:
Talking to people who are workers, ordinary middle-class people in New York, I sense a tremendous danger. A combination of the downward pressure on wages exerted by free trade plus some of the downward pressure created by immigration creates a combustible situation in which people feel themselves enormously vulnerable.
In the same manner, another man of the political left made much the same argument in 1998, but on a broader canvas. Richard Rorty wrote in his pathbreaking book Achieving our Country—which did not get a good reception or reviews at the time—that soon in America, unorganized skilled workers and union members would realize that their jobs would be exported. Then the nonsuburban electorate would “decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no long be calling the shots.”
Next, Rorty wrote, many gains made by black Americans and women would disappear. Then “jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Rorty was thinking about Pat Buchanan, Trump’s demagogic predecessor, when he wrote those words. Were Rorty still with us and writing, he would likely be saying the same thing and using the same words to describe and warn about Donald Trump. But unlike Siegel, Rorty remained a social democrat—albeit one who, like Siegel, was in despair because a new cultural left had distanced itself from trade unions and, by turning away from programs to reduce inequality, stressed only group identity politics. He was particularly worried that programs like NAFTA, introduced by Bill Clinton, would harm those who had been traditional Democratic voters.
Rorty showed that one could make such a critique while remaining in the center left. Siegel turned for an answer to exactly the type of demagogue Rorty warned about.
Siegel later came to prominence with two important books, one on the state of American cities, the other a biography of Rudy Giuliani at the height of the mayor’s popularity, which received a rave front-page review by James Traub in the New York Times Book Review. Although a conservative when he wrote these books, Siegel was well within the mainstream, and was a nuanced and sophisticated writer and thinker; hence all the positive reviews he received from liberal writers.
Much of Siegel’s work provided a meaningful and serious critique of what generally is called “liberalism” today—not the liberal philosophy developed in the age of Enlightenment and reason, but the political views of those purporting to be liberals in the postwar American context. His 2014 book The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism has Undermined the Middle Class received positive reviews only in conservative venues. (I reviewed it for National Review.) Toward the end of that book, Siegel developed an account of how the Obama administration especially served the needs of both East and West Coast elites, while the middle classes supposedly served by Democrats suffered greatly.
Still, understanding the failings of liberals is not the same as having a positive case for Trump. In his Journal interview, Siegel gives us three reasons for his support. First, he claims that Trump’s foreign policy has been a success:
Crushing ISIS, pulling us out of the Iran nuclear deal, moving our embassy to Jerusalem, and making fools of those people who insist that the Palestinian issue is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Today, however, ISIS is anything but destroyed, and is again beginning to pose a threat.
The peace agreements Israel signed with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are a clear success—although the fact that previously hostile Arab states joined Israel due to their fear of Iran’s growing strength is a reminder that Trump’s increasing sanctions against Iran have not produced the regime change the administration obviously hoped for.
Notably absent from Siegel’s list of Trump foreign policy successes is any mention of Venezuela or North Korea. Nicolás Maduro is still head of Venezuela, which is increasing repression of its citizens, many of whom have fled or are attempting to do so. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has failed in his bid to replace the regime and begin a policy of democratization.
Meanwhile, Trump’s love affair with Kim Jong-un has not led to denuclearization—in fact, Kim’s regime just flaunted a giant new ICBM. The personal diplomacy Trump bragged about turned out to be the careful playing of the president by Kim. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is now larger than when Trump took office, and the danger of war still exists.
The second—and most disturbing—element in Siegel’s brief for Trump is his admiration for Trump’s purported “ability to withstand a prolonged coup attempt by the Democrats and the media.” Siegel suggests that the investigations of Russia and Trump by the Democrats took place because of their reliance on the Steele dossier, even though the investigations began before that document ever came up. As far as admiring the “impressive” qualities that have allowed Trump to survive politically, well, it’s easy to survive a coup that doesn’t actually exist.
