A new pol­icy jour­nal tries to give mean­ing to the move­ment.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

If I ever amass enough money, van­ity and grudges to launch a pol­icy jour­nal, I will skip the mis­sion state­ment. With one ex­cep­tion, it is a du­ti­ful and for­get­table ex­er­cise, though one that neo­phyte ed­i­tors can rarely re­sist. I urge all those who aspire to money-los­ing thought lead­er­ship to stand athwart their self­ind­ul­gent jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, yell “Stop” and let the es­says they pub­lish speak for them­selves.

And yet, it is the mis­sion of Amer­i­can Af­fairs, a new jour­nal of pol­i­tics and pol­icy that is sym­pa­thetic to Pres­i­dent Trump and pop­ulism, that most in­trigues and con­fuses me. Its mis­sion state­ment of­fers bro­mides typ­i­cal of the genre, promis­ing “bold” ideas and “fun­da­men­tal” re­con­sid­er­a­tions, and pledg­ing to pro­pose poli­cies “out­side of the con­ven­tional dog­mas.” Yes, yes, con­grat­u­la­tions. But how does a dense, small­cir­cu­la­tion jour­nal packed with lengthy ar­ti­cles writ­ten by as­sorted the­o­rists ex­ert in­flu­ence over a pres­i­dent who dis­dains elites, thinks in out­raged bursts, re­lies on an in­su­lar group of ad­vis­ers, binges on cable news and reads lit­tle other than news clips about him­self?

It is hard to pe­ruse the de­but is­sue of Amer­i­can Af­fairs — with its pro­pos­als on re­think­ing the Repub­li­can Party, re­mak­ing trade pol­icy and re­boot­ing mil­i­tary R&D — and pic­ture Trump turn­ing those pages and sagely stroking his chin. If any­thing, this would have been the per­fect jour­nal if Trump had lost the 2016 elec­tion. It could have stood upon his hefty vote to­tal to dis­till and af­firm the forces that brought him to promi­nence, think through a re­al­is­tic pop­ulist plat­form and await a new stan­dard-bearer. In­stead, it must retro­fit a po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy onto the ide­o­log­i­cal morass that is Trump, ig­nore or explain away his darker im­pulses and in­flu­ences, and imag­ine a more mea­sured and co­her­ent ver­sion of his pres­i­dency, how­ever un­likely it is to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

The more Amer­i­can Af­fairs at­tempts to chan­nel or jus­tify Trump, the weaker it is. The more it fo­cuses on vot­ers, ide­ol­ogy and pol­icy, the wor­thier it be­comes.

In this jour­nal, two com­mon ra­tio­nales for Trump’s po­lit­i­cal ap­peal — racism and glob­al­iza­tion, or more char­i­ta­bly, cul­tural re­sent­ments and eco­nomic griev­ances — give way to one over­rid­ing ex­pla­na­tion. “The re­cent up­ris­ing, while lev­eled against bi­coastal elites, is not a protest in the name of a fac­tion of Amer­ica, but in the name of Amer­i­can sovereignty it­self,” writes Ge­orge­town Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Joshua Mitchell in the jour­nal’s lead es­say. The ero­sion of sovereignty is not just about por­ous borders and trade deals, but about lead­ers dis­con­nected from those they rep­re­sent. “Faced with a po­lit­i­cal process no longer re­spon­sive to or even aware of the stag­na­tion of a mid­dle class once ever im­prov­ing, those vot­ers grabbed for what they saw as the lost pre­con­di­tion of pol­i­tics: po­lit­i­cal sovereignty,” ar­gues Amer­i­can Af­fairs deputy edi­tor Glad­den Pap­pin.

