Ross Douthat: How Donald Trump ate populism

Any effort to build a conservative populism after Trump will be sucked into a vortex of crazy.

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Nov. 2, 2020. "Trump’s rise encouraged would-be conservative populists," writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. "His post-presidency is devouring them."

It’s been easy to forget, after his Senate grandstanding helped summon a QAnon-ish riot, that the weeks leading up to the nightmare on Jan. 6 actually went pretty well for Josh Hawley.

In mid-December, in a policy gambit that was supposed to set him up as a champion of conservative populism after Donald Trump, Hawley, R-Mo., joined Bernie Sanders to champion adding new relief checks to a COVID spending bill. The idea picked up belated support from the White House, passed the House as a $2,000 benefit and gathered enough steam that the Republican candidates in Georgia’s Senate runoffs felt required to lend their support as well. When both Republicans went down to a narrow defeat on Jan. 5, Hawley was positioned to make the case that if Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate had moved on his check idea instead of resisting, the GOP majority in the chamber might have been saved.

Instead, Hawley’s other early-January activities, his Trump-pandering challenge to the Electoral College certification, became a potentially career-defining story. Rather than being Mr. Populist or the $2K Guy, he’s branded as Mr. Insurrection — or, on the pro-Trump right, as a martyr to liberal cancellation.

This rebranding probably won’t hurt Hawley’s book sales or doom him in his next Senate campaign. But it’s a stark example of how any attempt to build a conservative populism after Trump is likely to be sucked into the vortex of crazy around the former president, who has taken the array of populist impulses on the right and made them all about himself.

For conservatives interested in economic populism — meaning, basically, a more middle-America-friendly economics, a program of sustained support for workers and families rather than just upper-bracket tax cuts — Trump’s ascendancy has always been a weird mix of vindication and calamity.

First, the list of vindications. Trump proved in his 2016 primary campaign that Republican voters weren’t particularly wedded to right-wing economic orthodoxies. He flipped the blue-collar Midwest in the general election in part by repudiating the austerity economics of the Paul Ryan-era party. His support for looser money broke with the party’s Obama-era monetary hawkishness and helped deliver the lowest unemployment in decades. And even in defeat, his surprisingly strong 2020 coalition suggested the possibility of a pan-ethnic, working-class future for the GOP.

But even when he vindicated populists, Trump wasn’t really following their script; he was defining, in his own selfish and demagogic way, what a conservative populism meant. Sometimes that involved race-baiting and bullying and lying; sometimes it involved incompetence and corruption dressed in the language of resentment; often it meant either bog-standard Republican policies or no policy at all; always it meant playing to his base rather than trying to build a potential populist majority.

When the coronavirus arrived, Trump had a great opportunity to put both nationalist and populist impulses to work — the former in trying to keep the virus at bay, the latter in dealing with the economic fallout. Instead he practiced denial, leaned on hack advisers and folk-libertarian theories and presided over unnecessary death and political defeat.

Throughout this experience, populist idea guys as well as politicians like Hawley planned for a future in which populism’s vindication could be extended and developed, and its connection to Trump’s vices and failures gradually severed.

But that severing became less and less likely the more Trump made himself the focus of all of right-wing populism’s cultural impulses, which he did with great success. If you felt disdained by the meritocracy or the media, if you felt ignored or sidelined by the power centers on the coasts, or if you feared the revolutionary mood apparent on the left in 2020, then siding with him against his enemies became not just one means to express those sentiments, but the first and only way.

Now this kind of populist loyalty to Trump requires embracing the belief that he just had a landslide election stolen. And as long as that idea defines the right, the space to be a populist who isn’t just working to restore him or his family in 2024 (with all the prospects for Hawley-like debacles such work entails) seems somewhere between cramped and nonexistent.

Over the next few years, this will have two likely implications for the right’s sincere economic populists. First, they will watch the Biden administration poach issues that they once hoped to own, from big tax breaks for families to big spending on domestic infrastructure. Second, they will watch their party nominate self-proclaimed populists, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arkansas that should be the base for a working-class conservatism, who are just acolytes for the cult of Trump — figures like Jim Jordan and Sarah Sanders, let’s say, with a policy agenda condensed to owning the libs and dog whistling to the QAnoners.

Such a future might seem to vindicate the left-wing view, expressed eloquently by Daniel Luban in a recent Dissent essay, that the general possibility of right-wing economic populism never materializes as specific political reality: “Protracted experience suggests that we should only believe the American right can move left on economics once we’ve witnessed it happen.”

Except this isn’t quite what experience suggests. In fact, the American right usually moves somewhat left on economics when it takes the presidency: George W. Bush’s spending habits were to the left of the Newt Gingrich-era Congress’, just as Trump’s loose-money policies and abandonment of entitlement reform were to the left of the Obama-era GOP’s. (Even Ronald Reagan wasn’t really a limited-government Reaganite of the sort his own cult recalls.)

It’s more accurate to amend Luban’s point and say that the American right doesn’t usually move leftward on economics in a thoughtful, coherent and sustainable way — that the move is usually ad hoc, undercooked and cheerfully unprincipled, which makes it more likely to be abandoned once the party is out of power, treated as rubble instead of a foundation.

This is the problem that conservative policy thinkers and the occasional farsighted politician have sought to solve: If the party’s move to the center is inevitable, why not make it sustainable and serious and effective at achieving conservative goals?

And in a way, the Trumpification of the party makes this problem more urgent, because his downscale political coalition, even more than the suburbanite-heavy GOP coalitions of 10 or 20 years ago, clearly needs a populist economic agenda if it’s going to ever build outward to a national majority.

But for the immediate future, no populism is likely to emerge that isn’t primarily about fealty to Trump, and no national majority can be forged on the basis of that fealty — not by Trump himself, and not by Hawley or Ted Cruz or any other too-clever courtier hovering beside the Mar-a-Lago throne.

So a populist imperative will remain, but until Trump himself recedes — someday, someday — its fulfillment will be pushed ever further out of reach.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.