The Not-So-Strange Death of Right Populism

The Not-So-Strange Death of Right Populism

A string of pseudo-populist conservative movements have reverted to the same agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. Why should we expect anything different?

Senator Josh Hawley at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Amy Coney Barrett on October 13, 2020 (Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

Much as he did twelve years ago, Joe Biden comes to the White House amid a punishing economic crisis. Yet the opposition he faces is entirely different, for Donald Trump has shattered the Republican Party’s old small-government pieties and ushered in a new working-class conservatism eager to use government to serve the common good.

Just kidding: things will be almost exactly the same. Expect the GOP to offer up strong doses of deficit hysteria, a fierce push for austerity, and a congressional war of attrition aimed at bogging Biden down in an extended recession. For now, the most striking thing about Trump’s takeover will be how little it affects the basic dynamics of the right in opposition.

To be sure, we’ll continue to hear all the hits from the Trumpian songbook: the migrants swarming across the border, the effrontery of the coastal elites, the Chinese yellow peril, the treason of the intelligentsia, the pedophilic cabals hiding in plain sight. To call these themes “populist” might be misleading because it implies that their sole or main appeal is to the working class. But if we simply take the term to mean this particular strain of reactionary berserk, then right populism isn’t going anywhere.

Yet “right populism” in recent years often meant something more specific: a conservatism that rejected neoliberalism, combining economic provision with social conservatism to swap the old GOP business-class base for a working-class one. The Trump years have served to demonstrate the persistent weakness of this project.

Before 2016, the chief expositors of these goals were “reformicons” like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who pushed the GOP to move away from Reaganite orthodoxy and be more receptive to the interests of non-rich voters. Their efforts made little headway. Already under suspicion in the Tea Party years for being insufficiently alarmist about the Islamo-Marxist radicalism of Barack Obama, they sealed their fates by opposing Trump in 2016 and sticking with it after he won. By showing an actual sustained commitment to their avowed goals, even at the expense of owning the libs, the reformicons guaranteed their own marginality to the MAGA populism industry.

Those who took up the banner post-2016 were more swaggering. Soon after the election, Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon was calling for a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and tax increases on the rich. “If we deliver,” he crowed, “we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years.” (Aspirations were quickly lowered: when Trump managed to crack 20 percent of the combined Black and Hispanic vote four years later, right populists triumphantly declared themselves the party of the multiracial working class.) Bannon, to his credit, seems to have understood from the beginning that it was all a grift; he is currently awaiting trial for allegedly scamming donors hoping to fund Trump’s border wall. Yet many others continued to foretell the coming victory of right populism in apparent sincerity. The British political scientist Matthew Goodwin’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s electoral victory came to be widely cited: “it is much easier for the Right to move Left on economics than it is for the Left to move Right on culture.”

Whatever its validity abroad, in an American context such confidence displayed a willful naïveté. It has been obvious for decades that many voters are both socially conservative and economically progressive, and that a Republican Party less rapaciously plutocratic in its policies would have a much easier time winning majority support. And yet the promised move left on economics never comes; the recent history of American conservatism includes a series of pseudo-populist movements (the Gingrich Revolution and Tea Party before MAGA) that unfailingly revert to the same donor-friendly agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. Rather than searching for the sources of this pattern, right populists have mostly been content to assume that this time things will be different.

To no great surprise, Trump didn’t move left on economics. Workers did benefit from the hot economy of his first three years in office, which MAGA ideologists spun as proof of the president’s unique business acumen (much as Third Way ideologists had once taken the 1990s economic boom as proof of the virtues of Clintonism). But instead of an infrastructure bill, there was a massive corporate tax cut; instead of a family leave plan, there was a failed attempt to strip healthcare from tens of millions of people. Up and down the federal bureaucracy, a familiar cast of industry shills set to work dismantling labor rights and environmental protections. Trump’s most durable accomplishment was the rubber-stamping of scores of Federalist Society judges, each one a devoted steward of the interests of capital.

If Bernie Sanders had won the White House only to spend his presidency cutting Social Security and deregulating industry, his core supporters would have reacted with fury. The reaction of avowed right populists to Trump’s abandonment of their ostensible program was strikingly different: they did nothing. Figures like Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley lined up in support of the administration, while the MAGA faithful bristled at any suggestion that Trump might not be keeping his promises.

