ARLINGTON, Mass. — The conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that much of the former president’s support comes from undereducated rubes, the sort of voter Hillary Clinton once famously called “the basket of deplorables.” 

The people who believe that haven’t met Sohrab Ahmari.

Ahmari, 38, labors in the field of the public intellectual, though often outside the current “in” group of the conservative intelligentsia. A former Marxist atheist turned conservative Catholic, he talks about the former president in ways that the average voter does not. For example, writing with Matthew Schmitz, Ahmari explains how, in his positions, Trump “exposed the carnage of the neoliberal turn in American political economy and the neoconservative turn in foreign policy.”

To which the average “Let’s Go, Brandon” voter might rightly answer, “What?”

But like Trump, Ahmari has a beef with the Republican establishment, and in his new book, “Tyranny, Inc,” he often speaks the same language that Trump and even Bernie Sanders does when talking about “the forgotten man.”

“I don’t want Trump per se, I just want someone to speak in these terms, and there’s only one (candidate) on the right who really does that,” Ahmari told me over breakfast last month at a cafe in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Ahmari lives in New York City, but was in Massachusetts visiting his mother, with whom he immigrated from Tehran to Utah when he was 13.

Fittingly, mother and son initially moved to Eden, in Weber County. For Ahmari, however, the small rural town was not paradise, not even close to what he imagined the U.S. would be. It was the first of several longings for utopia that would ultimately disappoint him — geographically, philosophically and politically.

He’s since given up his search for utopia and is looking for something he sees as more achievable on Earth: the common good. For that, though, he believes America has to break free of tyranny — not tyranny in government, but tyranny in the marketplace, which is harder to recognize, especially for conservatives.

America’s inequality is seen not only in assets, but in liberty, according to Ahmari. Taking on Milton Friedman’s famous analogy, he writes, “The market economy isn’t made up of billions of Robinson Crusoes trading their surpluses, cooperating happily without coercion.” He argues that “Most have only the power to sell their labor and subject themselves to the coercion of the owner class — or withhold labor and risk odds of survival as steep as those faced by the famous literary shipwreck.”

Ahmari knows exactly how that sounds. “On economics, there is very little daylight between me and Liz Warren, or Bernie Sanders,” he told me.

But make no mistake — Ahmari wants to advance conservatism. Not the conservatism of The Wall Street Journal, his former employer, or of David French, The New York Times columnist with whom he famously sparred in 2019. And not exactly Trump’s conservatism either, given Ahmari’s religiosity.

So what kind of conservatism is he advancing? And is there an appetite in this country for a political philosophy that contains a pinch of Bernie, a dollop of Trump and a helping of the late Pope Benedict XVI?

‘Misled’ about America

To explain who Ahmari is, it’s best to start with who Ahmari was. And that’s a bit of a meandering story.

“He’s gone through a number of phases in his life,” said George H. Nash, a historian of conservatism who wrote “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America,” among other books. Ahmari is “really something of an intellectual and political pilgrim,” Nash said.

But unlike certain Western intellectuals who became “political pilgrims” (as the late sociologist Paul Hollander called them) and sought political utopias in places like China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union, Ahmari is an immigrant to the West — and once believed that utopia was here.

Growing up an only child in Tehran, Ahmari was enthralled by American culture. “In the dream worlds of Stan Lee, Walt Disney, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the like, I glimpsed a vision of human possibility,” he wrote in his memoir “From Fire by Water.”

As the son of a “postmodernist architect” and an “abstract expressionist painter,” Ahmari was frequently exposed to intellectual conversation and debate, and it showed. In kindergarten, he was allowed to read while the other children napped; by age 12, he knew he wanted a life in the “creative class.”

When his parents split up, and Ahmari and his mother moved to Utah, where his uncle lived, he thought he was coming to an America that looked like Manhattan in the movie “Taxi Driver,” he told me.

“If I were one for fishing, skiing, or horse riding, I would have found much to delight me in northern Utah,” he has written, adding, “Too bad I didn’t have the slightest appreciation for the outdoors (and still don’t).”

After a short time in Eden, mother and son moved to a mobile home in Logan; it was what they could afford, but it marked the first time that Ahmari experienced poverty. The family had enjoyed a middle-class existence in Iran, and he was embarrassed to be living in a trailer park and bitterly disillusioned with the America he found in Utah.

