(Washington Post illustration using iStock images)
Book critic

AMERICAN AFFAIRS

Spring 2017, Vol, 1, No. 1. $10

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 self-indulgent 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, small-circulation 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 andtrade 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?”

[Trump tweeted that this new immigration book is a ‘must read.’ So I read it — and you must not.]

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 self-serving 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.

[A conservative’s plan for Trump to win, win, win — or at least avoid impeachment]

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-him-seriously-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.

Read more from Book Party, including:

A president who rarely reads has launched a book club for all of America

The crucial fight that the anti-Trump resistance is forgetting

Donald Trump and the alt-right: a marriage of convenience