David Brat: Half Elizabeth Warren, Half Ludwig von Mises

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 11 2014 7:22 PM

David Brat: Half Elizabeth Warren, Half Ludwig von Mises

450461066-college-economics-professor-and-republican-candidate
Elizabeth von Mises.

Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

In my much-amended look at how the media (myself included) largely ignored Eric Cantor's mounting disaster, I scoffed at how newly minted GOP nominee David Brat was portrayed as a "mystery" man. Whose fault was that? Ours, the media's. Sure, I'd talked to Brat once, but I hardly gave him the once-over that a surging challenger should get. Nobody really did.

In the 24 hours since he won, Brat has been slotted into two basic narratives. The first came immediately from Bill Kristol, in the Weekly Standard. (A quick search suggests that the magazine had not previously written about Brat, but I already made a search-engine mistake today.) Brat was a populist. “GOP voters go for Main Street and Middle America and against crony capitalism,” wrote Kristol in two pieces. “Brat used his critique of ‘amnesty’ to launch a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families.”

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Go ahead, scoff at Bill Kristol carrying the gilded pitchfork of populism, but he’d been on this tear for a while, and he was joined by—of all sources—the Nation. According to Lee Fang (in a story posted first at Republic Report), Brat had won by “calling out GOP corruption,” by attacking the GOP for not jailing Wall Street crooks after they wrecked America.

“Eric is running on Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable principles,” Brat told a town hall audience, later clarifying that he meant the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying trade group in the country. He also called out the American Chemistry Council for funding ads in his race with Cantor, telling a radio host that his opponent had asked his “crony capitalist friends to run more ads.” Brat repeats his mantra: “I’m not against business. I’m against big business in bed with big government.”

Narrative No. 2 is more familiar. According to the quick-strike force of lefty news outlets, and to the Wall Street Journal, Brat is the latest crazy person to win a Republican primary. The WSJ’s Reid Epstein was the first to pull a 2011 Brat essay called “God and Advanced Mammon,” in which the future congressman (probably) argued that Christians needed a “church model” that could respond to the challenge of capitalism.

“Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance,” wrote Brat. “I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily.” (Epstein added, helpfully, that Brat had just defeated “the only Jewish Republican in Congress.” First they came for Eric Cantor and I said nothing, etc.) In ThinkProgress, the story became “David Brat: Embrace Christian Capitalism, or Hitler Will Come Back.” (This story has nearly 7,000 shares on Facebook.) In another ThinkProgress story (11,000 shares), we learn that Brat could not “answer basic policy questions” in a morning MSNBC interview.

True, when asked for his position on arming Syrian rebels, Brat executed a rare half-whiff, and admitted he thought the interview would be “celebratory” and that he was tired, but he did offer something about America “projecting power.” And this was after he answered a question about pending trade bills by spinning a short history of post-World War II tariffs. Christine O’Donnell he is not.

So, what is he? The first-look impression, that he’s a libertarian and a Christian, isn’t challenged by anything that’s come out since yesterday. That means he attacks “crony capitalism” from the right. He does not call for regulation of Wall Street; he calls for prosecution of illegal behavior on Wall Street. The untrammeled market will make people rich.

“We want everybody to get rich,” said Brat in a speech uploaded on May 7. ”The Republican Party is often called unloving, uncaring, not generous, or whatever—that's a bunch of baloney. We're the party that believes in free markets.” As an example of how that works in practice, he cited how “China, for the first time in history, is feeding 1.2 billion people.”

It was the sort of observation that could have come from Mitt “I want everyone to be rich” Romney and from Deng “To get rich is glorious” Xiaoping. “If you depend on the king,” Brat said, “your nation will fail eventually.”

Brat has many deeper thoughts. As my colleague Jordan Weissman writes, he thinks that the young field of economics kids itself when it glazes over its “methodological problems” and assumes it can explain complex human interactions with math. In this he’s basically an Austrian economist in the von Mises mold. “Experience of economic history is always experience of complex phenomena,” Mises wrote in Human Action, 61 years ago. “It can never convey knowledge of the kind the experimenter abstracts from a laboratory experiment.”

That was the reason Brat got into his race, as he told me and repeated on the trail. Republicans like Eric Cantor were in the pocket of business interests that wanted “stability”—i.e., the hand of government preventing the boat from getting too wobbly. In possibly the silliest of the second-day Brat hits, the WSJ scoffed at a 2005 paper in which Brat argued that Protestantism “provides an efficient set of property rights and encourages a modern set of economic incentives” that can’t be seen on a spreadsheet. What a kook! Except, well, he was saying what Max Weber had written 109 years ago, consistent with decades of libertarian thinking that markets work best if they’re left alone and people know how to act.

As Ryan Lizza says, this sometimes makes Brat sound like “the Elizabeth Warren of the right.” The difference (well, one of many) is that he doesn’t waste any time suggesting what government could do to provide safety nets for people who strike out in the market. One lesson of communism, he’s argued, is that progressive taxation—which is intended to stitch that safety net—is a failure. “Russia under Putin has a flat tax rate and we don't,” he said in the speech I cited above. “The communists have a flat tax rate, right? Can't make this stuff up.”

The quick rise of David Brat reminds me quite a lot of the slower rise of Ron Paul. In parts of 2007, I remember being one of two or three reporters in the room for some Ron Paul press conferences where he would bang on about the evils of the Federal Reserve. Who cared about such things?

Well, voters did. Voters, as Kristol understands and the WSJ stubbornly fails to, lurch toward populism in a time of economic want. Cantor couldn’t have been more vulnerable to a challenge. Brat, having beaten him, gets to define what Republican populism looks like in 2014.

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