a journal of modern society & culture

The Ends of Reform: Liberalism, Trumpism, and American Politics

In 1982, the historian Alan Brinkley wondered how two demagogic figures—the Louisiana politician Huey Long and the radio priest Father Coughlin—built mass followings that terrified and confounded political elites during the Great Depression. For one thing, Brinkley explained, Long and Coughlin both possessed substantial personal charisma and skillfully used the new mass media of the day—especially the radio—to communicate directly with their supporters.

Still, Brinkley argued, their popularity “rested ultimately on a far deeper and broader set of concerns—on the evocation of a distinctive ideology.” This ideology was often “muddled and simplistic, at times nearly incoherent,” in part because “neither man was a careful or sophisticated thinker, and neither had much patience with complexities or ambiguities.” And yet, both men articulated “an affirmation of threatened values and institutions”; named “a set of villains and scapegoats upon whom it was possible to blame contemporary problems”; and offered “a prescription for reform, resting on a carefully restricted expansion of government.” Contemporary observers may have “dismissed it all as meaningless and, as such, ominous, a demagogic attempt to delude the public with empty, impractical promises.” (And, Brinkley added, those observers “were not entirely incorrect.”) And yet, even in their incoherence, Long and Coughlin spoke to some of the “oldest and deepest impulses in American political life,” namely the desire to defend personal autonomy and local community against social and economic forces that seemed to be displacing them from the center of the American experience.[1]

“Trumpism,” to the degree that it constitutes a coherent ideology, is a volatile mixture of economic privilege and cultural grievance—with a disturbing affinity for xenophobic politics of the European far-right. But it seems to have spoken, at least at the margin where close elections are won or lost, to some of the “deepest impulses” cited by Brinkley. Long and Coughlin appealed to those Americans who felt besieged by the forces of large-scale industrial capitalism and by the New Deal’s expansion of federal power in an effort to rationalize that new industrial order and soften its sharp edges. Trump spoke to Rust Belt voters who felt powerless before global economic forces that move jobs and people around the world and before a federal government that seemed to privilege environmental regulation over jobs. Long and Coughlin emerged from obscurity during the economic crisis of the Great Depression, while the rise of Trump was clearly abetted by the slow and uneven recovery from the Great Recession. But the most important parallel might have simply been the grandeur of the promises. Where other candidates in both political parties offered to manage the consequences of economic and cultural change, the demagogues promised immediate relief. As Trump put it, only he—and he alone—could end “the carnage” and make American great again. And the electoral success of that message demonstrated a longstanding political weakness of American liberalism—a weakness that liberals cannot afford to ignore.

American liberalism derives its legitimacy from the idea that government action, at least in certain areas of social or economic life, can make people’s lives better. Government can insure people against poverty in old age or against choosing between bankruptcy and cancer treatment. Government can invest in the workers of the future by supporting education today or save the planet of tomorrow by limiting pollution in the present. As a practical matter, though, making people’s lives better through active government requires at least some degree of state-building. You cannot run a social insurance program or protect the environment without hiring people to make specific decisions, enforce rules, or litigate close cases. And so, efforts to make people’s lives better through government action generally require a larger and more intrusive federal government—one that employs bureaucrats, lawyers, investigators, and clerks. Those federal workers are likely to share certain kinds of education and certain skills—perhaps even shared ways of thinking about social or economic problems.[2] And those ways of thinking may—or may not—have much in common with the deep-seated anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams that got liberals elected or utilize activist government in the first place.

The work of Alan Brinkley is instructive on this issue, as well. In a biographical essay that was eventually incorporated into his book The End of Reform, Brinkley described the career of Thurmond Arnold, a Wyoming native and Yale Law School professor who Roosevelt tapped in 1938 to run the anti-trust division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Once ensconced in the justice department, Arnold successfully changed the direction of U.S. antitrust enforcement away from its previous obsession with policing “bigness”—that is, excessive conglomerations of economic power under a single roof—and toward policing anti-competitive behavior, such as price-fixing conspiracies. By doing so, Arnold accommodated antitrust law to the reality that a modern industrial economy needed large-scale enterprises operating in national or international marketplaces; you could not expect to build automobiles or transport produce across the continent using the model of small-proprietor capitalism imagined by, say, Thomas Jefferson. And he focused his energy on actions that harmed a broad cross-section of Americans as consumers, rather than trying to micro-manage the marketplace or individual corporate structure.[3]

In the process, though, Arnold separated antitrust law from the very political energy that had swept Roosevelt into power in the first place. Arnold’s vision of antitrust, Brinkley pointed out, “had no real constituency beyond the small cadre of lawyers and experts he recruited.” Arnold “promoted an antimonopoly ideal stripped of its populist and democratic content; an ideal tied to a vision, not of restoring power to individuals and communities, but of expert management of the economy through centralized state bureaucracies; an ideal perhaps better attuned to the modern form of the economy and the state than the one it replaced, but one less capable of generating and sustaining genuine popular enthusiasm.”[4] Of course, even if mainstream liberalism stopped articulating the notion, plenty of Americans remained quite interested in the idea of “restoring power to individuals and communities.” If Arnold and his coterie of lawyers decided that such talk nostalgic or unrealistic, their ideological rivals—from authoritarian populists and conspiracy theorists to more conventional conservatives—would be happy to take the ball and run with it.

