Why the Right’s Principled Populists Will Lose

Pictured: An unprincipled populist. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Four years ago, Donald Trump gave hope to all apostates from the Church of Reagan and Latter-Day Fusionists.

The modern conservative movement is the child of a marriage between military hawks, business libertarians, and (white) social traditionalists. This union the fusion of political elements that is known as fusionism was a bit tense from its inception. Not only was there little inherent relationship between the concerns of the movement’s disparate factions but, in some cases, those concerns even appeared contradictory: Some libertarians retained an attachment to the right’s pre–World War II isolationism, while many cultural conservatives bristled at the corporate right’s cosmopolitan attitude towards immigration.

If this marriage began uneasy, by 2016, it had become downright unhappy. Fusionism had paid big dividends to its largest shareholders. Reactionary plutocrats saw their tax obligations shrink, regulatory burdens contract, and meddlesome labor unions shrivel and die. The defense hawks also enjoyed a fat return on their investment. Not only did the GOP oversee the downfall of communism, it also managed to swiftly replace the Soviet menace with America’s ex-mujahideen allies, thereby saving the military-industrial complex from the threat of pyrrhic victory.

But social conservatives got relatively little out of the bargain. Falling tax rates and regulatory burdens proved compatible with declining marriage rates and conservative cultural influence. Republicans may have succeeded in making it difficult for poor women in red states to get abortions. But the broader mission of the pro-life movement — to restore the cultural hegemony of traditional sexual mores — was an abject failure. A GOP-appointed judge had made same-sex marriage the law of the land. The “free enterprise system” hadn’t strengthened families or social cohesion in the rural white bastions of Christian traditionalism; it had sucked capital out of those communities and concentrated it into a handful of coastal Gomorrahs, leaving small-town America to descend into dissipation and despair. The nativist right had seen Republican presidents ink a mass amnesty and expansion of legal immigration, and then, their nation’s foreign-born population rise to historic (and historically nonwhite) levels. Paleoconservatives had watched the Iraq War confirm every suspicion they’d had about aligning themselves with military globalists.

And all the while, China’s meteoric rise began sowing a rift between the GOP’s business establishment (much of which was profiting immensely from trade with China) and its defense hawks (who feared that America’s new geostrategic rival was profiting far too much from such trade).

Trump’s improbable triumph in the 2016 Republican primary gave all of fusionism’s losers reason to believe. The mogul lamented the trillions that the U.S. had wasted on nation-building in the Middle East — and the weakness of the swamp’s approach to combatting China. He waged total war on cosmopolitan capital, demonizing immigrants and clamoring for an ill-defined industrial policy. He pledged his total allegiance to the Christian right and spewed thicker bile at its cultural adversaries than his evangelical rivals could muster. Most remarkably, Trump thumbed his nose at small-government pieties that had gone virtually unchallenged on the right for a generation: The Republican frontrunner disdained price-gouging pharmaceutical companies and undertaxed hedge-fund managers, while endorsing universal health care and New Deal–style public-infrastructure projects. (Just to make sure everyone felt included, the candidate also occasionally made equal-but-opposite appeals to ultralibertarians who believed the GOP hadn’t done enough to lower American wages).

Trump’s conquest of the GOP did not bring total victory to any of the right’s heretical tribes. And it certainly didn’t bring the coalition’s dominant factions total defeat. The president’s major legislative achievement was a giant tax cut for the wealthy. His regulatory agenda was whatever extractive industry and predatory finance told him it should be. Trump grew the Pentagon’s budget. He didn’t leave a dent in the nation’s immigration laws.

And yet: He did revise NAFTA in a (mildly) pro-worker direction, foment a shift in bipartisan common sense about China and trade, preside over the tightest labor market in two decades, reduce immigration inflows, appoint three religious conservatives to the Supreme Court, seek detente with North Korea, and avoid the temptation to topple a major foreign government (though there were some close calls).

All this makes “Trumpism” a kind of Rorschach test. And with the man himself preparing to leave the scene (however temporarily), every ideological faction on the right is scheming to get Republican primary voters — and, more importantly, GOP 2024 presidential hopefuls — to see Trumpism the way it does. In hindsight, the true lesson of the mogul’s rise isn’t that Republican voters loathe zombie Reaganism, but that they do not love it. The party’s voters are animated by their cultural views, alienations, and resentments; speak viscerally to those, and it’ll swallow most any economic or foreign policy you sprinkle on top.

