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Baffled by Trump and American right-wing populism? Read Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal.

It's essential to understanding the state of American politics today.

Trump is campaigning to return to an America that never existed. The Limousine Liberal explains why his approach is working.
Trump is campaigning to return to an America that never existed. The Limousine Liberal explains why his approach is working.
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

By the time I finished reading the introduction to Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal (Basic Books, May 2016), I’d already mentally composed half of the nasty review I intended to give it. This was a tired old book — a bon mot defense of the leadership class, a tribute to the stupidity of its critics, a premise Al Franken had already beat to death twice over. I’d read it before.

There’s Rush Limbaugh, channeling Joe McCarthy. Glenn Beck going madcap on the Fed. In the conservative mind, "Hillary Clinton serves as exhibit A" of the limousine liberal menace — but isn’t that a little funny, since she was born so modestly and all? Ha.



"How an incendiary image united the right and fractured America," says the subtitle. If only those conservatives could quit it with the insults. Then we could put America back together again. "The Limousine Liberal is a penetrating analysis of the resentments aroused by the efforts of affluent liberals to help the disadvantaged, sometimes at the expense of those in the middle," promised the jacket. Well, when you put it that way.

I do not know who wrote the book's introduction — there’s no byline. I comfort myself that it was the work of a harried marketing intern, but perhaps Fraser felt he needed to trick his readers through the first 10 pages. In either case, it deceives. Skip it, but not what comes after. The Limousine Liberal is an achievement, the history of American late capitalism and the reactionary mutant populists who have come with it. It is a warning of what comes next, if the war these two factions have fought for some 80 years now continues on its present course.

A brief history of the limousine liberal

The limousine liberal’s mother was the Great Depression. Its father was the Ivy League.

Limousine Liberal

After decades of transformation, instability, and tepid efforts at reform, Fraser writes, by the 1930s, "Capitalism itself seemed to have entered a terminal crisis." The Depression made a mockery of the financial order. "It liquefied American society. … What would replace it? Fears of the unknown combined with desires to start over. Salvation beckoned. It might lie in some postcapitalist future. Or on the contrary, it might depend on restoring older, customary ways of living."

Industrial titans clung to their old pieties, insisting that the Depression would right itself — eventually, the deflationary forces of unemployment would suppress wages until the labor force rebounded. The "mercantile oligarchy" of the South feared that any state intervention would upend the racial caste structure of the old Confederacy.

Meanwhile, an explosion of the labor movement joined with a newly insurgent unemployed workforce, demanding radical solutions. "Local and statewide political parties whose purpose was to unite embattled workers and farmers and who were not shy about indicting capitalism and seeking alternatives sprang to life."

But not all of upper-class America was of one mind. "Recognizing the breakdown for what it was — namely a root and branch indictment of the laissez-faire capitalism beloved by their ancestors — leading elements of the corporate world were prepared to venture down a different road."

In the end, the United States did not keep the old ways, but it did not get revolution either. Embracing elements of Keynesianism without repudiating capitalism; preserving many of the old hierarchies (particularly in the South) while allowing an unprecedented state intervention into the economic life of the country, the United States got the New Deal. "More radical rumblings notwithstanding," Fraser writes, "the alternative settled on turned out to civilize capitalism, not end it."

With the new order came a new leadership, a massive bureaucratic civil service that absorbed the bulk of the New Deal’s major adversaries. Its leaders were a new, enlightened elite educated in the prestigious boarding schools of the East Coast and trained by the Ivy leagues. Men who "were, at least in their own minds, free of any tincture of self-seeking, either after wealth or personal political power."

These inheritors of the post-crisis world were the first true limousine liberals, and they have, with some setbacks, governed the economic and political apparatus of the United States ever since.

The book traces a convergence of political movements that ultimately brought American right-wing populism to where it is today

The triumph of the new liberal elite did not put an end to radical agitation. Before the beginning of the Second World War, insurgents on both the left and the right had begun to rebel against the new ruling class. The last scions of the old conservatism balked — "William Randolph Hearst, who had helped secure Roosevelt’s nomination in 1932, denounced the 'imperial, autocratic, Asiatic Socialist Party of Karl Marx and Franklin Delano Roosevelt'" — while on the left, men like John L. Lewis emerged to lead "a new, militant industrial union movement."

But Fraser’s focus is not with either of these factions. Rather, he tracks a new movement, an ambivalent subspecies of populism that in time would become the latter half of the 20th century’s preeminent form of political rebellion: right-wing populist, "the unwanted stepchild of the political capitalism that supplanted its laissez-faire predecessor, a blue-collar, conservatively inflected populism … born long before Richard Nixon ever invoked the 'silent majority.'"

Beginning with the nearly leftist prairie socialism of men like Huey Long and the "radio priest" Father Coughlin, the right-wing populists represented a new kind of rebellion: a front of popular rage produced by the violence of international capitalism, dressed up in a valorization of a purer market, a movement dedicated not to overthrowing the economic apparatus of the world but to controlling it, to remaking it in the parochial image of the traditionalists and strivers who would become its core.

The genesis and mutation of right-wing populism is the core of Fraser’s book; that movement, more than the limousine liberals it fights against, is the subject of his historical inquiry. During the course of just over 200 pages, he documents how this movement — once a mix of social welfare demands to the left of the New Deal and provincial bigotries with their origins in the Ku Klux Klan — came to abandon the former in favor of the latter; to become a conspiratorial enterprise dedicated to the free market from the moral degeneracy of an elite, corrupted by "insufficient fealty to the nation" and to capital itself.

