Monday, April 17, 2017

The Four Issues Driving Trump's Populism

From VDH, at the New Criterion, "Populism, VIII: The unlikeliest populist":
Leftists deride the “bad” populism of angry and misdirected grievances lodged clumsily against educated and enlightened “elites,” often by the unsophisticated and the undereducated. Bad populism is fueled by ethnic, religious, or racial chauvinism, and typified by a purportedly “dark” tradition from Huey Long and Father Coughlin to George Wallace and Ross Perot.

Such retrograde populism to the liberal mind is to be contrasted with a “good” progressive populism of early-twentieth-century and liberal Minnesota or Wisconsin—solidarity through unions, redistributionist taxes, cooperatives, granges, and credit unions to protect against banks and corporations—now kept alive by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Good leftwing populism rails against supposedly culpable elites—those of the corporate world and moneyed interests—but not well-heeled intellectuals, liberal politicians, and the philanthropic class of George Soros, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, who make amends for their financial situations by redistributing their millions to the right causes.

The Right is similarly ambiguous about populism. “Bad” populists distrust government in sloppy fashion, failing to appreciate the intricacies of politics that understandably slow down change. “Bad” right-wing populists, given their unsophistication and wild emotions, are purportedly prone to dangerous excesses, American-firstism, social intolerance, and anti-capitalist bromides: think the pushback by the Tea Party or the Ron Paul zealots.

In contrast, “good” conservative populists are those who wish to trim the fat off complacent conservatism, reenergize the Republican Party with fresh ideas about small government and a return to social and cultural traditionalism, while avoiding compromise for compromise’s sake. Good populists for conservatives might include Ronald Reagan or even Ted Cruz.

Within these populist parameters, Trump appeared far more the “bad” or “dangerous” populist.

Despite Trump’s previously apolitical and elite background, he brilliantly figured out, even if cynically so, the populist discontent and its electoral ramifications that would erode the Democrats’ assumed unassailable “blue wall” that ran from Wisconsin to North Carolina. In contrast, sixteen other talented candidates, some of whom were far more experienced conservative politicians, over a year-long primary race lacked Trump’s intuition about the potential electoral benefits of courting such a large and apparently forgotten working-class population.

Critics would argue that Trump’s populist strategy was inauthentic, haphazard, and borne out of desperation: he initially had few other choices to win the Republican nomination.

Trump began his campaign with exceptional name recognition and seemingly with ample financial resources. Yet he lacked the connections of Jeb Bush to the Republican establishment and donor base, the grass-roots orthodox conservative movement’s fondness for Ted Cruz, the neoconservative brain trust that allied with Marco Rubio, and the organizations and reputations for pragmatic competence that governors such as Chris Christie, Rick Perry, or Scott Walker brought to the campaign.

Trump never possessed the mastery of the issues in the manner of Bobby Jindal or Rand Paul. Ben Carson was even more so the maverick political outsider. Nor was Trump as politically prepped as his fellow corporate newcomer Carly Fiorina. Despite his brand recognition, Trump’s long and successful experience in ad-hoc reality television, millions of dollars in free media attention, and personal wealth, he started the campaign at a disadvantage and so was ready to try any new approach to break out of the crowded pack—most prominently his inaugural rant about illegal immigration.

By 2012 standards, Trump, to the degree he had voiced a consistent political ideology, would likely have been considered the most liberal of the seventeen presidential candidates. In the recent past he had chided Mitt Romney for talking of self-deportation by illegal immigrants, praised a single-payer health system, and had at times campaigned to the left of both the past unsuccessful John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigns. Yet in 2016 Trump found a way to reassemble the remnants of what was left of the Tea Party/Ross Perot wing of the Republican Party.

Such desperation might explain his audacity and his willingness to campaign unconventionally if not crudely. Yet it does not altogether account for Trump’s choice to focus on what would become four resonant populist issues: trade/jobs, illegal immigration, a new nationalist foreign policy, and political correctness—the latter being the one issue that bound all the others as well. Trump’s initial emphasis on these concerns almost immediately set him apart from both his primary opponents and Hillary Clinton...
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