For the right’s economic heretics, this is the post-Trump era’s promise and peril. The president illuminated a path to a new kind of Republican Party, one that acknowledged the failure of market fundamentalism to deliver what it promised. What’s more, by accelerating education-based polarization — his populist shtick having brought more non-college-educated voters into red America and repelled some college-educated ones out of it — Trump made a realignment of the party’s economic priorities appear more plausible. Which is to say: He made the once farcical prospect of the GOP becoming a “worker’s party” thinkable.

Yet he also revealed that meeting the Trumpen proletariat halfway on immigration, and dialing up the anti-liberal demagogy to 11, made any further concessions to the base’s material interests unnecessary.

The right’s principled populists have an ideological compass (but no path to power).

This tension animates “What Happened: The Trump Presidency in Review” a written symposium convened this week by American Compass, a “pro-worker” conservative think tank, and the American Conservative, the flagship journal of paleoconservatism.

The participants in this retrospective aren’t in perfect ideological alignment. What unites them is an avowed opposition to so-called “Zombie Reaganism,” and an identification with anti-Establishment strains of conservatism that Trump imperfectly expressed. Taken together, the essays indicate that the intellectual vanguard of “pro-worker conservatism” has a coherent and politically promising vision for reform — and little hope of getting the GOP to adopt it.

American Compass represents the most intellectually honest tendency within the anti-Establishment right. Founded by Oren Cass, the onetime policy director of Mitt Romney’s decidedly anti-populist 2012 campaign, the think tank takes the GOP Establishment to task for its actual, material betrayals of the party faithful. It packages this dissent in policy papers not Twitter tantrums. Where the right’s other dissidents routinely exaggerate the Republican leadership’s treachery, Cass invariably downplays it. In his narrative, the elites did not sell out the people, they merely failed to update their well-intentioned ideas for new circumstances. This framing is self-serving — Cass is himself an erstwhile Establishmentarian — but it also reflects the seriousness of his substantive challenge to GOP orthodoxy. American Compass isn’t using histrionic rhetoric to disguise the thinness of its policy disagreements with Mitch McConnell. It’s arguing with exquisite politeness that upholding conservative values requires giving labor more power over capital.

Cass’s contribution to the symposium, a diagnostic essay on the Trump economy, is characteristically non-polemical. In it, he argues that the American economy “did generate impressive results on some dimensions in 2018–19, far better than what the pre-Trump trajectory would have predicted,” but that neither supply-siders nor Trumpist trade warriors can claim this boom as vindication. Contrary to the promises of the right’s credentialed economists, “the Trump administration’s tax cuts did not quickly spur investment, dynamism, and growth.”

The notion that the president’s tariffs birthed 2019’s tight labor market holds up no better under Cass’s scrutiny. Trump did reduce America’s reliance on imports from China – without triggering significant inflation in consumer prices — but only by increasing our reliance on imports from other nations. “What differentiates the Trump policy environment and best explains the excellent outcomes experienced by workers,” Cass concludes, “is the extraordinarily stimulative monetary and fiscal policy pursued at the peak of the business cycle.” Given this reality, “tolerance for policies that benefit workers while risking inflation should increase.” To sustain the growth catalyzed by such loose money policies, however, conservatives must “develop an agenda that will deliver those results on a sustainable foundation of rising investment and productivity, providing a framework for supporting broadly-shared prosperity in the decades to come.”

In their twin assessments of Trump’s labor record, American Compass research director Wells King and fellow-traveler Julius Krein give a hint of what that agenda would look like. Both writers (dubiously) credit the president’s restrictionist immigration policies with the fact that “wages in occupations with a high percentage of low-skill immigrant labor (such as housekeepers and some maintenance workers) saw faster wage growth than other low-paid jobs.” They nevertheless lament the limits of Trump’s restrictionist ambitions, which produced neither “consistent enforcement — especially with respect to employer violations — or substantive reform.”

Outside the issue of immigration, Krein and King’s analyses of Trump’s record overlap with those of center-left economists. They praise his loose monetary policies, expansion of apprenticeship programs and job-training initiatives, willingness to confront China about its abusive trade practices, and renegotiation of NAFTA — but assail Trump’s regressive tax cuts, anti-union NLRB appointments, opposition to minimum wage hikes, support for predatory nonprofit colleges, neutering of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “repeated efforts to shrink and constrain the safety net,” abandonment of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy, and refusal to develop a robust, state-directed industrial policy.

Given the overrepresentation of immigration-skeptical non-college-educated voters at every level of government, Krein and King’s implicit agenda has political promise. A Republican Party that was socially conservative, restrictionist on immigration — but supportive of collective bargaining, social welfare, public-job creation, and inclusionary zoning — would almost certainly gain broader appeal with the general public, while alienating only a small portion of its existing voter base.

But such a party would also dispossess a large portion of its existing donor class, technocrats, and political elite.

For this reason, the species of anti-Establishment conservatism that is most likely to thrive in the post-Trump GOP is not the one articulated by Cass, King, or Krein. Rather, it’s the one on display in Rachel Bovard’s contribution to the symposium.

In the world of “anti-Establishment” conservative politics, intellectual bankruptcy pays.

A former congressional staffer and Trump transition team member, Bovard offers a broad argument that is both sharp and informed by a depth of experience on Capitol Hill: Trump’s policy record ended up being more conventional than his campaign platform because the Trumpist right lacked the institutions necessary for cultivating a dedicated cadre and placing them within the administration. Instead, Trump was forced to rely on “the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute,” whose policy wonks often “outright opposed Trump,” or “lacked the intellectual and policy prowess to advance his agenda.”

Bovard is right to insist that no dissident conservative movement can remake the GOP without remaking its institutions. But if her strategic critique is precise, her ideological one is anything but.

In some respects, her articulation of anti-Establishment conservatism is the polar opposite of American Compass’s. In its introduction to the symposium, Cass’s think tank stipulates that “Trumpism cannot be declared a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ because it did not exist,” acknowledging the plain fact that Donald Trump’s campaign pronouncements and governing preferences were contradictory and evershifting. Bovard’s essay, by contrast, presumes the existence of a singular, well-defined Trump agenda — so well-defined that she herself need not spell out what it is.

Bovard writes that President Trump’s “policy priorities … upended his own party’s orthodoxy” without specifying what these priorities were or which orthodoxies they upended. She laments that conventionally qualified Republican staffers almost all lacked “understanding of the unique set of issues that propelled Trump into office,” without naming these issues, or acknowledging that much of Trump’s general-election platform was GOP boilerplate (tax cuts, deregulation, etc.).

In a mirror image of Cass’s rhetorical approach, Bovard’s critique of the Republican Establishment is light on policy detail but heavy on name calling. The State Department is described as “an executive branch agency full of vipers.” “Establishment Washington” and “Washington’s toxic routines” come in for criticism without ever being defined. Most critically, whereas American Compass signals a loyalty to substantive goals — rather than to culture-war totems or personality cults — Bovard signals the opposite allegiance. On the subject of immigration, she does invoke a few policy specifics. But these mostly suggest a preference for symbolism over substance. Bovard indicts former DHS secretary John Kelly’s commitment to Trump’s agenda by noting that he’d said the president’s proposed border wall “will not do the job” (by itself) — and charges Kirstjen Nielsen with similar treachery for saying America had “no need for a border wall ‘from sea to shining sea.’” Yet, no serious immigration restrictionist would disagree with either of these statements. To the contrary, the nativist lobby repeatedly expressed anxiety about Trump’s emphasis on his largely symbolic border wall, preferring he spend his political capital on measures more likely to reduce immigration inflows.

Bovard casts the Trump administration’s first director of presidential personnel, John DeStefano, as the arch-villain in her narrative. To establish DeStefano’s status as a “viper,” she notes, “DeStefano was formerly an aide to John Boehner, the Speaker of the House who was ousted in a rebellion led by future White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.” Here, Meadows is cast as the true Trumpist – after all, he once led a House rebellion against an Establishment Republican. But this only makes sense if one understands politics as a television show: In earlier seasons of Fox News, Mark Meadows was the true conservative taking on the Establishment. Many episodes later, Trump assumed that role. Ergo, Trumpists should want to see Meadows in power. By contrast, if one is actually invested in a populist policy challenge to Republican orthodoxy, the replacement of a moderate Boehnerite with an arch-libertarian — who proceeded to block and delimit the very kinds of fiscal stimulus that fueled the Trump boom — is the opposite of progress.

Ultimately, Bovard indicates that “loyalty to the president’s agenda” has less to do with any specific economic program than with a willingness to shield the president from potential legal difficulties. In her telling, one of Trump’s gravest personnel failures was not firing James Comey in January 2017, while another was selecting Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general. This turned Jeff Sessions’s otherwise harmless decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation into a crisis, as Rosenstein had “no discernable interest in Trump’s larger policy goals.” In this context, “Trump’s larger policy goals” apparently means “preemptively quashing investigations that may implicate the president or his allies in illegal activity.” (Whatever their subsequent complaints about Robert Mueller’s probe, Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor had broad Republican support, even from the likes of Mark Meadows. Meanwhile, Rosenstein was a loyal soldier on substantive issues, faithfully implementing Trump’s family separation policy.)

