The View from MARs: American Populism and the Liberal World Order

The View from MARs: American Populism and the Liberal World Order
Police wearing riot gear at the 2017 Berkeley (California) protests where anti-Trump counter-protesters (including socialists, anarchists, and antifa groups) squared off against pro-Trump and far-right-wing activists (including the alt-right, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis).Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Jean-François Drolet, Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University, London

Michael C. Williams, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Each day seems to bring a new body-blow to the liberal international order. Longstanding alliances are strained. Migration policies become more draconian. Human rights are dismissed as a dispensable superstition. Economic principles and policies that have underpinned the liberal world come under pressure. Harsh words are exchanged between traditional friends; feelings are hurt, trust eroded.

The immediate source of this sense of crisis is not hard to identify: it usually starts with the letter “T.” Yet American hostility to the liberal world order that it played so large a role in creating is a source of widespread puzzlement and consternation. Is it simply the bargaining bluster of an unusually brash president? The mark of decisions made on the basis of “gut” and narcissism rather than rational calculation? Or is it the impact of populism, the splenetic reaction of the “left behinds” — the new millennium’s equivalent of the 19th century’s “know-nothings”? Each of these are true in part. Contemporary US politics often seem to consist more of tweets, rants, and memes than a coherent program. But to reduce it to these is a serious error. To fully understand the nature and depth of today’s challenges to the liberal international order, we must examine the distinctive ideological movements that inform and animate it.

One of these movements is American paleoconservatism, a strain of radical conservatism that has provided intellectual ammunition to a range of forces challenging the prevailing liberal order nationally and internationally, including the Tea Party, the Alt-Right, and Trumpism. Paleoconservatism is diverse, but one way to gain a grip on its main arguments is by looking at one of its most significant thinkers, Samuel T. Francis (1947–2005), an influential syndicated columnist for the Washington Times and other conservative media. Contrary to views of American populism that stress its anti-intellectualism, Francis sought to provide a coherent ideological vision and political strategy for radically anti-liberal populist politics. His 700-page treatise, Leviathan and its Enemies, posthumously published in 2016, has become a contemporary white-nationalist, Alt-Right manifesto. It also reads as a prophetic political-theoretical rationalization of the domestic and foreign policy agenda laid out by Donald Trump during his 2016 electoral campaign.

At the core of Francis’ thinking lie two ideas. First, that power in liberal democracies during the 20th century has been usurped by a self-serving managerial elite — a “New Class” of administrators, consultants, engineers, university lecturers, journalists, corporate executives, lawyers, civil servants, and therapists — that has reshaped modern societies by manipulating the centralizing mechanisms of mass organization and economic redistribution. Members of the New Class understand that power and influence in this era of “liberal managerialism” reside more in technical skills than in tradition or ownership. Globalization is not just an economic process: it marks a profound “managerial” transformation representing the unified interests of government and corporate elites, as well as their cultural and educational cohorts. Because “administration ascribes to itself a rationality that transcends cultural specificity,” global liberal managerialism is the enemy of tradition, relentlessly attacking the economic and social positions, and the culture and values, of those who refuse its ethos and who continue to adhere to wider identities, solidarities, and non-liberal values.

The second core element in Francis’ vision is that the only viable resistance to this system (in the United States at least) lies in MARs, the latent power of “middle American radicals.” This radicalism is “populist” in the sense that it claims to speak on behalf of a geographically immobile, semi-skilled Middle America portrayed as the primary victim of this dominant regime. Predominantly white and working or middle-class, these Americans

find that their jobs are insecure, their savings stripped of value, their neighborhoods and schools and homes unsafe, their elected leaders indifferent and often crooked, their moral beliefs and religious professions and social codes under perpetual attack even from their own government, their children taught to despise what they believe, their very identity and heritage as a people threatened, and their future — political, economic, cultural, racial, national, and personal — uncertain.

Paleoconservatives seek to construct a new, assertive breed of populist nationalism out of this economic pain and cultural decay. The aim is to intensify the polarization within American society between an increasingly unified ruling class that relies on the national state and international institutions of global governance as its principal means of control and prosperity, and a dispossessed Middle America lacking the technocratic and managerial skills to access the economic benefits and political power created by globalization. Theirs is not a campaign against working class militancy, but a revolt against managerial liberalism that has disempowered and disenfranchised the (especially white) working class for decades. To this end, they argue for an ideological fusion of the Left’s focus on economic interests with the Right’s traditional concern over cultural and national identity and security. Unlike free-market conservatives, they do not believe that the alternative is between managerial government and global capitalism — the misleading choice between liberalism and conservatism. It is necessary to oppose both, as well as the liberal cultural and educational institutions entwined with them. Their desire to reduce foreign liabilities, eschew democracy promotion, scale back or end interventionist “police actions” and foreign aid, as well as their support for Vladimir Putin’s conservative vision of statehood and Donald Trump’s hostility towards NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership reflect these commitments.

Whether the Trump presidency can make a significant and lasting contribution to the cause of the radical Right in America and abroad remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the critique of the ailing status quo underpinning this anti-liberal agenda is quickly gaining momentum among those who want clear and simple alternatives to our technocratic “post-political” age. Many will find that the challenge is unwelcome, but it has now become too important to ignore. Taking its ideas seriously is a necessary first step.

* This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on “Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World,” hosted by CIPS and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For other blogs in this series, click here:

Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform? by Rita Abrahamsen

Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era by Louise Riis Andersen

How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism by Heidi Tworek

In Defence of Liberal Internationalism? by Alexandra Gheciu

Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference? by Njord Wegge

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