A Republican Senate candidate's remarks reveal the party's slide into authoritarian collectivism

A Republican Senate candidate's remarks reveal the party's slide into authoritarian collectivism
J. D. Vance speaking with attendees at the 2021 Southwest Regional Conference hosted by Turning Point USA at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona, Gage Skidmore

JD Vance is an author, former Wall Street trader and current senate candidate in Ohio. He was a guest on Tucker Carlson's white-power hour. He railed against people he doesn't like. "The basic way this works is that the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Harvard University endowment — these are fundamentally cancers on American society, but they pretend to be charities, and so they benefit from preferential tax treatment."

He continued: "Why don't we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who've had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?"

Jay Nordlinger was shocked. Or at least demonstrated shock on Twitter when he quoted Vance before adding: "If this is conservatism — conservatism is going to need a new name, at least in America."

It is conservatism. And it isn't. But explaining all that history is better left to historians. Anyway, it's better to set aside the old ways of thinking. The most constructive way of viewing Vance, and today's Republicans, is through the lens of authoritarian collectivism.

That might sound strange. Collectivism is tied to socialism and communism. The Republicans accuse liberals of being communists for merely wanting to use the government to help people. But collectivism is complex. There are left-wing strains, like Soviet Russia and Communist China, and right-wing strains, like the Nazi Party. If you prefer something more contemporary, like Afghanistan's Taliban. The common thread is the belief that power is about us against them.

To wit, JD Vance identified an enemy who, as the enemy, is no longer entitled to the rights, liberties and privileges of the in-group, i.e., the Republicans. The enemy deserves whatever's coming to it. In this case, "asset forfeiture," a violation of the sacred right to property, as conservatives in the past would have understood it. In this, Vance is helpfully describing how the Republican Party has changed from a party elevating the interests of the individual to a party elevating the interests of the collective at the expense of the individual. If we insist on it being a conservative party, we're actually misunderstanding it.

Vance is tapping into a pattern I noticed during the 2016 GOP primaries. On the one hand, Donald Trump would blame Barack Obama for pretty much everything. On the other, he would propose a solution to the problem that was exactly what Obama himself had proposed. (He could not achieve it, though, thanks to GOP obstruction in Congress.) Trump's supporters didn't mind. If he said it, it was good. If Obama said it, it was bad. Even if they were the same thing.

This held true even when the proposal, for instance, raising taxes on the very obscenely rich, ran right over a half-century of cast-iron conservative principle. Trump showed us the base doesn't care about abstractions like low taxation, and the like. What they care about is not being whatever the enemy is. And vice versa. So seizing the enemy's assets may sound like communism to old-school conservatives like Jay Nordlinger, but to the Republican Party's base, it sounds like freedom.

This freedom, you may have noticed, is upside down, backward and prolapsed. It's also a key feature of authoritarian collectivism. You are not free when the governor, for instance, Florida's Ron DeSantis, not only permits the coronavirus to spread unfettered but forbids local authorities from preventing its spread. You are free, however, when the governor, for instance, Connecticut's Ned Lamont, takes your side against the coronavirus and legally forces scofflaws to get vaccinated.

Members of the authoritarian collective see it the other way around. "In Australia right now … they're still enforcing lockdowns by the military," DeSantis said this week. "Is Australia freer than communist China right now? The fact that's even a question tells you something has gone dramatically off the rails." In fact, it's nothing of the sort.

The Australian government is protecting the citizenry's freedom. To DeSantis, however, freedom for the enemy is tyranny for the authoritarian collective. It is impossible for both sides to be free at the same time. His speech, therefore, shouldn't be taken as an expression of conservatism. It should be taken as a description of how the Republicans have changed from a party that elevates the individual to one that will sacrifices the individual — in this case to the covid — in order to protect, preserve and perpetuate the authoritarian collective.

For years, the Democrats were put on their heels every time the Republicans raised the specter of communism. Of course, the Democrats were not communist. But they were forced to defend themselves. Thus far, the Republicans have not had to defend themselves against allegations of authoritarian collectivism.

I think it's time for that to change.

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