For more than two years, the United States has been living through the political equivalent of a volcanic eruption. The volume of volcanic ash that it has generated—in the form of media coverage, blogposts, and tweets—has been staggering. In these tumultuous circumstances it is hard to think afresh about our condition. Nevertheless, we must try.
First, a brief definition of terms. By “conservatives” in the essay that follows, I shall refer primarily to American conservatives who grew up in, or are the products of, the conservative intellectual and political movement that developed in the era of William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan. In other words, those conservatives who, until quite recently, saw themselves as inhabiting the conservative mainstream. By “populism” I shall refer simply to a recurrent phenomenon in American politics concisely defined as the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites.
Populistic sentiments—characterized by celebration of the virtue of ordinary people and distrust of their so-called “betters”—are nothing new in American history. Indeed, such impulses may be a feature of all democratic societies, governed as they are in principle by universal suffrage and by a division of labor between the governors and the governed. These sentiments form a kind of backdrop to our daily political life—a muttering undercurrent in the ongoing political conversation.
Populistic sentiments are nothing new in American history.
Most of the time these mutterings do not rise to the level of a roar. But populism is something more; it is an act of rebellion. It, too, has deep roots in American politics.
American populism has traditionally come in two forms: a left-wing variety (think Huey Long and Bernie Sanders), which aims its fire at private-sector, capitalist elites figuratively ensconced in Wall Street; and, more recently, a right-wing variety (think Ronald Reagan and the Tea Party), which focuses most of its wrath on the public-sector elite headquartered in Washington. In 2016 these two competing brands of populism vied for supremacy in their respective political homes (the Democratic and Republican parties), only to be eclipsed in the end by a new and even angrier brand of populism: a hybrid that we now call Trumpism.
How should conservatives evaluate and respond to this unsettling phenomenon? I suggest that we examine it at four levels: 1) the grievances of the aggrieved; 2) the program (however vague) of the aggrieved; 3) the character and qualifications of the leadership of the aggrieved; and 4) the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of populism itself as a form of political action.
Conservatives have now had many months to study the Trumpist “revolt of the masses.” What is noteworthy (at least to this historian) is the degree of consensus on the Right about the insurgency’s character and grievances. Conservative observers seem generally to agree that Trumpist populism has exposed a profound chasm between those above and those below on the political and socioeconomic scale. The analytic categories and labels vary from commentator to commentator. Some use the terms “populists” and “elitists” to describe the combatants. Others depict a struggle pitting “nationalists” against “globalists,” the “working class” against the “ruling class,” and the “country party” against the “court party.” But the underlying analytic thrust is the same.
To generalize quickly, in the past year or so American conservative intellectuals have increasingly recognized and expressed sympathy for the economic and cultural grievances of the Trumpist aggrieved. At step one of our analytical ladder—the level of recognition and empathy—conservatives of the Buckley-Reagan persuasion have responded adequately, if sometimes belatedly, to the populist challenge.
Now it might seem that such empathy would quickly motivate conservative public policy experts and their allies in Congress to devise and implement measures to alleviate the pain that has been exposed. This leads us to our second level of analysis—the program of the aggrieved—and to one of the most serious challenges now besetting the American Right. To put it plainly, Trumpism (or, if you prefer, Bannonism, after its feisty apologist, Stephen Bannon) is not merely a revolt against a leftist establishment entrenched in the administrative state inside the Beltway. Nor is it just a rebellion against a flaccid Republican political establishment situated nearby. It is also an ideological revolt against what it perceives to be a decrepit conservative intellectual establishment formed during the Cold War era. The distinctiveness of Trumpism is that it is assailing three establishments simultaneously.
Nowhere are these battle lines more sharply illuminated than in the debate over domestic public policy now unfolding on Capitol Hill. Since the advent of the Reagan Administration in 1981, the dominant conservative approach to domestic public policy has been the tax-cutting, pro-free trade, and pro-immigration ideology known as supply-side economics. Call it Kempism, after its foremost exponent for many years, the late Representative Jack Kemp. In 2016, however, along came a new ideology—Trumpism (or Bannonism)—committed to what Bannon bluntly touts as “economic nationalism.” Its program includes possibly higher taxes on the rich, protectionist constraints on free trade, and massive restrictions on immigration, for economic, national-security, and cultural reasons. As Bannon told the interviewer Charlie Rose a few months ago, “Economic nationalism is what this country was built on.” It is difficult to conceive of a more explicit repudiation of Reagan-era supply-side economics or its tireless custodian, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.