Bovards brand of anti-Establishment conservatism is intellectually bankrupt and nakedly authoritarian. Not coincidentally, it is also much more likely to gain purchase in the post-Trump GOP. Bovard’s meticulous vagueness about economic policy makes her “Trumpism” readily adaptable to the Koch Network’s core needs. Its ill-defined and hypocritical denunciations of “Establishment Washington” (Bovard is a graduate of George Washington University who has been working on Capitol Hill for 14 years and co-authored a book with the former president of the Heritage Foundation) is fit for a wide range of uses — from garden-variety campaign demagoguery to sliming ideologically indistinguishable rivals for bureaucratic power. Its prioritization of culture-war symbolism over concrete policy change reflects the priorities of the media-drenched conservative base. Above all, its reverence for Donald Trump and commitment to helping him evade all accountability puts it in prime position to receive the exiled king’s blessing in 2024 — or, if need be, to attach itself to his improbable quest to retake the throne.

What does the genuinely populist right have to compete with this? Plausible ideas for improving the life of the median Republican family at the expense of the typical Republican billionaire? What, because the voting base that believes that Democrats rigged the 2020 presidential election (but forgot to steal themselves a Senate majority or even a non-embarrassing showing in the House) is great at identifying reliable sources of information and thus will sagely interrogate which putative populist’s claims are empirically sound?

A (very marginally) better GOP is possible.

Some suspected 2024 hopefuls are friendly with American Compass. Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton have all evinced support for the think tank’s work. And each has made gestures towards economic heterodoxy. In recent days, Hawley joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in calling for the next coronavirus stimulus package to include relief checks for non-rich households. The Republican Party is genuinely more ideologically unsettled today than at any time since Reagan’s election. And there is room for reformers to make progress at the margins. One case in point: This year’s National Defense Authorization Act includes “the most sweeping overhaul of financial crime safeguards in decades,” a measure that forces shell companies to disclose their owners. The legislation aims to crack down on criminal money laundering but could also one day aid the policing of global tax evasion.

Yet, the GOP did not embrace this legislation at the encouragement of its anti-Establishment firebrands. Rather, it did so in response to lobbying from national-security officials concerned that China could exploit “anonymous corporations to evade detection by the U.S.”

In our newfound age of “great power competition,” the GOP’s defense hawk wing is a source of institutional support for certain categories of right-populist economic reform. When Tom Cotton endorsed American Compass’s call for industrial policy earlier this year, he framed his argument around the imperative to “secure our independence” through “strategic investments in advanced technology and critical infrastructure” that will enable the U.S. to prevail over China.

Right-wing populists can marshal the Pentagon behind their calls for increasing public investment in tech research and re-shoring supply-lines for critical goods. But the Defense Department has no interest in strengthening collective-bargaining rights, raising America’s wage floor, or adopting the many other radical reforms that would be necessary for realizing the populist right’s vision of an America where working-class families can live comfortably on a single breadwinner’s salary. And no remotely powerful institution on the American right does have such an interest — while a great many conservative institutions exist to oppose such reforms.

Thus, Hawley and Rubio’s “pro-worker conservatism” is almost certain to end up more Bovard than Cass — all sound and fury, signifying little more than slightly larger child tax credits.

At the end of November, the Senate voted on whether to confirm Judy Shelton to the Federal Reserve. Shelton had spent a long career hectoring the Fed to tighten the money supply, effectively demanding that the central bank condemn tens of millions of workers to perpetual unemployment, so as to avert the theoretical threat of rising prices. She was such a staunch free-trade globalist; she’d said that talk of protectionism made her “embarrassed to be an American” and that “North America doesn’t need borders.” But the Washington Establishment did not like her. And Donald Trump did. Thus, Hawley and Rubio voted to put a hard-money, hyperglobalist onto one of the most powerful policy-making boards in the world. (About a week later, Hawley decried Biden’s Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen — a former Fed chair whose views on monetary policy and inequality are far closer to Hawley’s putative outlook than Shelton’s— as a “corporate liberal” who would “sell out working Americans and sneer at them at the same time.”)

Ultimately, Trumpism is merely a brand name that every “populist” Republican presidential aspirant will want to license in 2024. And if you want to cut a deal with Donald Trump, best not to have too strong an ideological compass.

Why the Right’s Principled Populists Will Lose