“I had this idea of the United States as it advertises itself to the rest of the world, and maybe as it really is now ... I felt I’d been misled about what America is,” he said.

Although the people were nice, he struggled to understand an alien culture. At Logan High School, for example, he found pep rallies bewildering. (‘“Why were we asked to identify with this animal mascot, the Grizzly? How could an animal embody our ‘school spirit’? What was school spirit anyway?” he wrote.) And he was disappointed in conversations the people around him had, which seemed to focus too much on sports and the weather, not the lofty conversations he wanted to have about books, art and ideas.

He found the mental stimulation he craved in literature, and in his growing fascination with Marxism. He read “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” the summer before his senior year and later wrote an essay on Nietzsche that won him a scholarship to Utah State University. But he wouldn’t be there long, transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle, which was much more conducive to his atheistic worldview.

It wouldn’t last long. Before he graduated with a degree in philosophy, Ahmari was in the thrall of postmodernist thinkers like Michael Foucault and Judith Butler. In doing so, he wrote, “I exchanged one mess of pottage for another,” but his thinking continued to evolve over the next decade, inching ever so slightly to the right, and to faith in God.

Upon finishing school, he applied to Teach for America, and began teaching migrant children in Brownsville, Texas. There, he wrote, he began to realize “that there were gradations of character in all human circumstances. That there was great value in the old moralistic notions I used to sneer at. And, maybe, that there were permanent things about what made all people think.”

A newfound faith

After teaching for two years in Texas and two years in Massachusetts, Ahmari earned a law degree at Northeastern University and arrived at a career crossroads. He was offered a position at a Boston law firm and one at The Wall Street Journal. He chose the Journal, and became the book review editor and then an opinion writer in the London bureau. Covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the mass of immigration into Europe in 2015-2016, his thinking evolved yet again.

“The liberal answer was we can just accept these people and integrate them. ... I’m sympathetic to these people, many of them speak my native language, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think Europe can absorb more than a million newcomers. And I could see from the point of view of working-class people in places like Germany and Sweden, which were the destination countries, how this could be seen as destabilizing, a threat to their wages on the lower rung of the labor market, and as culturally invasive, a threat.”

As he was retreating from a liberal worldview, he was on his way to becoming a Catholic, a decision he famously announced via a tweet. A succession of changes followed: He left the Journal to write for Commentary magazine, then became the opinion editor at the New York Post, which, like the Journal, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Leaving the Post to co-found Compact, a magazine of commentary that critiques both the left and right, seemed an almost necessary transition. “I pushed as far as the institutional limits would go, and I think (co-founder) Matthew (Schmitz) was doing the same thing at First Things. We both realized at some point there are limits … for the kind of intellectual adventure, the kind of heterodoxy that we wanted to advance, it was time to break free from that, and hence Compact.”

Not everything turns on ‘woke’

“Tyranny, Inc.” is a departure from Ahmari’s previous books, one of which tells the story of his journey from atheism to Catholicism; another, a defense of the inherited traditions and wisdom of the ancients. It’s also a step back from the culture war-waging that he was engaged in when he went head-to-head with French in 2019, setting off a national discussion about the nature of conservatism, and the best way to uphold conservative values in a world increasingly hostile to them.

At that time, he had learned about a drag-queen story hour being held at a public library in Sacramento, and decided that mainstream conservatism, as it was currently operating, was not equal to the task of combatting what he saw as an encroaching evil in American society.

In the journal First Things, he wrote a widely read essay called “Against David French-ism” in which he hung responsibility for eroding societal morality on the play-nice style exhibited by the columnist, then with National Review. The essay expounded on tweet in which Ahmari said that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.”

“Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism,” he wrote.

Today, however, Ahmari seems to be leaving that particular battlefield for one largely identified with progressives — the growing dissatisfaction among young people with longstanding economic policies of the right, the starry-eyed worship of capitalism that doesn’t allow for dissent. In doing so, he’s saying, we have other things to worry about than the culture war.