It is a story that in Fraser’s telling passes from Huey Long and McCarthy to Barry Goldwater and Henry Wallace, through the Reagan Revolution and the evangelical right, culminating in the Tea Party and now in the candidacy of Donald Trump. The line is not always straight, and the story contains its contradictions. To summarize it is impossible, and it is a testament to Fraser’s talents that he manages to contain it thoroughly within 250 pages.

Popular history is littered with the corpses of bloated books, written where an essay would have sufficed. Not The Limousine Liberal. There is some wrinkle on every page, and it is essential to anybody, especially those on the left, who does not understand how the populist energies they believe are rightfully theirs have been so completely captured by bigots and strivers. How can a movement seemingly propelled by legitimate discontent take such odious goals?

Fraser writes:

Right-wing populism, both as a grassroots rebellion and as a strategic demarche captained by the dynastic heroes of a revived family capitalism, has its feet firmly planted in the past. It is restorationist, not revolutionary. It opens no new roads to the future. It does not pretend to. Moreover, its political and moral imagination is profoundly nostalgic and enormously alluring in part for just that reason. What it wants restored never existed, but is instead a fanciful rendering of some self-consoling yesteryear; that is, after all, the seduction of nostalgia.

The book doesn’t offer a fix for the current state of American politics; instead, it delivers a grave warning

The Limousine Liberal is not prescriptive. Having told the story of how American politics came to be largely a war between elites and false revolutionaries, Fraser does not suggest a way forward. But in characterizing the limousine liberal the way he does, he does indicate a serious and looming threat.

He writes:

Limousine liberalism … is the capitalist version of permanent revolution. Naming it revolution exaggerates its actual intentions, but nonetheless it captures something essential about how American society has wrestled with the menace of disorder and even economic and social chaos inherent in free market capitalism. Limousine liberalism was never a myth. … It is a desire to redo the way society was organized in order to reclaim social stability in the face of economic as well as class and racial upheaval.

In other words, the program of the limousine liberal, like all dominant orders, is and always has been control. Its purpose is to maintain society, to keep the world secure for consumer capitalism and its ever-more-international markets.

In the best cases, this has allowed for a remarkable degree of elite-sanctioned social progress. Untethered from any real commitment to core values, it has absorbed changes in cultural attitudes toward race, gender, and sexuality for the better, enraging conservatives. But it has stymied even modest efforts to implement a more totalizing American welfare state: The goal, after all, is to keep the economic world manageable, not change it.

For 80 years, limousine liberalism has proven extraordinarily adept at this task. In its early days, it neutralized all threats completely: For 20 years after the New Deal, even the Republican Party orbited the gravity of the liberal economic order. With the help of the Cold War, it obliterated the left and made the labor movement impotent.

It was Harry Truman, after all, who purged purported communists from the federal government long before McCarthy became a reactionary hero. Despite right-wing insistence to the contrary, it was liberalism that deployed the Marshall Plan to help European markets resist domestic socialist insurgencies.

Fraser writes:

Indeed, one measure of that equanimity was the ease with which the notion of a "paranoid style in American politics," invented by Hofstader and others, became a kind of smug conventional wisdom ... so then whatever fell outside the framework of the corporate liberal consensus was not only treated as a distasteful form of extremism, but was not even regarded as fully grown-up politics. Rather, it was deemed a kind of prepolitical acting out, psychoanalyzed, investigated clinically as a form of mental pathology. Any class-inflected view of the world, whether from the right or the left, [emphasis added] was deemed antiquated, out of touch with the new order of managerial capitalism and the socially engineered welfare state; in a word, irrational … conversely, it became axiomatic that the postwar liberal dispensation epitomized the rational, functioning as a fiercely reticulated mechanism for resolving social conflict, the benchmark against which all dissenting views were to be measured and found wanting.

But as is the case with all elite orders, even those as remarkably durable as the one we have known for nearly a century, the battle to contain dissent grows harder. The easy pathologizing isn’t quite so easy anymore. With every year, the world becomes less certain, the destabilizing effects of globalization more difficult to hide. A technocratic liberalism so sure of its victory 15 years ago that it declared the end of history now pleads its case with special urgency.

The basic institutions of government have spent seven years on the verge of breaking down. Andrew Sullivan invokes Plato to clamp down on democracy. Brexit could not be stopped. Jonathan Chait says liberalism is working, but he cannot believe he is arguing with Marxists, nor how many idiots there are confounding his good sense.

Liberalism has become more sure of itself than ever ("the trouble is the idiots"), while it moves toward full-blown emergency footing. Even Hillary Clinton runs for president not as a promise but as a warning. America is Already Great. But leave the grown-ups in charge, or it’s Trump.

The left might take this as a cause for celebration: As the age of the limousine liberal approaches its own terminal crisis, the number of Americans drawn to leftist politics has reached its highest nadir in a generation. But it shouldn’t. The left remains vanishingly small, while the populists on the right grow stronger.

This, more than anything, is what Fraser’s book makes clear: The right-wing populists have been the primary beneficiaries of late capitalism’s discontent. When the crisis comes, through economic collapse or climate change or war, they are the ones best positioned to remake the nation in their image.

Sullivan is right: The nation has never been so ripe for tyranny. But restoring the elites is not the answer. Liberalism is not working. The left has no time to celebrate. Its task, more urgent than ever, is to grow.

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