Paleoconservatism Is Back

Trump may be a new kind of politician, but we've seen those ideas before.

Old-time GOP religion.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The election of Donald Trump seems so shocking, so unprecedented, that most pundits are treating the election as a unique rupture in American political history.

That's an understandable reaction to the rise of a political novice who spends his days firing off angry tweets, but one that ignores the fact that the ideas he’s peddling have a long and tangled history that is inseparable from the history of the Republican Party. Viewed this way, Trump’s victory isn’t an anomaly. It’s the stunning resurgence of a wing of the conservative movement that went into exile many decades ago.

Consider Trump’s core campaign message, from which he rarely wavered. Free trade is bad, and is responsible for the nation’s economic decline. Immigration is an existential threat to the American way of life. Global institutions, treaties, and alliances should be viewed with suspicion. Nationalism is a bulwark against globalization.

All of this seems heretical to today’s free-market, foreign affairs conservatives, but it’s actually just the revival of what once passed for party orthodoxy. In the 1920s, Republicans hated free trade, preferring protective tariffs. After World War I, for example, Republicans engineered a series of high protective tariffs that they promised would protect the jobs of American workers.

Under the leadership of Joseph Fordney, a Michigan Republican who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, Congress passed the Emergency Tariff Act of 1921. Fordney and his Republican colleague in the Senate, Porter McCumber of North Dakota, followed up with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922, which threw up some of the highest protective tariffs in the world. 

Democrats opposed these efforts, but Republicans would eventually double down on protectionism with the passage of the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which has been blamed for exacerbating the Great Depression and causing a global trade war.

Republican suspicion of free trade found a corollary in suspicion of the open borders. Earlier in the 20th century, Republicans had fallen under the spell of writers like Madison Grant, whose polemical 1916 book, "The Passing of the Great Race," argued that the white Anglo-Saxon population would be inundated by the waves of “inferior” groups – Jews, Asians and other non “Nordic” peoples – unless immigration could be curtailed.

Eventually, Republicans in Congress put a stop to immigration, imposing a draconian quota system. Two Republican leaders – Representative Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed – pushed through legislation that would become known as the Immigration Act of 1924. A Republican president, Calvin Coolidge, happily signed the bill, declaring that “America must be kept American.” The open door, which had long characterized immigration policy, slammed shut.

Republicans also had no use for internationalism in foreign policy. After World War I, they united in opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations, declaring it a dangerous erosion of American sovereignty. That isolationism would only intensify during the 1930s, when Republicans urged a retreat from world affairs as Europe embraced fascism.

This, then, was what has retroactively been described as the “Old Right.” With the ascendancy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats, it saw its influence wane, as did the Republican Party generally. Nonetheless, leaders like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio continued to resist U.S. involvement in World War II, the creation of NATO and even the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

By 1952, an internationalist wing of Republicans had started to take over. Taft lost the presidential nomination that year to General Dwight Eisenhower. The party was marginalizing the Old Right in favor of a New Right that defended free trade and global markets and promoted of a muscular, interventionist foreign policy. This transition was largely complete by the time free trader Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1964.

The Republican Party simultaneously shed its hostility to immigrants. In 1965, Congress effectively repealed the Immigration Act of 1924, passing the Immigration and Nationality Act. Republicans voted for the bill in greater numbers than their Democratic counterparts, a stunning turnaround from the Republican Party of 40 years earlier. No less striking was the fact that many of the intellectual luminaries of the neoconservative New Right weren’t of “Nordic” stock; they were Jews. 

The few remaining devotees of the Old Right went into exile.  They first found a refuge of sorts in the John Birch Society, a paranoid organization known for its anti-Communism, but which also espoused uncompromising restrictions on immigration and protective tariffs. But their wild conspiracy theories led to their expulsion from the mainstream conservative movement. The remnants of the Old Right soon made common cause with a growing number of reactionaries fighting the Civil Rights movement through the 1960s and 1970s.

The members of the Old Right – whom neocons dubbed “paleoconservatives” – kept the faith alive within a number of fringe organizations. The first was the Council of Conservative Citizens, which grew out of the White Citizens Councils set up to resist integration in the South. Then, as now, the movement espoused hostility to free trade, opposition to foreign entanglements and multinational institutions, and a belief that immigration posed an existential threat to the U.S.

The architects of the “paleo” movement in this era aren’t well known today, though the political scientist George Hawley has done a good job chronicling their travails. Samuel T. Francis, a Washington Times columnist and editor of the Citizens Informer, a CCC newsletter, spent much of his life railing against non-European immigrants, miscegenation, free trade and foreign military ventures like the Iraq War. Thomas Fleming, editor of “Chronicles,” one of the key journals of the paleo movement, also served as president of the Rockford Institute, a key paleo institution. From these perches he preached antipathy toward non-Europeans, hatred of free trade and globalism of any kind and draconian limits on immigration.

These were the people who supported what may have been the last Old Right candidate before Trump: Pat Buchanan. Buchanan’s controversial statements, never mind his iconoclastic views on free trade and internationalism, doomed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. But it didn't doom the Old Right. Its adherents lurked on the outside of the political establishment, biding their time, despite flirtations with anti-Semitism and rank racism.

Trump sensed that the time was ripe for a revival of the Old Right, despite its many liabilities. He understood that the bipartisan consensus behind free trade, open-door immigration and global institutions and treaties had left many voters resentful and disaffected. All that remained was for someone to take back the Republican Party from the neocons – and then attract enough white working-class Democrats fed up with free trade and fearful of immigration.

And that’s what happened. As a political personality, Trump broke new ground. But the ideas he promoted? They’re old.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.