Trump, in this telling, is symp­tom, not im­pe­tus. “Even if Bernie San­ders and Don­ald Trump had not come along,” Pap­pin writes, “. . . those left be­hind as we built our cur­rent econ­omy would even­tu­ally have found other ve­hi­cles for their dis­tress.” In­deed, the pol­i­tics of Amer­i­can Af­fairs is bi­par­ti­san only in that it is dis­mis­sive of both ma­jor par­ties. As its ed­i­tors ask: “Have the per­ma­nent cam­paigns of iden­tity pol­i­tics on the left and the ‘cul­ture wars’ on the right con­cealed the true con­tent of our com­mon cit­i­zen­ship?”

Amer­i­can Af­fairs is clear-eyed, not con­de­scend­ing, about Trump vot­ers. “Amer­i­cans,” Mitchell writes, “are not a philo­soph­i­cal peo­ple; they use their rea­son for the pur­pose of build­ing a world, not con­tem­plat­ing it.” Don’t in­ter­pret the anger so ap­par­ent dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign as mere nos­tal­gia for past great­ness, no mat­ter what the hat says. “Or­di­nary Amer­i­cans were sim­ply feel­ing that matters rang­ing from mar­kets to immigration to na­tional se­cu­rity had got­ten out of con­trol,” Pap­pin writes. Or as the ed­i­tors posit: “What if pub­lic dis­con­tent is a rea­son­able re­sponse to a mis­guided and com­pla­cent elite con­sen­sus?”

How­ever, it is when in­dulging in re­flex­ive, Trump-style anti-elitism that Amer­i­can Af­fairs feels most repet­i­tive and in­fan­tile. McGill Univer­sity man­age­ment pro­fes­sor Reu­ven Bren­ner knocks U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ def­er­ence to the “priest­hood of tenured econ­o­mists,” only to see Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cial Michael An­ton crit­i­cize the Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment as a “priest­hood” as well in a sub­se­quent ar­ti­cle. (So many clerics among the sec­u­lar elites!) Bren­ner con­tin­ues his mock­ery of dis­mal sci­en­tists by re­fer­ring to their work in quo­ta­tion marks — crit­i­ciz­ing their “‘macroe­co­nomic’ mod­els,” for in­stance — and by coin­ing port­man­teaus that he ev­i­dently finds clever. “It is pre­cisely our in­tel­lec­tual sub­servience to aca­demic econ­o­mists’ ‘macrostrol­ogy’ that per­pet­u­ates this vi­cious cy­cle of failed pol­icy,” Bren­ner writes. “De­bates over in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing can­not be left to the ‘macrostrol­o­gists,’ ” he re­it­er­ates.

The Air Quote School of Pol­icy De­bate doesn’t make for strong ar­gu­ments. (Though it’s just fine for “ar­gu­ments.”)

Amer­i­can Af­fairs edi­tor Julius Krein gives anti-elitism a thinkier ve­neer in his cel­e­bra­tion of po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist James Burn­ham, au­thor of the 1941 best­seller “The Man­age­rial Rev­o­lu­tion,” on a new class of tech­no­cratic man­agers wield­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal power via cor­po­ra­tions and state bu­reau­cra­cies. Krein ap­pears en­am­ored of his sub­ject — it al­most feels like a se­nior the­sis, res­ur­rected and adapted — and uses Burn­ham to at­tack con­tem­po­rary elites for fail­ing to de­liver the pros­per­ity that jus­ti­fies their ex­is­tence. He is even more crit­i­cal of their self­serv­ing iso­la­tion. The man­age­rial class “can­not gov­ern ef­fec­tively on be­half of the Amer­i­can peo­ple be­cause it can­not even con­ceive of an Amer­i­can na­tion,” Krein writes. “The ques­tion is whether a so­ci­ety based upon the po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity is stronger than one based upon man­age­rial de­tach­ment.” The other ques­tion is whether Trump-style pop­ulism truly serves an Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity or just an ever-shrink­ing sub­set of it.

