Donald Trump Jr. and the Future of Conservative Populism

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Republican National Convention: Day Two
Donald Trump Jr. Photo: Alex Wong

Tuesday night in Cleveland, Donald Trump Jr., in what was possibly the rhetorical high point of his star performance, promised a prime-time audience that his father would look out for “all Americans, not a special class of crony elites at the top of the heap.” Wednesday and Thursday, Eric and Ivanka delivered testimonials to their father’s character, the latter laced with social liberalism bizarrely dissonant with the official platform. (She promised her father would provide universal child care, an issue that appears nowhere in his platform.) It was the junior Donald who identified an ideological bridge between the Trump name and the old party, and who may have discovered a version of Trumpism that can survive past a potential election defeat.

The younger Trump’s denunciation of cronyism seemed anodyne and unobjectionable because it harked back to a familiar brand of conservatism. The identification of activist government with “cronyism” formed the primary theme for the 2012 Republican convention, which used Solyndra (one of the few green-energy firms subsidized by the stimulus that went under) in roughly the same way the 2016 one has used Benghazi. Years of right-wing rhetoric have axiomatically identified in the right-wing mind conservative economic policy with an attack on a corrupt elite. The free market is an open system that gives people on the bottom a chance to improve their lot, the thinking goes, and they are held back by the powers of the state, which enrich the powerful. You can find this premise unspooled at greater length in such Obama-era books as Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses, by Timothy Carney, or Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies, by Michelle Malkin. It is true that even good-intentioned or well-run government programs usually benefit people who are not especially deserving. Subsidizing health care or food for the poor will fill the pockets of agriculture or health-care providers; regulating carbon pollution will enrich owners of green-energy firms; and so on. Viewed in this light, conservatism is the ideology of upward mobility.

The trouble with this strain of thought is that it misdescribes the actual sources of conflict in American politics, which revolve around the transfer of resources from the rich to the poor via taxes and spending, and regulations that business interests mostly want to undo. For instance, conservatives have attacked Dodd-Frank, the 2010 regulations on finance, as actually offering a benefit to Wall Street by making “too big to fail” firms eligible for a bailout. Donald Jr. echoed this argument by calling the law “consumer protection for billionaires.” In reality, Wall Street fought the law bitterly, has lobbied to weaken or repeal it, and shifted its donations overwhelmingly from Democrats to the Republicans beginning when the law took shape. The designation of a firm as “too big to fail” is not a financial boon firms see as profitable and seek out. On the contrary, they have lobbied to avoid it, and have even broken themselves up to avoid the designation.

When you attempt to superimpose the libertarian-populist frame onto a prospective Trump administration, it devolves into utter absurdity. As Politico reported in April, Trump staffed his campaign up and down with lobbyists, beginning with his campaign manager and lobbyist for the scum of the Earth, Paul Manafort. Lobbyists appear to be among the party constituency most comfortable with Trump. (At a gathering in Cleveland, Nick Confessore reports, some influence-peddlers sported “Make Lobbying Great Again” stickers.) Chris Christie, the leader of the transition team, told a meeting of donors, according to Reuters, that as president, Trump would change civil-service rules to allow the easy firing of permanent employees so they could be replaced with Republican loyalists. (This would come as no surprise to anybody who watched Christie take over the patronage machines in New Jersey and use the government to reward friends and punish enemies.) He likewise promised to “let businesspeople serve in government part-time without having to give up their jobs in the private sector.”

The reason the current rules don’t let you run a business while working part-time for government is that such double duty might present a conflict of interest. The very notion of conflict of interest between the public interest and the private seems to strike Trump as an oxymoron. When asked last fall if he would place his business interests in a blind trust, the branding mogul replied in the affirmative, and then explicated that he would have his children run the business for him. Trump was describing the kind of private-public nexus found in a post-Soviet kleptocracy, which also happens to be among his preferred business destinations. Enriching a special class of crony elites is not a potential risk under a Trump presidency — it’s a solemn promise.

Yet Donald Jr. offering up his father’s administration as an assault on cronyism proved to be a highlight of the convention. Even bitter critics of the father found themselves starstruck. “He fleshed out the image of his Dad as a ‘working class billionaire’ and hit populist notes, although in the context of a surprisingly conservative framework,” wrote National Review editor Rich Lowry, whose magazine published a special issue denouncing Dad. “This may be reading too much into it, but you could see the outlines of a conservative-populist synthesis in the speech.” Kristen Soltis Anderson, a moderate Republican pollster, wrote, "Trump Jr. may or may not be a ‘reformicon’ at heart, but Tuesday night’s speech gave us the first hints that the movement might have an ally within Trump Tower after all." Meeting reporters the next day, Donald conceded that, yes, he is considering a future run for office.

The younger Trump’s appeal lies in his promise that he can refine the passions unleashed by the father, and steer them in a more manageable direction, away from the demographic abyss into which they appear headed. The first night in Cleveland presented a vision of this abyss, especially in the form of a speech by Willie Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star. In his open collar, hair pouring out in all directions, Robertson boasted he grew up “among rednecks,” and associated Trump’s penchant for giving offense to minorities with his father, Phil Robertson, who, among other comments, has attacked “homosexual behavior” and asserted African-Americans were happier before they had civil rights.

Donald Jr. seems to grasp the softer version of cultural backlash politics. He hunts promiscuously and presents himself sweating alongside his father’s workers. “I’m a 5th Avenue redneck,” he told the media. If you doubt that a billionaire’s offspring could sell himself to America as an authentic man of toil, consider son-of-a-president George W. Bush, who enriched himself through his father’s power and built a successful brand as a ranch owner. Or perhaps the more precise parallel would be Marine le Pen, the French far rightist whose father, Jan-Marie, was too extreme and bigoted to win the presidency, but who, by sanding off his roughest edges, may well succeed where Dad failed. The future of Trumpism may lie in the oily, articulate, politically-incorrect-but-not-too-politically-incorrect, economically populist but not frightening to his party’s donor class candidate’s namesake. Call it Schmuck Dynasty.