The fault line goes even deeper. At the heart of Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy was a single value: freedom—the “right,” in Reagan’s words, of “each individual . . . to control his own destiny” and “work out” his own happiness without subjection to “the whims of the state.” “We are a nation,” he preached in his first Inaugural Address, “that has a government—not the other way around. And that has made us special among the nations of the earth.”
At the heart of populism is a different yearning: for security.
At the heart of Trumpist populism, however—and I suspect of all populism—is a different yearning: for security, especially for those who feel forgotten and left behind. If Reaganite conservatism, at least in theory, has been deeply skeptical of the power of government to manage free markets and create prosperity, at the core of Trumpist populism—and maybe of all populism—is faith in governmental power, or at least a willingness born of desperation to use such power energetically to improve the lot of the people.
Donald Trump embodies this impulse. Painting a somber picture of American misery and corruption in his acceptance speech in 2016, he proclaimed: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” It is a breathtaking divergence from the pro–free market, pro–limited government political and economic philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and other heroes of mainstream American conservatism.
Is the policy gap between Kempism and Trumpism unbridgeable? In the next few months, presumably, we will find out. Perhaps out of all the tumult in Washington, messy but tolerable compromises may emerge. But if this is to happen, feuding conservatives and nationalist populists may need to remember a maxim popularized by H. L. Mencken: that “in politics a man must learn to rise above principle.” Or, to put it more elegantly, they may need to practice what Russell Kirk called “the politics of prudence.”
Meanwhile, conservatives are likely to have their hands full at the third level of analysis I have proposed for coping with the populist challenge: namely, the character, temperament, and leadership of the man whom the populist upheaval has thrust upon us. Here I shall make no effort to examine in depth our new President’s personality—tempting and addictively fascinating as such an effort might prove to be. Instead, let me offer a single, remarkable datum that conservatives should carefully ponder: nearly a full year into his first term in office, Donald Trump has yet to receive the approval of a clear majority of the American people in the opinion polls. This is without precedent in the modern history of the presidency, and it is not a harbinger of sunny weather ahead.
There are reasons for this state of affairs, of course, notably the unremitting barrage of hostility and loathing heaped upon Trump by his enemies on the political Left. But some of the explanation lies in Trump’s own temperament and in a pugilistic governing style that affronts many who have some sympathy with his agenda.
Here one is reminded of another pugilistic populist of sorts: the crusading anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In 1954, at the height of McCarthy’s popularity, the former Communist and now conservative icon Whittaker Chambers—a man of sterling anti-Communist credentials—wrote a letter to his friend William F. Buckley Jr., who was about to publish a book in defense of McCarthy, and who wanted Chambers to provide a blurb for the book cover. Chambers declined. Instead he warned Buckley bluntly about McCarthy’s flaws:
None of us are his enemies. All of us would like to be his partisans, if only because all are engaged in the same war. As it is, most of us make an effort to overlook certain matters or to give him the benefit of most doubts. But, all of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.
Reread this passage and insert the words “President Trump” and “populist” for “Senator McCarthy” and “anti-Communist,” and you will understand the uneasiness and trepidation that lurk in many conservative hearts today.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that the unfolding populist challenge is fraught with tragic possibilities—tragic for conservatives and for those millions of aggrieved voters who have placed their trust in this unlikely prince. One such scenario is that in the 2018 elections or sooner, Trump’s presidency—insofar as it depends on Congress for results—will be reduced to political impotence: a blustery tale of sound and fury signifying . . . gridlock. A second tragic possibility is that in his eagerness for “deals” across party lines, President Trump may be maneuvered into disappointing his political base, particularly on immigration, thereby fracturing the Republican Party and causing many disillusioned supporters to lapse into apathy or ineffective muttering, thus opening the gates for a lurch to the Left in 2020.
The fate of American conservatism rests on the mercurial personality of one man.
I mention these scenarios not because I necessarily expect them to occur but to underscore a sobering fact: how much the fate of the current populist insurrection, and of American conservatism, too, now rests on the mercurial personality of one man.
My final category of analysis concerns the nature of populism itself. The great intrinsic strength of populism is that it gives a voice to the hitherto voiceless, who often have legitimate grievances that deserve redress. But populism also suffers from three problematic features. First, populist eruptions, like volcanic eruptions in nature, tend to be spasmodic and relatively brief. They are apt to die down when the economic upheavals with which they are usually associated start to dissipate. Moreover, populist mobilizations are almost invariably reactive, and those doing the reacting are generally people for whom politics is not a daily preoccupation—unlike the ruling elites against whom they rebel. For conservatives in 2018 this raises a question: how long will it be before the current populist eruption subsides and normal politics—elite-dominated politics—reasserts itself?
