By Michelle Goldberg
For the New York City launch of his new book last Friday, Sohrab Ahmari, best known as a pugilistic voice of the Trumpist new right, held a dialogue with Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist journal Jacobin and president of the left-wing magazine The Nation. The talk took place at a packed, sweltering event space on the Lower East Side, before an audience heavy on Twitter (now X) personalities and writers for small magazines. Introducing the discussion, Sunkara said that when Ahmari invited him to participate, he was skeptical. But then he read Ahmari’s book, “Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It,” and found, as he explained, “surprisingly very little to criticize.”
The book surprised me as well. It was only a few years ago that Ahmari, in an attack on my Times colleague David French, called on conservatives to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” I’d therefore expected “Tyranny, Inc.” to be yet another broadside against what the right often calls “woke capitalism.” Instead, it’s a scathing critique of capitalism more broadly, at least in its contemporary, market-fundamentalist form.
Summarizing his thesis, Ahmari writes that the “general tendency of Tyranny, Inc., is the domination of working- and middle-class people by the owners of capital, the asset-less by the asset-rich.” He examines such topics as coercive arbitration agreements that prevent exploited workers from pressing their claims in court, the ruinous privatization of emergency services and the role of hedge funds in destroying local newspapers. He celebrates “the achievements of social democracy,” which “remind us that there once was an alternative — and that there could be one again.”
If you squint, you can still see the conservative influence on “Tyranny, Inc.” Ahmari’s litany of neoliberal sins includes, for example, “the leasing of wombs via commercial surrogacy.” But much of the book’s analysis feels decidedly leftist. As Sunkara pointed out, the word “woke” appears only a handful of times, in most cases in reference to the blind spots of the anti-woke right. Reading “Tyranny, Inc.,” I kept wondering how Ahmari had gone from conservative cultural crusader to genuine economic populist and, more important, whether any other social traditionalists could make the same leap.
When I met with Ahmari to discuss his political evolution, he bristled at accusations of ideological dilettantism, insisting his current views stem from a longstanding and fundamentally conservative concern with social harmony and stability. “I think my opponents exaggerate the degree to which, you know, ‘He’s had every worldview,’” he told me. Nevertheless, his intellectual journey has been peripatetic.
The son of a secular, bohemian family in Tehran, he came to the United States as a teenager — the beneficiary, he’s acknowledged, of chain migration. In college, he was a Trotskyite, before becoming a neoconservative and an editor at The Wall Street Journal. Ahmari was initially so anti-Trump that he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the same year he converted to Catholicism. But he was soon won over by Donald Trump and what he saw as the potential for a post-liberal conservatism rooted in the working class.
Last year, Ahmari co-founded the online magazine Compact along with Matthew Schmitz, a fellow conservative Catholic, and Edwin Aponte, a self-described Marxist, with the idea of bringing together critics of economic and cultural liberalism from the left and right. At the time, this idea struck me as absurd and a little sinister; as the writer John Ganz joked, “We have a spicy little new idea for you, it’s a mixture of nationalism … and get this … socialism.” And Compact is indeed mostly a reactionary publication with a strong authoritarian streak. In 2022 Ahmari and Schmitz wrote a florid endorsement of Trump titled “He’s Still the One.”
Yet, from the start, Compact took material conditions seriously, including an early piece Ahmari wrote about the political war on unions. And the more Ahmari focused on economics, the more he seemed to move to the left. After the 2020 election, in which Trump made inroads with working-class men of color, Ahmari had planned to write a manifesto for a new pro-labor conservatism. But as he writes in the acknowledgments in “Tyranny, Inc.,” his reporting gradually made clear to him the hollowness of the G.O.P.’s pro-worker positioning. Last week, he wrote a Newsweek column titled “I Was Wrong: The G.O.P. Will Never Be the Party of the Working Class.”
Ahmari remains on the right because of his social conservatism; he’s having his Washington book launch with Marco Rubio, and he’s heartened by J.D. Vance’s work with Elizabeth Warren to try to claw back compensation from the executives of failed banks. But as he’s grown convinced that Republican economic policies underlie much of the social atomization he abhors, his connection to the G.O.P. has become tenuous. When I asked him whom he’d vote for in 2024 if the election is a rematch between Trump and Joe Biden, he responded that he’d have to give it serious thought.
The next day, he sent me an email clarifying that in fact he’s highly unlikely to vote for Biden, given the president’s position on issues such as abortion and “the liberty of the Church.” For now, Ahmari wrote, “I seem fated to political homelessness, with my role being to push my own side to embrace economic sanity.” Given how little most of the right wants to move, I wonder whether it will be his side for long.
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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn
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