It is of little doubt that President Trump is a populist, and that “Trumpism” is simply his brand of populism. His campaign strategy and rhetoric reflected all the major signs of populist appeal: eroding plurality in American civil society, and rebelling against the elitist establishment which has, by his account, repeatedly failed the white working-class voter. Interestingly, his first year in office hasn’t necessarily reflected that populist zeal which won him the presidency. While the rhetoric hasn’t changed, the action is somewhat different. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ross Douthat outlines that the policy changes Trump sought to implement in his first year in office, such as spending cuts, repealing Obamacare, and a corporation-heavy tax reform, were things the Republican party had openly been pushing for, and were not policy changes that were at the forefront of his campaign.
The article continues to point out that this adherence to the party lien has begun to falter. Douthat points to tax cuts for lower wage earners, nominating Jerome Powell as Fed chairman to loosen monetary policy, and completely scrapping much notion of cutting the budget in its latest iteration. Combined with restrictions on immigration, as well as some other minor policy efforts, and Trump has noticeably returned to the brand of Trumpian ideology that he and Steve Bannon pumped out on the campaign trail. Douthat leaves the reader with the consideration that Trumpism has made hypocrites of the Republican establishment, denouncing spending under Obama, but accepting it under Trump (minus Rand Paul). Douthat criticizes the Republican party further by suggesting that they use the guise of opposition to be able to speak on principle, which they then abandon while in power under the pretense of “public will”. Ultimately, they welcome opposition again to return to their metaphorical high horse, which is not a strategy for good governance. Douthat’s final, and albeit flimsiest, point is that the Trumpian pull on the Republican agenda suggests that his brand of “cultural conservatism and economic populism is the natural basis for an American center-right majority”.
Assume, if for no other reason than the purposes of this argument, that Douthat’s observations are correct, and that Trump, after drifting away from his campaign promises, has begun to return to his populist nature. And, continuing Douthat’s logic, that populist tendency exposed the Republican establishment hypocrisy, forcing them to change and adopt an actual strategy for governance. The result is as close an example as we may have on the risk and reward of populism in the United States today. If the Republican party were to readdress its ethos because of Trump, it stands to reason that a return to the middle would be the result. Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip brand of commentary, combined with his racist and misogynistic tendencies have pushed the Republican party outside its usual boundaries. Plenty of outspoken Republicans have refused to play ball the President; Mitt Romney, Jon Kasich, Rand Paul recently, and even Paul Ryan was hesitant to support Trump for quite a long time during his campaign, only giving way once the primaries were over and the general election had commenced. In an effort to mitigate an intense, and long-lasting, response to Trump, a return towards more centrist policies would benefit the Republican party. A more moderate Republican party would carry several benefits, namely reduced polarization, increased compromise, and more legislation as a result. In this case, the populist nature of Trump might just be the right combination of embarrassment and fear to push the Republican party back towards the middle.
The counter, and this is where Douthat’s arguments become less defensible, is that the risk of a populist leader is still tremendous. In order to properly expose the Republican party in the manner in which Douthat conjectures, it will take more than a spend-heavy budget and looser monetary policy. Ultimately, the full populist nature of the Trump presidency would have to be fully implemented for that to happen, and that is most certainly not a center-right set of policy changes. Trump’s threatening rhetoric and off-the-cuff policy remarks and recommendations make for a resoundingly unstable and ill-fated future. If that will ever happen remains to be seen, but the point is that the risk Trump poses is certainly not worth the silver lining Douthat alludes to. Nonetheless, if Trump were to channel his inner Steve Bannon and adhere to the ideology from his campaign, it would perhaps set a precedent for populists in the future; sending a message that this style of campaigning and governance works, if the goal is simply to be president. And, as I’m sure we can all agree, populism is a dish best served in very small doses, and at infrequent times.
Recent events have displayed that populism can have both benefits and consequences, though oftentimes the latter outweighs the former. Douthat mentions that Trump is “not the right man to break this cycle”, which is certainly an understatement. It is within reason, however, that a populist, albeit the right one, could pose many benefits to American politics. Despite this, populism remains a double-edged sword, as it is only worthwhile when both the person and the timing is right, as without one or both, it has the potential to be disastrous.
photo courtesy of The Pensive Post