Third, Siegel believes that Trump is a “champion of ‘bourgeois values,’ under threat from the ‘clerisy,’” his word for the belief of the elites who supposedly “despise” such values. Biden, by contrast, is a weak man who will become their “captive,” while waiting in the wings is the dreaded Kamala Harris, who will one day become president and is the “embodiment” of elites who rule over the middle and working classes. Echoing the old words of Jeane Kirkpatrick during Reagan 1984 re-election campaign, Siegel calls Harris a “San Francisco Democrat” who will easily control Biden and institute far-left programs such as the Green New Deal.
Rather than seeing Biden succumb to Harris during the campaign, we have seen her abandon her call for Medicare for all and a single-payer system: She supports the repair and expansion of Obamacare rather than its complete overhaul and the creation of a new government-controlled universal health care system. Similarly, she abandoned her opposition to fracking—a key demand of the left—and now stands by Joe Biden’s promise not to end it.
Most egregious is Siegel’s claim that President Trump exemplifies the doctrine of “hard work, faith, family and autonomy”—the very middle-class values that provide the framework for American society. It is hard not to chuckle at these words. We all know that Donald Trump began with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, going into business with a few million dollars given to him by his father. Rather than engaging in actual hard work, Trump was the tabloids’ favorite New York playboy, making money by ripping off contractors, not paying workers for their labors, and setting up phony business schemes like the fabled Trump University, whose suing clients were paid off with undisclosed sums of money and prohibited from talking about it with nondisclosure agreements. His business acumen is questionable, as he has declared bankruptcy for his businesses six times.
Siegel says that Trump is “in favor of manufacturing jobs.” But many of the plants that Trump claimed to have saved have closed. And the coal mines he said would reopen have not—and coal mines in general have continued to disappear, leaving more miners jobless.
As for Trump’s faith, he has provided many examples of his actual unfamiliarity with the Bible, and his lifestyle shows, shall we say, an inclination to not follow middle-class family values. Someone who respects family does not sleep with a porn star while married or brag about grabbing women by their genitals.
Siegel must know that for Trump, it is all about himself. This is most clear when talking about the one major item Siegel seems to forget: Trump’s handling of COVID-19. There is no mention in the interview (as published) of the fact that Trump’s actions since the pandemic started have contributed to the loss of over 220,000 American lives.
How does Siegel countenance Trump’s mode of campaigning, in which he holds potential superspreader events once or twice a day, where his crowds wear few masks and do not practice social distancing?
How does Siegel feel about the appointment of Dr. Scott Atlas—a neuroradiologist lacking significant expertise in infectious diseases—to the White House’s coronavirus task force, from which platform he has said that people shouldn’t wear masks (“Masks work? NO”) and that the United States should adopt a herd immunity approach to fighting the disease—a strategy that would cause hundreds of thousands of new American deaths?
How does Siegel feel about Trump playing to his base and waging a campaign against the infectious-disease specialist trusted by the American people, Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him a “disaster” and an “idiot”?
Fred Siegel has a long track record of making sharp-eyed criticisms of liberalism and the progressive left. His critiques of the Obama administration and of President Obama himself raise valid questions for discussion. Some will see Obama’s presidency as flawed, while other will see it as an attempt by a humane and family man to defend the United States as best as he thought possible. The final judgment is not yet in and will take years from his leaving the White House to correctly evaluate whether he was successful or not.
But opposing Obama’s presidency, or even being critical of some of Joe Biden’s approaches, is simply not a reason that can be put forth to support Donald J. Trump for president.
Nor is opposition to political correctness and the new “wokeness.” Opposition to it may be Siegel’s “personal act of disobedience,” as his interlocuter Varadarajan concludes. I am not sure, however, just what that means, since, as far as I know, Siegel has not been censored or come up against the cancel culture. Besides, it’s far from clear how embracing Trump in any way counters wokeness: Is there any reason to think that the rise of woke culture has been diminished by his four years in office? Could it be, as Yascha Mounk argues, that supporting Trump and a Trump victory actually encourages it, and that “Trump himself has been the far left’s biggest ally”?
I ask Fred, as a friend whom I know to be smart, serious, and a talented writer, to think these points over. He should do the right thing, and take back his endorsement of Trump, and join those of us who want to keep the United States a decent and free country—one not threatened by a president whose rule will only worsen if he wins re-election.