“Conservatives have taken that stuff on, and only that stuff, right? Now every discussion on the right turns on ‘woke.’ I’m sorry, but we have problems that have nothing to do with ‘woke.’” He cited Silicon Valley Bank, which he said failed for a variety of complex reasons, but some conservatives on social media seized on the bank’s DEI policies and said the failure was an example of “go woke, go broke.”

“To reduce everything to culture war is, first, bad politics — I don’t think it gets you elected — and it doesn’t solve the nation’s problems.”

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There are indications that Ahmari might be right, though it’s unclear whether it’s because conservatives have grown tired of the culture war, or if it’s because they are winning. Political analysts say one reason the Ron DeSantis campaign seems stalled is because it was built around the slogan “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

Ahmari, however, is not ceding the battle over values; his book “The Unbroken Thread” is a veritable call to holiness; in it, he exhorts his young son “to become not a glib man, the kind who laughs nervously when moral outrage is in order, or who preens morally rather than seek the moral way.”

But in “Tyranny Inc.,” the sticky residue of his Marxist beginnings is apparent in the full-throated battle cry for reform to help workers — reform which Ahmari believes is necessary to build the strong families that conservatives claim to desire. In fact, it was the birth of his two children that solidified his thinking about the necessity of economic policies that allow families to breathe, to not always have the sense that calamity is one medical bill away.

“That ideology of the unbound individual who goes around and benefits from free markets and constant dynamism and change doesn’t work when you’re confronted with the vulnerability of a child,” he told me.

Conservative pushback

The emergence of a heated debate about capitalism — among conservatives! — is a delightful turnabout for the chattering class. Politico noted, “Conservatives are having an epic argument about capitalism. Too bad the campaigns are ignoring it.”

But one campaign isn’t, as Ahmari points out.

“Ever since the Reagan era the Republican Party has sought to undo the New Deal. It doesn’t work; it’s why the party hasn’t won the popular vote for a very long time,” he said.

Trump gets that, and has warned Republicans not to cut “a single penny from Medicare or Social Security” while attacking his political opponents from the left.

“Boy, I have my problems with him, but there was a reason we had the New Deal,” Ahmari said. “The economy that was pre-New Deal wasn’t working for people, and the Republican Party made its peace with the new deal under Eisenhower and Nixon, and we need to go back. And in fact, we need to expand the New Deal’s logic in other areas.”

Early reviews of “Tyranny, Inc.,” which went on sale this week, have been skeptical.

Writing for the Washington Free Beacon, Samuel Gregg says that Ahmari’s arguments are neither new nor radical. “Figures ranging from John Kenneth Galbraith to Robert Reich have long insisted that American capitalism must be restructured to correct major imbalances that, they hold, unjustly favor capital at everyone else’s expense,” Gregg wrote.

And The Economist weighed in, calling Ahmari’s analysis “flawed.”

“Private firms in America have far less power over workers than he claims. When they behave abusively, they are often challenged in court. More importantly, with unemployment at 3.5%, disgruntled employees can credibly threaten to quit.”

The Economist also called Ahmari’s prescriptions, which include more unions, “a recipe for slower growth and less innovation.” It also noted the similarity of Ahmari-think to that of progressive politicians, to which Ahmari cheerfully responded on X, “Hell yes.”

But The Economist admits Ahmari’s counsel may be right — or at least might be a credible strategy to win elections.

“... He thinks his mix of social conservatism and economic populism is the future of the Republican Party, helping it win elections long after Donald Trump has retired or gone to jail. He may be right. This was the calculation made by J.D. Vance, who first rose to prominence as the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ which explained the plight of America’s forgotten white working-class, before he ran in Ohio for a Senate seat — and won.”

The magazine didn’t mention, but could have, the overnight fame bestowed in recent days upon a farmer living off the grid in Virginia whose song “White Men North of Richmond” is an ode to the put-upon working class.

As for Ahmari, he’s made it clear that his new mission is putting forth his economic ideas. As he told Ross Douthat on a New York Times podcast in 2021, people need “a kind of substrate of material safety” from which to launch into marriage or to have more kids.

“So I’m very interested in taking down that aspect of the right,” he said. “I may not be able to achieve much else, but if I can seriously critique and point out that the economic libertarian type of conservatism undermines the very goods it claims to cherish, like family and community and church and so forth — if I just show that, that suffices.”