Read­ers of Amer­i­can Af­fairs will find oc­ca­sional crit­i­cisms of the new pres­i­dent. “Trump’s pan­der­ing to the work­ing class and re­cent coup with Car­rier to save some one thou­sand jobs fall woe­fully short of re­vers­ing the cri­sis that pre­pared his as­cent to the pres­i­dency,” writes Adam Adatto San­del in an es­say up­hold­ing the per­sonal and cul­tural value of work. More com­mon, though, are homages to the early tropes of the Trump White House, such as cit­ing the length of in­ter­na­tional ac­cords as proof of their ne­far­i­ous­ness. “NAFTA is hun­dreds of pages long; the TPP is ten times that large,” Mitchell frets, while An­ton, the only con­trib­u­tor who also serves in the Trump White House, writes omi­nously of Amer­ica’s “phone­book-thick” trade deals.

If you want to un­der­stand the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s true pol­icy pri­or­i­ties, of course, you can skip Trump’s tweets and just read his bud­get. Even so, in a seem­ing ef­fort to san­i­tize the pres­i­dent’s so­cial-me­dia erup­tions, Mitchell pro­motes the take-him­se­ri­ously-but-not-lit­er­ally ap­proach. “Trump’s first tac­ti­cal move is often highly rhetor­i­cal,” he writes. “He pushes be­yond the pale of what is pos­si­ble, and then is able to se­cure ‘a deal’ that gives his op­po­nents far more than they thought they would have re­ceived from his ini­tial rhetor­i­cal stance.” (So savvy.) Pap­pin re­casts Trump’s doom­say­ing in­au­gu­ral ad­dress on the car­nage that is Amer­ica to­day into a sweet, com­fort­ing call for “civic friendship.” And An­ton sug­gests that Trump’s con­tempt for post-World War II al­liances only un­der­scores his re­spect for the lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der. “Th­ese in­sti­tu­tions will sur­vive only if pru­dently amended to serve their es­sen­tial pur­poses and meet their mem­bers’ needs.” NATO, you’re wel­come.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has quickly demon­strated that it needs help on all as­pects of pol­i­cy­mak­ing — for­mu­la­tion, pas­sage and ex­e­cu­tion. The strug­gles and controversies over the travel ban, health-care re­form and even staffing high­light the wonk deficit in this ad­min­is­tra­tion. There is room for an in­ven­tive jour­nal of pol­icy and ideas that is fa­vor­ably in­clined to­ward the pres­i­dent.

There are no block­busters in this in­au­gu­ral is­sue of Amer­i­can Af­fairs, no “Bowl­ing Alone” or “Dic­ta­tor­ships and Dou­ble Stan­dards” es­says des­tined to trans­form po­lit­i­cal de­bates or gal­va­nize the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies. Even so, some pro­pos­als, while un­re­al­is­tic and odd, are re­fresh­ing in the way that up­start jour­nals should be.

For in­stance, Bren­ner calls for ref­er­enda on in­fra­struc­ture projects, so cit­i­zens can have more in­put into crit­i­cal spend­ing de­ci­sions. Fear­ing the end of U.S. tech­no­log­i­cal dom­i­nance in the mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial realms, economist David Gold­man pro­poses a re­quire­ment that all sen­si­tive de­fense-re­lated tech­nol­ogy be pro­duced do­mes­ti­cally. San­del sug­gests that work­ers span­ning mul­ti­ple in­dus­tries par­tic­i­pate in the na­tion’s trade ne­go­ti­a­tions, and that even con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion could be ap­por­tioned ac­cord­ing to dif­fer­ent guilds and pro­fes­sions rather than by ge­og­ra­phy and pop­u­la­tion.

To his credit, San­del grasps the im­prob­a­bil­ity of what he pro­poses. To his greater credit, he doesn’t care. “The prin­ci­ple be­hind this pro­posal matters more than any ac­tual im­ple­men­ta­tion of it,” he writes.

That’s the only mis­sion state­ment any jour­nal of ideas ever needs. Carlos Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Washington Post.


Carlos Lozada

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