In many ways, this particular dilemma—social movements generating state institutions that gradually lose interest in some of the issues that made them necessary—predates the New Deal. In her book The Roots of Reform, the political scientist Elizabeth Sanders argues persuasively that the decisive votes for most of the national legislation we associate with the “Progressive Era” came not from the Northern reformers who identified as “Progressives” but from Southern and Western members who had originally been swept into office by the populist mobilizations of the 1890s. Of course, the national legislation that took shape by the 1910s—the Federal Reserve, an expanded regulatory state—differed in very substantial ways from the issues that populists had mobilized around—which is one of the reasons that the populist contribution to Progressive reform is often undervalued. Sanders explains the apparent disconnect by pointing out that almost social movements are, as a general rule, “antibureaucratic.” As she puts it: “When has one seen protestors marching through the streets carrying signs that read ‘Give us an Agency!’ or ‘Give us an expert institution to study the situation and figure out what we need!’?”[5] And yet, translating a popular rebellion into highly bureaucratic state-building was a process of coalition-building and compromise that changed the content of reform and empowered certain people—especially credentialed experts who came to run the agencies that emerged from the process—over others. Perhaps the original farmer-labor agenda was practically impossible and perhaps it could never come close to obtaining an electoral majority. But it is hard to imagine farmers in Kansas raising “less corn, and more hell” with the Federal Reserve, as it was ultimately constituted, specifically in mind.[6]

If liberal state institutions merely enervated some of the political energy of American liberalism, it would be one thing. But the regulatory state has also managed to become a chief bogeyman of the American right. This is partially because the Republican Party is the party of small business, which feels the costs and burdens of a regulatory state more often and more directly than the average educated professional. But it has also become a crucial animating idea of the conservative intellectual movement. For a very long time, conservatives have believed that liberalism exercises power by building state institutions that are subsequently insulated from democratic accountability by civil-service rules or by educational requirements that ensure that a certain kind of mind who has been trained to think in a certain way will always hold down the fort. (In essence, when Thurman Arnold eventually moved on to the private sector, the lawyers he recruited stayed behind, and then they self-selected their replacements.) For this reason, a number of social institutions are accessories to the problem. It is not just regulators and lawyers but the college and universities that train them and the liberal social movements that manipulate them who make the administrative state possible.[7]

Trumpism can be an eclectic stew of ideas and impulses, some of them half-baked and others far less so. But, during a recent speech as CPAC, the annual gathering of self-identified “movement conservatives,” Trump apparently received some of his loudest cheers for promising that he would crush “the administrative state.” A California-based Straussian who has become one of Trump’s few cheerleaders in academia cited the “administrative state” as his primary reason to cheer on the Trump presidency.[8] That sentiment is not exactly new: When I was researching my first book, I came across a memo from a top Reagan administration lawyer—a guy who managed the day-to-day operations of the Department of Justice but daydreamed about asking the Supreme Court to declare all the independent federal agencies—yes, all of them—unconstitutional.[9] But none of that lawyer’s colleagues really wanted to make that argument—or thought it was a winner. The situation may be different right now.

I raise all these deep historical continuities, which may seem a little far afield, for a reason. It would be easy enough to read the Trump phenomenon as a reflection of our particular moment in time—as a response a period of growing income inequality or deindustrialization or globalization. If it were, maybe there would be a simple way to co-opt his message or reconnect with enough of his voters—say, through a version of the left-wing economic populism espoused in the most recent primaries by Bernie Sanders. But I am skeptical that this would work, either in terms of short-term electoral messaging or in terms of dealing with the longer term problem. Democratic publics often want complicated, mutually exclusive things—say, to preserve small-proprietor capitalism while benefitting from national markets for agricultural products at the turn of the twentieth century or to protect domestic manufacturing jobs while purchasing cheap imports in the twenty-first. Responsible politicians cannot promise the impossible. And that will always put them as a disadvantage when an irresponsible demagogue rolls into town.

But I do think liberals can be more honest with themselves and each other about the relationship between their social and political goals and the state institutions that they produce in order to make activist government a reality. Odd as this might sound, this might require liberals to spend less time trying to “solve” particular social and political problems—at least in the sense of reducing them to universal truths or mathematical axioms that could ideally be administered by apolitical experts and whose virtues are so self-evident that they no longer need to be defended. It might require us to be a little more open and self-reflective about the ways in which academic research and educational credentialing can have political consequences—and then to defend our contributions to the greater public good.[10] Nobody goes to a protest chanting “give us an agency” because the agency is supposed to be the means of reform, not the end. It would be a shame if, in our efforts to defend those agencies or the people who work in them, we further confused the two.



[1] Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 141-42.

[2] See, e.g., Daniel P. Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). From the very beginning of the field, scholars of American Political Development have had a love-hate relationship with the federal bureaucracy, exemplified in part by Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), esp. 285-292.

[3] Alan Brinkley, “The Antimonopoly Ideal and the Liberal State: The Case of Thurman Arnold,” Journal of American History 80 (September 1991): 557-579.

[4] Ibid., 579.

[5] Elizabeth Sanders, The Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 387-88.

[6] The injunction about corn and hell is credited to Mary Elizabeth Lease. See Lawrence Goodwiyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 339. My point is not that monetary policy was unimportant to the populists, who understood how price deflation was crippling U.S. agriculture. But they campaigned for paper money or silver coinage—and not for the creation of a political independent if regionally dispersed monetary authority.

[7] In earlier iterations, especially popular among neoconservatives who had once dabbled in Marxism, the problem was a “new class” of highly educated professionals whose shared class interests, will-to-power helped, and control of knowledge production (through academia and the media) threatened the other, more traditionally classes. The Trump people prefer to talk about a “deep state,” a term more popular among certain right-wing websites.

[8] Jon Baskin. “The Academic Home of Trumpism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 17, 2017, http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Academic-Home-of-Trumpism/239495.

[9] Jefferson Decker, The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 183.

[10] See, e.g., Rick Perlstein, “Outsmarted: On the Liberal Cult of the Cognitive Elite” The Baffler 34 (2017), https://thebaffler.com/salvos/outsmarted-perlstein.


Jefferson Decker is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He is the author of The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook