The pull of populism

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s first year in office was the all-but-complete abandonment of the populist economic vision upon which he successfully campaigned. Candidate Trump stiff-armed Republican economic orthodoxy and won the Midwest by promising a flood of infrastructure spending, universal health care, protectionism, middle-class tax cuts – a right-wing Keynesianism for the common man. But as president he defaulted to Paul Ryan’s agenda, chasing the Tea Party dream of Obamacare repeal, issuing a budget proposal thick with discretionary spending cuts, and pursuing a tax reform tilted heavily toward corporations.


The best way to understand this turn was to recognize that personnel are policy, and since “Trumpism” was an unexpected irruption and Trump himself is not exactly the sort of guy who worries about having a policy brain trust, the people available to staff and guide his administration were inevitably more conventionally conservative than the half-sketched ideas of his campaign. Once Steve Bannon, the only inner-circle figure with an ideological vision, flamed out spectacularly as a Karl Rove-like eminence, a default to Ryanism was all-but-guaranteed, and with it the abandonment of Trump’s promise to remake the GOP as a “worker’s party.”

But if that was the major policy story of year one, the drift of Republican policymaking since the failure of Obamacare repeal has been a little different, a little more populist, a little closer to the way that Trump campaigned. Even without a Bannon-like figure consciously shaping policy, Trumpism still exerts a gravitational pull on the Republican Party because its broad outlines are actually popular in a way that the austerian elements of the overlapping Ryan and Tea Party agendas never really were.

This pull exerted itself weakly but meaningfully on the tax bill, which was dominated by a corporate tax cut but also reshaped around the edges to cut more taxes for the middle class and families. It exerted itself a little more on Trump’s decision to replace Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chairwoman with Jerome Powell, which amounted to a vote for a looser monetary policy rather than the hard-money approach that Republicans had consistently favored under Obama. And then on the budget that just passed Congress, Trumpism was more like a Death Star tractor beam, dragging the GOP well away from all its professed Obama-era priorities: Gone was the sequester, gone was all the talk of cutting and capping and balancing, and instead we got a guns-and-butter budget that would have done Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush proud.

Combine this flood of spending with the Trump White House’s attempt to get a skills-based and restrictionist immigration reform through Congress, throw in some smaller ideas under consideration, like the Marco Rubio-Ivanka Trump paid parental leave plan, and you have a Year 2 of the Trump era in which Trumpism actually seems meaningful again. Not as a completely coherent agenda, obviously, but as a tendency, a force pulling conservatism toward a nationalism-infused, deficit-financed populism even when Ryan and Mick Mulvaney are theoretically setting the agenda.

This populist pull makes hypocrites of many Republican legislators, as liberals are eager to point out, since it induces them to vote for budgets that they would have denounced as socialism under Barack Obama. But there is pathos to the hypocrisy as well as cynicism. Republicans denounce big spending while in opposition because opposition offers the luxury of principle, and then they accept spending once in power because the nature of governance make them feel like prisoners of the public’s will … and then they look forward to defeat, at some level, because it liberates them to return the true faith, free of the corrupting responsibility to please a public bigger than their base.

But if the pathos is real, it is also ultimately somewhat stupid. A political party is not a church with standards too holy for this world, stooping to govern and then reclaiming its sanctity once it returns to opposition. Conservatism should be a governing philosophy, not an endless cycle of corruption followed by exile and repentance.

And the fact that “populism” or “Trumpism” – like “compassionate” or “big government” conservatism before it – exerts an inevitable pull on Republican administrations and majorities is a sign that a Trumpian or George W. Bushian mix of cultural conservatism and economic populism is in fact the natural basis for an American center-right majority, resisted only by a Republican ideological apparatus that persists in believing in a limited-government ideal so fine no actual government can implement it.

This reality was apparent to Trump, in his crude and demagogic way, as it was apparent to Bush before him. But it is not apparent to enough Republicans at the moment for the party to act on it effectively. So instead of a clear focus on the kind of populism that might advance conservative priorities – direct spending to support work and family and marriage, above all – we get doomed cavalry charges against popular programs followed by a shrugging acceptance of more funding for the welfare-state status quo.

Trump is not the right man to break this cycle. But the recent drift back toward campaign-season Trumpism in defiance of the White House’s official blueprints is a sign for those with eyes to see. The populist center-right is the only place where Republicans can stand and plausibly hope to govern. It would be nice if someday they tried to do so, not haphazardly and hypocritically and often stupidly, but intelligently and consistently and well.