Trump's presidency is sputtering. But conservative populism can still thrive.
Don't let Trump wreck it for you
Donald Trump's presidency is going nowhere, slowly.
TrumpCare died. Tax reform is "doomed." The president's infrastructure plan has stalled. His travel ban remains in legal limbo. Taken together, these failures and delays have the White House feeling like it's already in need of a turnaround operation as the 100-day milepost (arbitrary and media-driven, but nonetheless important to our cable-news-addicted president) approaches. Quite apart from his setbacks on Capitol Hill and the federal bench, Trump has personally undergone a stunning series of reversals on everything from military intervention in Syria to NAFTA to NATO to Chinese currency machinations to the Export-Import bank.
And while Trump is floundering and flip-flopping, Trumpism is mutating. Gone is the scorched-earth populism of his campaign, as witnessed by the marginalization of adviser Stephen Bannon and the rise of his-and-hers "moderates" Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. As The New Republic's Brian Beutler rightly points out, Trump is not being yanked by reality toward "centrism," as various D.C. pundits fondly wish; rather, he is gradually being co-opted by a Republican mainstream that is pro-big-business and hawkish on foreign policy.
That's bad for him. It's also bad for the Republican Party and for the country.
For all his innumerable vices, candidate Trump possessed one important virtue: Of the 17 candidates who ran for the Republican nomination, he alone — by intuition more than rational analysis, it scarcely needs to be said — realized that orthodox movement conservatism was a dead horse.
Layered at the top of the Republican coalition is a thin tissue of rich and disproportionately influential donors who favor tax cuts for themselves as well as large corporations and are concerned about entitlements and long-term debt. Trump instinctively identified with the restive plurality of Republican voters underneath: the audience for birtherism, Alex Jones conspiracies, immigrant-bashing, and Islamophobia. Add them to transaction-minded evangelicals and other Republicans who would vote for a yellow dog over a Democrat, peel off a marginal but sufficient number of disaffected Democrats in battleground states, and you have yourself an underwhelming, if still shocking, Electoral College majority.
Mitt Romney beat the dead horse in 2012 and lost badly. Trump walked away from the corpse and won. But now that his administration is, for now, on life support, does that mean the populist alternative to that conservative orthodoxy was stillborn?
Hardly. There is a strong case for populist conservatism.
Let's distinguish between Trumpist populist-nationalism and populism, broadly speaking. The Trumpist version is defined by four features:
1. The otherization and scapegoating of racial and religious minorities.
2. An embrace of Peronist authoritarianism, that is, a personality cult centered on a charismatic demagogue.
3. A related authoritarian impulse that extends to local police forces viewed in conflict with minorities run violently amok or ensconced in "sanctuary cities."
4. An inchoate sense that the post-industrial economy, by freely moving human and financial capital, has left ordinary Americans behind.
You'll probably notice that I left the vaguest feature for last. That's because one could subtract the first three and still be left with benign populism. As the political scientists Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver have argued, "authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism, and conspiracism. But they do have profoundly different perceptions of authority. Populists see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds. Authoritarians see themselves as aligned with those in charge."
In short, it's possible to be a populist without resorting to the ugly aspects of Trumpism.
Critically, Rahn and Oliver argue that true populism is as distinct from Trump as it is from Bernie Sanders: "Despite the fact that Sanders often gets called a populist, his voters do not conform to the populist stereotype. They generally trust experts and do not identify strongly as Americans. A better way to describe them would be cosmopolitan socialists. They see the system as corrupted by economic elites. But they don't trust ordinary Americans and show only light attachment to Americanism as an identity."
The choice between movement orthodoxy and Trump is, thankfully, false. It just so happens that a group of elite-mistrusting conservative wonks has crafted a policy agenda to update conservatism for this new populist era. You may have heard of them: the "reformicons." Could such a reform-minded conservatism command national attention and bridge the policy divisions within the Republican Party? I have no idea. The point for now is this: No one — certainly not Donald Trump — has even tried.