The second problematic feature of populism is encapsulated in a remark by the American patriot leader James Otis in 1775, at the start of the American Revolution: “When the pot boils, the scum will rise.” (Visitors to the comments pages at some websites may sympathize with his sentiments.) Populism by its nature is a creature of frustration and passion. It also tends to be anti-institutional—that is, harshly critical of the institutions where the elites whom it despises hold sway. Thus it should not surprise us that in America and other nations populist movements have produced more than a few eccentric and unpolished leaders, often drawn from outside the institutions of polite society. For conservative intellectuals who believe that successful democracies require statesmanship and civic virtue, one of the most troubling features of populism is the frequently erratic and demagogic character of its leadership. Can populist firebrands be converted into statesmen? For conservatives this is always a vexing question when populist uprisings occur.
The third problematic aspect of populism is the tribalistic overtones of its rhetoric. This, too, seems inherent in the phenomenon. If you are a populist who believes that a self-serving, elitist cabal or faction is exploiting the virtuous people, then what must you do? Why, unite the people, of course, against their oppressors. And the key word here is “unite.”
But on what terms should populists strive to unite the people? One of the striking trends of the past two decades has been the spread of a post-national, even anti-national, sensibility among America’s cosmopolitan, progressive elites and young people—a denationalizing trend linked to the ideology of multiculturalism. Not surprisingly, one of the notable aspects of Trumpism is its re-nationalizing tendencies, including a defiant reaffirmation of popular sovereignty and of the nation-state as a political organizing principle.
For most conservatives the populist pushback against “transnational progressivism” and elitist “globalism” is both understandable and defensible. If our nation is to survive, some common bonds must unite us. “Diversity” is not enough. Moreover, conservatives argue, ours must be a government of and by—and not merely for—the people.
But notice now what is also steadily creeping into American public discourse. Increasingly on the Right (and the Left, too), the assaultive and apocalyptic language of war is being used to mobilize political legions. Provocative words like “resistance,” “coup,” “secession,” “civil war,” and “purge” are popping up more frequently in political disputation. Increasingly, too, analysts across the spectrum are invoking class analysis and class war themes to depict the clash between the populists and their foes.
Meanwhile, at the margins, the belligerent dissenters known as the alt-right are aggressively promoting their own forms of collective solidarity along increasingly racialist, white nationalist, and identitarian lines. How far we have come from the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, who appealed to his fellow Americans not as members of antagonistic races, classes, or ethnic groups but as individuals who should be free to pursue their own destinies in a land of liberty.
It is not my purpose to apportion blame for these developments. My point is not to condemn populism out of hand, still less to let its elitist adversaries off the hook, but rather to highlight the conformist and collectivizing impulses inherent in populism—all populism—and to suggest that conservatives be wary of these tendencies, which are also disturbingly present on the militant Left.
How, then, should conservatives respond to the populist challenge now roiling the American Right? Returning to the framework of analysis presented earlier, conservatives of the Buckley-Reagan persuasion must continue to demonstrate sympathy for the aggrieved and their grievances, both economic and cultural, and must try to accommodate the populist program in some measure, in the sphere of public policy. This may mean that conservatives in Congress and the chattering classes will have to rise at times “above principle” and modify their strict adherence to supply-side economic orthodoxy. What has long passed in conservative circles for economic wisdom (like cutting tax rates on the wealthy) may not, in the current crisis, be political wisdom. Conversely, proposals that may appear to Buckley-Reagan conservatives to be economically dubious (such as more governmental spending on infrastructure) may be prudent policy options just the same: the price to be paid at this point in time for healing some of the wounds in our body politic.
How can populistic leadership be elevated and steered toward statesmanship?
Second, conservatives need to address, more directly and systematically than heretofore, the problem of refining—and not merely denouncing or flattering—populistic leadership. How can such leadership be elevated and steered toward statesmanship? How can America avoid descending into what the Founding Fathers so much feared: rule by the mob or—even worse—competing and adversarial mobs? For conservative intellectuals this may be the most urgent challenge of all in the years just ahead.
We are living in a time of deepening rancor and polarization, in which politics is becoming an increasingly harsh and unbridled contest of wills. In this poisonous climate the temptation is strong, and the pressure great, for partisans of the Left and Right (and Above and Below) to repair to their respective tribal barricades, driven by the ceaseless drumbeat of the “binary choice.”
But we are not there yet, and conservative intellectuals must do their best to avert this cul-de-sac. We know from Edmund Burke what will happen if we fail. In 1791 he wrote: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 7
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