I just stumbled across a post that Roger Kimball wrote back in May, titled “How Hayek Predicted Trump With His ‘Why the Worst Get on Top.” Kimball was referring to a chapter in the 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom, where Friedrich Hayek writes that in a totalitarian regime, “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful.”
Was Kimball being too hard on Trump? I went back and reread the chapter, and—although it’s fair to point out that America is thankfully not a totalitarian regime(!)—some of Hayek’s ideas do resonate today.
The question is this: In modern American politics, are “the unscrupulous and uninhibited…likely to be more successful”?
Consider this: How much of Donald Trump’s success in the GOP primary resulted from his willingness to do or say things his opponents couldn’t bring themselves to do or say (either out of a commitment to ideological principle or out of a sense of nobility or chivalry)?
Could it be that we have entered into a self-selecting era, where you cannot win the presidency by adhering to the generally accepted rules of decency and decorum? It’s certainly possible. To paraphrase Hayek, have we created perverse incentives that guarantee that “the worst get on top”?
Aside from provoking an interesting (if worrisome) debate, Hayek’s thoughts also speak to the current state of the evangelical vote in America.
Hayek notes the irony that “socialism can be put into practice only by methods which most socialists disapprove…” What if traditional Christian values can only be defended by employing methods that most Christians would otherwise disapprove?
And what if picking a feasible scapegoat is central to rallying public support? Hayek observes that “It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programme, on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off, than on any positive task.”
This, of course, is almost a cliché. But in the case of Trump—whether it was Mexican rapists, media elites, “Never Trump” Republicans, or Muslim immigrants—scapegoats were never in short supply.
Speaking of clichés, the line that Trump might be a sonofabitch, but at least he’s our sonofabitch, leaves us with one last question: was this presidential campaign an anomaly or is this our new normal?