“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!,” announced Donald Trump in the summer of 2016. Before long, Trump was calling himself that, after appearing at a rally with Nigel Farage, one of its champions.
The association with Brexit burnished Trump’s self-styled (and utterly fabricated) reputation as a soothsayer. More importantly, the connection seemed to confirm that Trump represented something larger: a wave of conservative populism sweeping the Western world.
And yet the collapse of Brexit, yet again, reveals another, less flattering commonality. Conservative populism has utterly failed to translate the political impulses behind them into a plausible governing agenda. It is a visceral reaction against multiculturalism and modernity that has not only failed to produce concrete solutions for its supporters, but doesn’t even know what to ask for.
The political phenomenon of conservative populism has created a demand for philosophical treatises to justify it. The conservative intelligentsia has been engaged in a comic process of backfilling in high-minded arguments to support the rise of Trump. The pro-Trump media is dominated by lowbrow right-wing infotainment, like Fox News and Breitbart — media that are simple and accessible enough for Trump himself to enjoy.
But the vast apparatus of conservative intellectuals also needs essays and lectures pitched at a higher level, in order to sustain its own sense of elitism. There’s no need to raise millions of dollars for think tanks and endowed chairs if the party’s thought process begins and ends with Sean Hannity’s sock-puppet routine. The Journal of American Greatness was founded in 2016 for this specific purpose — defining a populist conservatism that would resemble whatever it is Trump is trying to do.
The right has put its finest minds to the task of turning its irritable mental gestures into something resembling ideas. Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, delivered a lecture at the Manhattan Institute that was adapted for publication in the City Journal. Its theme, implicitly rebuking conservatives who might feel some discomfort with Trump’s vulgarity and open bigotry, was that conservatives have always made common cause with populists. Trump has declared, “I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” Berkowitz restates Trump’s ethos more elegantly. “Conservatives have tended to recognize the unruliness of the passions and the limits of reason. They believe that recondite reflection and abstract theory tend to obscure practical matters; as a guide to politics, conservatives strongly prefer experience and practical wisdom,” he argues. “Burke allied with the people against ‘the political men of letters’ — the progressive public intellectuals of his day.”
Apparently this innate distrust of elites is why conservatives should accept and even welcome a leader of the free world who has been described in the following terms by his own appointees: “Fucking moron” (Rex Tillerson), an “idiot” (John Kelly, John Dowd), a “dope” (H.R. McMaster), “dumb as shit” (Gary Cohn) with the comprehension level of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” (James Mattis), or “an 11-year-old-child” (Steve Bannon). A president with an attention span so minuscule his aides have to use large-type placards festooned with brief slogans and colorful graphics, it seems, is the worthy heir to Sir Edmund Burke himself.
Berkowitz builds his essay on the premise that the working class has become disaffected with “an imperious ruling elite.” Yet he offers nothing in the way of substance to flesh it out, gesturing only at familiar bromides (“individual freedom, limited government, free markets, robust civil society, and a strong America in the international arena”) as the eternal course.
He fails to acknowledge Trump won these voters in large part by distancing himself from the right, promising universal health care, lower prescription-drug prices, cracking down on Wall Street, ending the carried-interest loophole, and other ideologically unorthodox moves. But he has abandoned all these ideas in favor of a rehash of George W. Bush’s domestic agenda. This has helped persuade Republican legislators to overlook his misconduct, but taken a toll on Trump’s popularity.
The populist promises that set Trump apart during both the primary and the general election have simply failed to materialize. Trump’s budget, which proposes cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that he had famously pledged to oppose, is the latest evidence that he has simply defaulted to traditional movement conservatism.
Conservative populism has followed the same course in the United Kingdom and the United States. Right-wing politicians attached expansive promises to retrograde cultural panic to gain power, and once given a chance to follow through, have managed to deliver only the latter. These movements justified themselves as an authentic rebellion against the experts. The experts warned the promises were impossible. It turns out they knew what they were talking about.