The only time I saw Sam Francis face-to-face — in The Washington Times cafeteria sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s — I thought he was a crank, but it's clear now that he was at that moment becoming one of the most prescient writers of the past 50 years. There's very little Donald Trump has done or said that Francis didn't champion a quarter century ago.
In a series of essays for conservative magazines like Chronicles, Francis hammered home three key insights. The first was that globalization was screwing Middle America. The Cold War had just ended, capitalism seemed triumphant, and the Clinton years seemed to be an era of broad prosperity. But Francis stressed that the service economy was ruining small farms and taking jobs from the working class.
His second insight was that the Republican and conservative establishment did not understand what was happening. He railed against the pro-business "Economic Men" who thought GDP growth could solve the nation's problems, and the Washington Republicans, who he thought were infected with the values of the educated elites.
His third insight was that politics was no longer about left versus right. Instead, a series of smaller conflicts — religious versus secular, nationalist versus globalist, white versus nonwhite — were all merging into a larger polarity, ruling class versus Middle America.
"Middle American groups are more and more coming to perceive their exploitation at the hands of the dominant elites. The exploitation works on several fronts — economically, by hypertaxation and the design of a globalized economy dependent on exports and services in place of manufacturing; culturally, by the managed destruction of Middle American norms and institutions; and politically, by the regimentation of Middle Americans under the federal leviathan."
Middle American voters, he wrote, were stuck without a party, appalled by pro-corporate Republican economic policies on the one hand and liberal cultural radicalism on the other. They swung to whichever party seemed most likely to resist the ruling class, but neither party really provided a solution. "A nationalist reaction is almost inevitable and will probably assume populist form when it arrives. The sooner it comes the better."
The Pat Buchanan campaign was the first run at what we now know as Trumpian populism. Francis urged Buchanan to run an unorthodox campaign (of the sort Trump ended up running) and was ignored. "If Buchanan loses the nomination, it will be because his time has not yet come," Francis wrote. The moment would end up coming in 2016, 11 years after Francis' death.
Francis' thought was infected by the same cancer that may destroy Trumpism. Francis was a racist. His friends and allies counseled him not to express his racist views openly, but people like that always go there, sooner or later.
The Civil War was an open wound for many in his circle, and in 1994 Francis told a conference, "The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people."
He was fired by The Washington Times and cast out of the conservative movement by William F. Buckley and others.
When you look at today's world through the prism of Francis' work, a few things seem clear: Trump is not a one-time phenomenon; the populist tide has been rising for years. His base sticks with him through scandal because it's not just about him; it's a movement defined against the so-called ruling class. Congressional Republicans get all tangled on health care and other issues because they don't understand their voters. Finally, Trump may not be the culmination but merely a way station toward an even purer populism.
Trump is nominally pro-business. The next populism will probably take his ethnic nationalism and add an anti-corporate, anti-tech layer. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple stand for everything Francis hated — economically, culturally, demographically and nationalistically.
As the tech behemoths intrude more deeply into daily life and our very minds, they will become a defining issue in American politics. It wouldn't surprise me if a new demagogue emerged, one that is even more pure Francis.
The New York Times