You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Case for “Retreatism” in the Trump Era

Centrist columnists David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan are in despair over today's politics. An essay from the Great Depression suggests a cure.

Getty Images (x2)

The growing divisiveness of American politics has energized the left and right, but is causing political centrists to become ever more enervated and despairing. A plaintive is increasingly heard in writers like New York Times columnist David Brooks and New York magazine essayist Andrew Sullivan. Both are conservative writers who hug the political center, their worldview shaped by the brief period of American triumphalism from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, an era where it was possible to believe that the political spectrum was going to narrow to the minor differences between Bill Clinton’s triangulation liberalism and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Now, Brooks and Sullivan find themselves in a very different political universe, where Trumpian Republicans openly embrace ethnic nationalism while the left forthrightly advocates democratic socialism and identity politics.

This new political reality has orphaned Brooks and Sullivan. Their columns keep returning to a gloomy pox-on-both-your-houses conclusion. In his Tuesday column, Brooks complains that a “scarcity mentality” born of the Great Recession has turned Republicans into “fellow travelers to bigotry” and transformed liberalism “from a creed that values individual rights and deliberation to one that values group separatism and intellectual intolerance.” In an essay last week, Sullivan also portrayed the left and right as caught in a vicious circle, feeding off each other’s extremism. “Trump plays a critical role,” Sullivan wrote. “His crude, bigoted version of identity politics seems to require an equal and opposite reaction.”

If both the left and right are intolerable, then where does that leave stranded intellectuals like Brooks and Sullivan? Brooks flirts with the idea of a third party. “Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined,” he wrote. “When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.”

This third party idea is a pure fantasy, as is clear with Brooks’s handwaving reference to “all the structural barriers.” America’s first-past-the-post system and Electoral College have been an effective barrier to third parties for more than a century. Further, since most Republicans and Democrats seem happy with the direction their parties are going, it’s not clear that there are anywhere near the numbers needed for a centrist third party. The idea appeals mainly to the tiny minority of the population who are professional pundits and the occasional CEO.

But Brooks’s suggestion of a “radical break” is still a promising one. Over the last century there is a rich tradition of conservative and libertarian intellectuals who, feeling as alienated from politics as Brooks and Sullivan do, decided that their best option was to retreat from the ideological marketplace and cultivate their ideas in privacy. Derided by its enemies as “retreatism,” a term coined by the libertarian Murray Rothbard, this tradition might offer lessons for present day centrist conservatives.

“Isaiah’s Job,” an essay by Albert Jay Nock that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936, is the classic articulation of “retreatism.” An anti-statist man of letters, Nock had been active in politics in earlier decades, publishing the journal Freeman and writing books like Our Enemy, The State, but found himself discouraged by the triumph of the New Deal in the 1930s. In “Isaiah’s Job,” Nock cites the examples of the prophet Isaiah, Plato, and Marcus Aurelius to argue that the superior man places no hope in masses and instead gears his message to the small elite who make up “saving remnant,” which will carry on the work of civilization. Any solid program for political renovation would get watered down if sold to the “mass-man,” he wrote:

The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them.

In short, Nock was making the case that progress depends on the elite separating itself from the masses.

In his 1976 book The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, the historian George Nash called attention to the “significant influence” Nock and his essay exerted on the postwar right. William F. Buckley Jr. often cited “Isaiah’s Job” as a touchstone, and reprinted it in an anthology of conservative thought. Libertarians also often turned to Nock’s words for guidance.

The idea of retreat wasn’t merely theoretical, but shaped a singular strand of spiritually oriented right-wing politics. As Brian Doherty noted in his 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, many of the leading advocates of capitalism in 1950s America pursued an agenda they called “Spiritual Mobilization.” Organized around a magazine called Faith and Freedom, these advocates might have seemed like generic, staid businessmen; they included private utility chairman James Ingebretsen and union-buster William C. Mullendore. But despairing of rolling back big government in Eisenhower’s America, this group started pursing the idea that, in Doherty’s words, “a political crisis might in fact be a spiritual one.” They turned to the guru Gerald Heard, a new age philosopher and advocate of LSD and mescaline (Heard had also been in influence on the English writer Aldous Huxley).

The met at Bohemian Grove, the famous Northern California retreat of the wealthy, where, as Doherty wrote, “beneath the ancient trees and even more ancient stars, wondering how far consciousness and spirit and energy can evolve and grow—along with how to get the damn Eisenhower government to shrink itself.” Some of these businessmen-bohemians experimented with LSD in their quest for spiritual freedom. After a mystical vision, one of the leaders of the group concluded that “there was nothing whatsoever I could do about the mending of the mess we are in.”

These beatnik businessmen were precursors to the libertarians who turned broadly toward the counterculture in the 1960s. Under the influence of the nerdish engineer Tom Marshall, a new ideology sprang up called Libertarian Zionism: “the idea that the only way to find freedom in this unfree world was to hide from or physically escape the eyes of the state,” Doherty explained. Fueled by this mixture of hippy sentiment and survivalist paranoia, Marshall ended up living “in the public woods in Oregon” with “lots of stored food, and a growing impatience with all other human beings, libertarian or no.” Influenced by Marshall, other libertarians also joined the back-to-the-land movement and had hearty debates about whether slugs were “good, high-protein” food.

Karl Hess, once a speechwriter to Barry Goldwater in 1964, following a similar, if less extreme path. Refusing to pay taxes to pay for the Vietnam War, Hess supported himself by bartering. He and his wife built a solar-powered house in West Virginia and became important figures in the appropriate technology movement. “The sun, as you know, is our prime powerhouse,” Hess told Mother Earth News in an extensive 1976 interview. “The best source of energy we have. Solar power is abundant. It’s free, and—as far as we’re concerned—the main dynamo never has to be replaced, repaired, or rebuilt.”

Nock had intended “Isaiah’s Job” to be a strictly elitist manifesto, but those who followed its lessons came into contact with the raw reality of American life. Retreatism helped libertarians modernize, forcing them to move away from purely theoretical defenses of the free market and engage in pressing cultural concerns, including ecology and drug use. In fact, the modern libertarian movement’s acceptance of drug decriminalization and LGBT rights is due in large measure to this tradition.

Should David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan follow the path of retreatism? They already have inclinations in that direction. In April of 2016, Brooks admitted that Trump’s unexpected rise was forcing the columnist to engage with the larger world outside of politics.

“I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata—in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own,” he confessed. “It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.”

And Sullivan has already taken a retreat of sorts: In January 2015, he closed down his blog, The Dish, and quit the internet. “My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site,” Sullivan wrote in a September 2016 essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” about trying to break his internet addiction. “My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled.” A few months into his digital sobriety, he attended a meditation retreat center.I figured it would be the ultimate detox,” he wrote. “And I wasn’t wrong.”

Since they already have retreatist tendencies, Brooks and Sullivan might consider Albert Jay Nock’s example and withdraw from the daily scrum for the remainder of the Trump era. Perhaps, like mid-century libertarians, the experience would lead them to fashion an entirely new politics. If nothing else, it would be a hell of a trip.