This dynamic came to a head in recent months, as Trump—by this point getting his advice from figures like Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore, high priests of supply-side theology—dithered in pressing for a second coronavirus relief bill. Perhaps a forceful push from his base might have stirred him to bully Senate Republicans into passing a bill. The push never came, as the populist right instead focused its ire on Anthony Fauci and Black Lives Matter. Trump’s failure to press for relief in the run-up to the election might go down as the final fatal blunder of his presidency. To the bitter end, movement publicists like Sohrab Ahmari were still issuing fawning odes to the leader for having “addressed the plight of the working class as an affront to national greatness.”

The striking thing about this record is not so much the lack of outright defections from Trumpism (with rare exceptions like Julius Krein, whose magazine American Affairs has been the most heterodox voice of the movement). It’s the lack of any sustained criticism, even as Trump made it ever-clearer that he had no interest in the agenda that right populists ascribed to him. This doesn’t look like the behavior of a faction genuinely dedicated to winning ideological battles.

The character of Trumpism—less a fleshed-out ideological movement than a personality cult built around sharp friend-enemy divides—may help explain this timidity. Right populists make a point of sneering at the Republican “donor class,” but the true plutocrats have been on board with Trump since his election—after all, he gave them everything they wanted. (Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer’s exuberant supply-side tribute Trumponomics is hackwork, but it offers a more honest defense of the president’s record than anything produced by the populists.) Likewise the Tea Partiers: despite stylized contrasts between “libertarianism” and “populism,” Trump’s strongest congressional supporters (and his last two chiefs of staff) came from the zealots of the House Freedom Caucus. The real enemies on the right were defined not by any particular economic philosophy but by the bare fact of disloyalty to the leader.

Some right populists hope that the fabled move left on economics will finally come once Trump cedes the stage to a more reliable standard-bearer like Hawley or Marco Rubio. Whether or not this happens—and right now, the future of the GOP still revolves around the Trump family—the prospect offers little immediate consolation.

Hawley was elected to the Senate in 2018 on an utterly conventional platform—tax cuts, Obamacare repeal, union-busting—but he has since shown a gift for taking headline-grabbing stands against suitably faraway targets: China, Silicon Valley, the WTO. He has shown rather less interest in materially improving the lives of his constituents. During the biggest recent victory for working-class residents of his state, Missouri’s 2020 vote to extend healthcare to hundreds of thousands of people by expanding Medicaid, Hawley fell uncharacteristically silent as his allies fought to defeat the measure.

Rubio, who entered the Senate in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has started peddling something called “common-good capitalism,” developed with his consigliere Mike Needham (better known as one of the most militant crusaders for austerity during the Obama years). Interviews suggest that the vague program, allegedly rooted in Catholic social teaching, is mostly oriented toward confrontation with China. Rubio recently explained to the New Yorker that his road-to-Damascus moment came from observing the plight of deindustrialized communities during his 2016 presidential run. If Rubio managed to go the entirety of the Great Recession without realizing that the American working class was suffering—conveniently enough for his political prospects—we shouldn’t doubt his ability to replicate the feat for the duration of Biden’s term.

In a tightly divided Senate, the emergence of even a small bloc of Republican senators willing to support a robust economic recovery would have real significance. Unfortunately, there’s little reason to expect such a development. Hawley and Rubio have their eyes on the presidency in 2024. They understand that their prospects in the Republican primary won’t be helped by collaboration with the enemy, and that their prospects in the general election increase in tandem with the economic suffering of the American populace over the next four years. Under Biden, both are likely to line up with the rest of their caucus in support of austerity. The small handful of people who actually take the project of working-class conservatism seriously might protest; the much larger number who jumped aboard to own the libs won’t mind.

Right populists can tell themselves that these are just short-term compromises, but protracted experience suggests that we should only believe the American right can move left on economics once we’ve witnessed it happen. And if the Trump years have seen populism make inroads on a rhetorical level, their practical lessons are less promising for the movement: Trump expanded his support while tossing aside the program that populists claimed he had been elected to implement.

The most basic obstacle facing right populism has been around for decades: the people who matter on the right would rather get filthy rich with 45 percent support than slightly less filthy rich with 55 percent support, and the configuration of American political institutions makes this a perfectly rational strategy. The way to change this calculus is not to convince them of their errors but to render the strategy unviable. That would require a democratization of American political life so that the pursuit of majority support becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.

Daniel Luban is a research fellow at Oxford.

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